Algernon Charles Swinburne
BORN: 1837, London, England
DIED: 1909, Putney, England
GENRE: Poetry, drama, fiction, nonfiction
A Year’s Letters (1862)
Atalanta in Calydon (1865)
Poems and Ballads (1866)
Algernon Charles Swinburne. Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Swinburne was one of the most accomplished lyric poets of the Victorian era and was a preeminent symbol of rebellion against the conservative values of his time. The explicit and often pathological sexual themes of his most important collection of poetry, Poems and Ballads (1866), delighted some, shocked many, and became the dominant feature of Swinburne’s image as both an artist and an individual.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Mystery, Melancholy, and Notoriety. Algernon Charles Swinburne was born into a wealthy Northumbrian family in 1837, the very year that marked the beginning of the Victorian era, during which Queen Victoria ruled England and its territories. Queen Victoria sat on the throne longer than any other British monarch, from 1837 until 1901. This period saw significant changes for both Britain and Europe as a whole, with advances in industrialization leading much of the population to jobs in factories instead of on farms as in the past. The era was also marked by a preoccupation with proper behavior in society and domestic life, which Swinburne famously rebelled against with his poetry.
Swinburne was educated at Eton and at Balliol College, Oxford, but did not complete a degree. While at Oxford, he met the brothers William Michael and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as well as other members of the Pre-Raphaelite circle, a group of artists and writers whose work emphasized medieval subjects, elaborate religious symbolism, and a sensual pictorialism, and who cultivated an aura of mystery and melancholy in their lives as well as in their works. In 1860 Swinburne published two verse dramas in the volume The Queen-Mother and Rosamond, which was largely ignored.
He achieved his first literary success in 1865 with Atalanta in Calydon, which was written in the form of classical Greek tragedy. The following year the appearance of Poems and Ballads brought Swinburne instant notoriety. He became identified with the ‘‘indecent’’ themes and the precept of ‘‘art for art’s sake’’ that characterized many of the poems in the volume. He subsequently wrote poetry of many different kinds, including the militantly republican Song of Italy (1867) and Songs Before Sunrise (1871) in support of the Risorgimento, the movement for Italian political unity. Although individual volumes of Swinburne’s poetry were occasionally well received, in general his popularity and critical reputation declined following the initial sensation of Poems and Ballads.
A Most Peculiar Man. Swinburne’s physical appearance, his personality, and the facts of his life have received much attention from biographers and from commentators exploring his works from a biographical standpoint. He was small, frail, and plagued by numerous peculiarities of physique and temperament, including an oversized head, nervous gestures, and seizures that may have been manifestations of a form of epilepsy. Throughout the 1860s and 1870s, he drank excessively, and until his forties, he suffered intermittent physical collapses that necessitated removal to his parents’ home while he recovered. In 1879 Swinburne’s friend and literary agent, Theodore Watts-Dunton, intervened, isolating Swinburne at a suburban home in Putney and gradually weaning him from alcohol as well as from certain companions and habits. Swinburne lived another thirty years with Watts-Dunton, whose friendship remains controversial. Watts-Dunton is credited with saving Swinburne’s life and encouraging him to continue writing. Swinburne died in 1909 at age seventy-two.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Swinburne's famous contemporaries include:
George Meredith (1828-1909): English novelist and poet best known for his tragicomic novel The Egoist and for his role as a publisher's adviser, from which position he helped launch the careers of Thomas Hardy and many others.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882): An English poet, translator, and novelist of Italian descent. Also a cofounder of the realist Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and a significant painter in his own right.
Clorinda Matto de Turner (1853-1909): A Peruvian writer who spoke out strongly for the rights of indigenous people and whose own independence sparked the imagination of many during the era of independence movements in Latin America.
John Ruskin (1819-1900): An English art and social critic whose essays on art and architecture were extremely influential in both the Victorian and Edwardian periods.
David Livingstone (1813-1873): Scottish missionary and representative of British imperialism. Also the first European to see the Mosi-oa-Tunya waterfalls on the border between present-day Zambia and Zimbabwe; he promptly renamed them Victoria Falls in honor of the queen of England.
