Saturday, May 30, 2015

Swinburne's songs to the sea

Swinburne is giving his publisher instructions for publicizing his new book, Tristram of Lyonesse (1882):

If you print among the advertisements of Tristram any passage from the ‘Saturday’ review, I wish it to be this and no other: ‘We have some difficulty in taking this kind of thing seriously.  Any man who abandoned his mind to it “could reel it off for hours together.”’  (letter 1167, Aug. 6, 1882)

I am  about halfway through Swinburne’s enormous verse retelling of the Tristram and Isolde story, and I disagree with the anonymous critic on one point: it is not “any man” that could pound this out, no, but for Algernon Swinburne, this is poetry supplied by the yard.  Every line is purple.  Impressive in some ways, but more commonly I am with the poet Henry Taylor who wrote to Swinburne that the poem “sweeps me along through one or more pages with a consciousness that I am only half understanding what I read” (note to 1179, October 1, 1882).  Swinburne insists that he “hold[s] obscurity to be so great a fault that I should think no pains too great to take in the endeavour to avoid it” but concedes that “one must see a fault before it can be avoided, and this one is so difficult to see.”

I mention these letters because in 1880, Swinburne published a pair of masterpieces, long poems of 400 or 500 lines titled “On the Cliffs” and “By the North Sea,” both of which are complex and the former of which is maddeningly obscure, the most difficult thing I have ever seen by Swinburne.  It is addressed simultaneously to Sappho and to a (or the) nightingale, figures who merge not just into not just a muse of poetry but a new trinity, “woman and god and bird,” while the poem is also about a particular favorite seaside spot from Swinburne’s childhood.

O wind, O wingless wind that walk’st the sea,
Weak wind, wing-broken, wearier wind than we,
Who are yet not spirit-broken, maimed like thee,
Who wail not on our inward night as thou
In the outer darkness now,
What word has the old sea given thee for mine ear
From thy faint lips to hear?
For some word would she send me, knowing not how.  (ll.28-35)

All of those “w”s!  The “she” at the end is Sappho; the poet is on a cliff above the English Channel listening for inspiration from his goddess.

“By the North Sea” – more cliffs, more waves, more wind – is thankfully much clearer.  W. G. Sebald calls the poem Swinburne’s “tribute to the gradual dissolution of life” (Rings of Saturn, Ch. VI).  It describes “A land that is lonelier than ruin; / A sea that is stranger than death,” the ruins of Dunwich, the once-important medieval city that has been falling over the cliffs into the sea for the last seven hundred years.  There goes the cemetery:

Tombs, with bare white piteous bones protruded,
    Shroudless, down the loose collapsing banks,
Crumble, from their constant place detruded,
    That the seas devours and gives not thanks.
Graves where hope and prayer and sorrow brooded
    Gape and slide and perish, ranks on ranks.  (ll. 457-62)

Both writers end their visits to Dunwich with moments of “utter rapture,” Sebald by showing Swinburne, “like a startled moth,” telling a story from his childhood, a story about stories: “Tell me more, Aunt Ashburnham, please tell me more.”  Swinburne ends his poem with a prayer of gratitude to the destructive, creative sea:

Time gives what he gains for the giving
    Or takes his tribute of me;
My dreams to the wind everliving,
    My song to the sea.  (ll.  521-4)


  1. My favorites among Swinburne's w-laden, sea related stanzas are #s 12 and 13 from By the North Sea (talk about a limited field of study!), which remind me of a certain shadow of some waxwing slain by the false azure of windowpanes:

    When the ways of the sun wax dimmer,
    Wings flash through the dusk like beams;
    As the clouds in the lit sky glimmer,
    The bird in the graveyard gleams;
    As the cloud at its wing's edge whitens
    When the clarions of sunrise are heard,
    The graves that the bird's note brightens
    Grow bright for the bird.
    As the waves of the numberless waters
    That the wind cannot number who guides
    Are the sons of the shore and the daughters
    Here lulled by the chime of the tides.

  2. There is a lot of resemblance, isn't there? There is more Swinburne in Nabokov than I had understood.

    1. AR(T), good point. Sometimes I feel as if Swinburne, like Nabokov, is hiding some metaphysical or supernatural plot under the surface of his work.

      For example, the visionary plot of the supernatural horror thriller Martyrs can be witnessed on Swinburne's late poem The Lake of Gaube's brave final stanza:

      Whose vision has yet beholden
      The splendor of death and of life?
      Though sunset as dawn be golden,
      Is the word of them peace, not strife?
      Deep silence answers: the glory
      We dream of may be but a dream,
      And the sun of the soul wax hoary
      As ashes that show not a gleam.
      But well shall it be with us forever
      Who drive through the darkness here,
      If the soul that we live by never,
      For aught that a lie saith, fear.

    2. Yes, Nabokov's ghosts, Swinburne's Sappho-sea-goddess - what interesting metaphors, I first think - but later - wait, I think he means it.