Thursday, July 2, 2015

Sea-satiate, bruised with buffets of the brine - Swinburne goes swimming

Vacation Friday; lucky me; no post.

My last Algernon Swinburne post was about his two remarkable sea poems from 1880.  I incidentally mentioned some funny stuff from Swinburne’s letters about his 1882 epic poem in rhyming couplets, a version of the Arthurian story of Tristram and Iseult called Tristram of Lyonesse, which approaches the unreadable – I do not understand why the editors of Major Poems and Selected Prose (2004, Yale UP) included the entire thing – but it has two spectacular long passages in which Tristram goes swimming in the sea.

… the glad wave gladdens, and the light
Sees wing and wave confuse their fluttering white,
So Tristram one brief breathing-space apart
Hung, and gazed down; then with exulting heart
Plunged: and the fleet foot round a joyous head
Flashed, that shot under, and ere a shaft had sped
Rose again radiant, a rejoicing star,
And high along the water-ways afar
Triumphed…            (IV, ll. 103-11)
…  happier for the imperious toil,
Swam the knight in forth of the close waves’ coil,
Sea-satiate, bruised with buffets of the brine,
Laughing, and flushed as one afire with wine  (ll. 117-20)

This bit is only forty lines long; the second is a hundred and fifty, pure indulgence by the poet, a chance to “taste / the rapture of its rolling strength” (VIII, 520-1).  The scene does tie into the story in that the rough sea prefigures Tristrams’s death.  The poem ends with a glance back to “By the North Sea,” with the shared cliff-top tomb of Tristram and Isolde falling into the sea,

And over them, while death and life shall be,
The light and sound and darkness of the sea.  (IX, 575-6)

It is as if Swinburne picked the subject because it is set on various coasts.

The editors of the Yale volume have a strong sense of Swinburne’s peak.  Selections from his first books, in 1865 and 1866, occupy 40% of the pages given to poetry.  The last twenty-six years of his life, from 1883 on, take up only 7%.  I will note that the Penguin Classics volume of Swinburne currently in print is 100% from 1865-6.  I detect a consensus.  But what I want to note here is that the poems the editors pick for those 7% of the pages, examples of the embers of Swinburne’s art, are almost entirely sea poems: “To a Seamew” and “Neap-Tide” from 1889, and “The Lake of Gaube” from 1904, terrific poems.

Death-dark and delicious as death in the dream of a lover and
    dreamer may be,
It clasps and encompasses body and soul with delight to be living
    and free:
Free utterly now, though the freedom endure but the space of a
    perilous breath,
And living, though girdled about with the darkness and coldness
    and strangeness of death:  (“The Lake of Gaube,” ll. 36-40)

Locals told Swinburne that people who swam in this freezing Swiss lake would die, which he of course found irresistible.

As a sea-mew’s love of the sea-wind breasted and ridden for
    rapture’s sake
Is the love of his body and soul for the darkling delight of the
    soundless lake  (ll. 49-50)

The earlier poem, “To a Seamew,” is in part about the imagined joys of flying, here transferred to the actual joys of swimming.  The correspondences between swimming and death are part of the attraction of dangerous swimming.  The adrenaline rush has been elevated to metaphysics.

Outside of the range of time, whose breath
    Is keen as the manslayer’s knife
    And his peace but a truce for strife,
Who knows if haply the shadow of death
  May not be the light of life?  (“Neap-Tide,” 56-60)

Had Swinburne become a brilliantly narrow poet in this period, or are the editors weirdly with poems about swimming and cliffs?

I suddenly wish I were spending my holiday on the shore.


  1. Who knows if haply the shadow of death May not be the light of life?
    The shadow-lamp knows:
    Life is the lust of a lamp for the light that is dark till the dawn of the day when we die [...], Till the darkling desire of delight shall be free as a fawn that is freed from the fangs that pursue her, Till the heart-beasts of hell shall be hushed...

  2. It is almost surprising that Swinburne has beliefs, a metaphysics.

    The Yale editors do include "Nephelidia" - how could they not? Perhaps the most substantive self-parody I have ever seen.