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886): One of the best-known American poets of all time, she published fewer than a dozen of the almost eighteen hundred poems she wrote during her quiet and private life.
Works in Literary Context
During Swinburne’s lifetime, critics considered Poems and Ballads his finest as well as his most characteristic poetic achievement; subsequent poetry and work in other genres was often disregarded. Since the mid-twentieth century, however, commentators have been offering new assessments of Swinburne’s entire career.
Scandalous Themes in the Victorian Era. Swinburne is regarded as a Victorian poet profoundly at odds with his age and as one of the most daring, innovative, and brilliant lyricists to ever write in English. Certainly, he shocked and outraged Victorian sensibility, introducing into the pious, stolid age a world of fierce atheism, strange passions, fiery paganism, and a magnificent new lyrical voice the likes of which had never before been heard. His radical republicanism, a worship of the best instincts of man, pushed Victorian humanism well beyond the ‘‘respectable’’ limits of Matthew Arnold’s writings. Additionally, his critical writings on art and literature greatly influenced the aesthetic climate of his age, and his extraordinary imitative facility made him a brilliant, unrivaled parodist. But most important, the expression of his eroticism in many poems about nature, particularly about the sea, wind, and sun, make him the Victorian period’s greatest heir of the Romantic poets.
Lyricism. Another particularly important and conspicuous quality of Swinburne’s work is an intense lyricism. Even early critics, who often took exception to his subject matter, commended his intricately extended and evocative imagery, delicate hand with meter, rich use of assonance and alliteration, and bold, complex rhythms. At the same time, the strong rhythms of his poems and his characteristic use of alliteration were sometimes carried to extremes, rendering his work highly susceptible to parody. Some critics also regard his imagery as vague and imprecise and his rhymes as facile and uninspired. After establishing residence in Putney, Swinburne largely abandoned the themes of sexuality that had characterized much of his earlier poetry. Nature and landscape poetry began to dominate, as did poems about children. Many commentators maintain that the poetry written during the Putney years is inferior to Swinburne’s earlier work, but others see examples of exceptional merit among his later works, citing in particular ‘‘By the North Sea,’’ ‘‘Evening on the Broads,’’ ‘‘A Nympholept,’’ ‘‘The Lake of Gaube,’’ and ‘‘Neap-Tide.’’
Historical Verse Drama. Swinburne was primarily a poet, with his prolific years from 1860 to 1862. During this time, in addition to a large body of lyrics, many of which were to appear in Poems and Ballads, Swinburne completed his tragedy Chastelard (not published until 1865), the first play in the eventually massive trilogy about Mary Queen of Scots that would include Bothwell (1874) and Mary Stuart (1881). Swinburne was drawn to the history of Mary Stuart both by his family’s historic attachment to the Stuart cause and by his attraction to the character of Mary. Chastelard’s bitter expression of his love for the queen pithily expresses Swinburne’s main concern: ‘‘men must love you in life’s spite; / For you will always kill them, man by man / Your lips will bite them dead; yea, though you would, / You shall not spare one; all will die of you.’’ Swinburne’s deep emotional involvement with the theme of painful, fatal love infuses his verse with passionate lyricism; Bothwell and Mary Stuart were well received on publication but are rarely read today.
Mythical Themes in Lyric Verse Drama. In 1865 and 1866, Swinburne became a literary lion and a literary scandal with the publication of Atalanta in Calydon and Poems and Ballads. Atalanta in Calydon, still justly regarded as one of Swinburne’s supreme achievements, became a masterpiece partly because his choices of subject and form were perfectly adapted to his concerns and talents. The imitation of Aeschylean tragedy allowed him to exercise his superb lyrical gifts, the choice of the pagan Greek setting enabled him to express his antitheism convincingly, and the Meleager myth provided a vehicle with which to express his obsession with the fatal power of passion and of women. Atalanta in Calydon is a forceful attack on traditional Christianity, which Swinburne, like William Blake, saw as an instrument of moral repression that sets the ideals of the soul in conflict with the needs of the body. The message is summed up in the famous anti- theistic chorus that denounces ‘‘The supreme evil, God,’’ who ‘‘shapes the soul, and makes her a barren wife / To the earthly body and grievous growth of clay.’’ Atalanta in Calydon, however, is not merely a play with a message; it also represents a rebirth of the powerful lyricism of Greek tragedy. Rejecting all belief in a beneficent scheme of things and even in the possibility of joy, it is Swinburne’s most pessimistic major work, yet in its surging rhythms, in its fusion of the imagery of natural cycles, it achieves the intensity that John Keats saw as the essential quality of tragic art: the intensity that is ‘‘capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty & Truth.’’
A Novelist. One of Swinburne’s most significant prose works is the satiric epistolary novel of 1862, A Year’s Letters (pseudonymously serialized in Tatler in 1877). A Year’s Letters is a masterful, more or less autobiographical account of the aristocratic Victorian world that shaped Swinburne’s character, ‘‘a world,’’ writes Edmund Wilson in The Novels of A. C. Swinburne (1962), ‘‘in which the eager enjoyment of a glorious out-of-door life of riding and swimming and boating is combined with adultery, incest, enthusiastic flagellation and quiet homosexuality.’’ This and other works were not significant merely for their sensational value, however. The subtle analysis of characters and relationships, the close portraits of an aristocratic way of life, the power of description, and the precise, beautifully cadenced prose of these works reveal Swinburne’s genuine but often unrecognized talents as a novelist.
Literary Critic. Throughout his career, Swinburne also published literary criticism of great acuity. His familiarity with a wide range of world literatures contributed to a critical style rich in quotation, allusion, and comparison. He is particularly noted for discerning studies of Elizabethan dramatists and of many English and French poets and novelists. In response to criticism of his own works, Swinburne wrote essays, including Notes on Poems and Reviews (1866) and Under the Microscope (1872), that are celebrated for their wit and insight. Swinburne also left a second novel, Lesbia Brandon, unfinished at his death. Some critics have theorized that Lesbia Brandon was intended as thinly disguised autobiography; however, its fragmentary form resists conclusive interpretation.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Poems and Ballads and A Year's Letters are seen by many as obscene and offensive, though they are also acknowledged classics. Here are a few more examples of significant literary classics that were considered immoral when first published:
Aeropagitica (1644), a nonfiction work by John Milton. This treatise condemning censorship makes the case— coming from one of literature's most passionate defenders of Christian theology—that morality is only possible as a choice for those who have some minimal, albeit accidental, sense (even an imaginary sense) of immorality. It should be noted, however, that Milton was making the case for freedom of speech with the explicit goal of working toward a fuller understanding of the Christian god.
Tropic of Cancer (1961), a novel by Henry Miller. The publication of this novel led to a series of obscenity trials that tested American laws on pornography. The U.S. Supreme Court overruled state court findings of obscenity and declared the book a work of literature. The Modern Library named it the fiftieth-best book of the twentieth century.
Lady Chatterly's Lover (1928), a novel by D. H. Lawrence. This novel was originally to be called "Tenderness," and met with scandal on account of its explicit sex scenes, which included previously banned words. A portion of the outrage with which the novel's publication met may also have derived from the fact that the lovers were a working-class male and an aristocratic female. It is generally considered a classic of English literature.
Works in Critical Context
Intellectual Poet. Thanks to his sense of irony and gift for parody, Swinburne could do a better job making fun of himself than any of his critics, but this humor did not mean that he took himself or his work lightly. He wanted to be remembered not only as a great poet but also as a great poetic thinker. Along these lines, T. S. Eliot recognized that Swinburne’s music and intellect cohere, in his finest moments, into a sort of single entity that ‘‘there is no reason to call anything but genius.... What he gives is not images and ideas and music, it is one thing with a curious mixture of suggestion of all three.’’ Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s famous remark that Swinburne was ‘‘a reed through which all things blow into music’’ expresses the enduring quality of Swinburne’s achievement. The winds of primitive, savage passions—from love to the elemental forces of nature, the sea and sky, and on to the ‘‘ruling song’’ of man—blew through Swinburne’s remarkably open heart, and came forth in sophisticated yet joyously primitive song. Tennyson’s comment does justice not only to Swinburne’s unquestionable talent for lyrical beauty but also to his less-recognized gift for translating an unmediated experience of the universe into language, into verse.
“On the Cliffs’’. One of Swinburne’s finest poems, ‘‘On the Cliffs,’’ was written at Holmwood in 1879, shortly after Watts-Dunton had rescued Swinburne from his rooms on Guildford Street. The poem approaches spiritual autobiography, which expresses the themes of Poems and Ballads, Second Series (1885) in a richly complex and precise syntax. The setting, as in ‘‘The Forsaken Garden’’ and later ‘‘By the North Sea,’’ is a crumbling cliff that is being slowly eaten away by the sea—Swinburne’s favorite image for his belief that all earthly life, even the Earth itself, is destined for oblivion. Some critics in the early twentieth century dismissed Swinburne’s nature poetry as ornamental and obscure, even verbose. They remarked, as noted in a Swinburne study by scholar David Riede, on the difficulty of Swinburne’s ‘‘syntactical maze of modifying clauses and phrases’’ as well as his complicated literary allusion. Riede also suggests some critics dismissed Swinburne’s ‘‘On the Cliffs’’ due to its meaning: the reader seems to always be in ‘‘continual doubt.’’
Bothwell. In 1874 an anonymous reviewer in Macmillan’s Magazine, writing on Swinburne’s Bothwell, praised the dramatist’s ‘‘strength and sweep of imagination’’ and suggested the play succeeds because Swinburne is ‘‘as much scholar as poet.’’ The reviewer goes on to laud Swinburne’s attention to history and his seriousness regarding the play’s subject. George Saintsbury, in an 1874 issue of The Academy, also appreciated Bothwell, cheering its lyrical power and elevating its author to ‘‘the heights of the English Parnassus.’’ Much more grounded in their analysis, twentieth-century critics like Curtis Dahl looked to Bothwell and the rest of Swinburne’s trilogy on Mary, Queen of Scots as an autobio-graphical/biographical study. They believed the trilogy sheds new insight into how Swinburne saw himself at the time of publication.
Responses to Literature
1. Read Atalanta in Calydon with an eye to genre. Write an informal essay in which you explain whether you see the work as a play or a long piece of dramatic verse. Also, describe what you see as the difference between the two genres.
2. With a small group of your classmates, choose three poems with overlapping themes from Poems and Ballads. Consider the impact that they make when read together. Create a group presentation in which you explain what message they might communicate if read as parts of a whole, as opposed to individual poems. Engage the rest of your class in the following discussion: How does reading an entire collection of poems in their printed order differ from reading individual poems in that collection? Does the meaning change? Are different stories told?
3. In ‘‘By the North Sea’’ and other pieces, Swinburne paints linguistic pictures of bleak, desolate landscapes but often follows these dark pictures with hopeful or positive endings. Write a personal essay in which you imagine those poems as expressions of an internal landscape. Do you find the positive conclusions of ‘‘By the North Sea’’ emotionally convincing or compelling? Why or why not? How would you rewrite parts of the poem to make it say more about you and your life?
4. Swinburne is highly critical of organized religion throughout his body of work, especially in poems such as ‘‘Before a Crucifix,’’ in which he parodies what he sees as a corrupt and greedy Church. Find another Swinburne poem that offers a similar view of religion. How do you think readers in his day responded to these works? Why?
Eliot, T. S. The Sacred Wood. London: Methuen, 1920.
Louis, Margot Kathleen. Swinburne and His Gods: the Roots and Growth of an Agnostic Poetry. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990.
Maxwell, Catherine. The Female Sublime from Milton to Swinburne: Bearing Blindness. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2001.
McGann, Jerome. Swinburne: An Experiment in Criticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972.
McSweeney, Kerry. Tennyson and Swinburne as Romantic Naturalists. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981.
Raymond, Meredith B. Swinburne’s Poetics: Theory and Practice. The Hague: Mouton, 1971.
Riede, David G. Swinburne: A Study of Romantic Mythmaking. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1978.
Wilson, Edmund, ed. The Novels of A. C. Swinburne. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Cudahay, 1962.