Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by Edmund W. Gosse
Algernon Charles Swinburne (18371909)
[Algernon Charles Swinburne was born on April 5, 1837, in London. He was the eldest son of Admiral Swinburne and Lady Jane, daughter of the third Earl of Ashburnham. He was sent to Eton in 1849 and left in 1853. After some private work with a tutor, he matriculated at Balliol College, Oxford, in 1856. He left Oxford, without a degree, in 1859, and settled in London. In 1860 his earliest volume, a brace of dramas in verse, was published, but he became first known to the public by Alalanta in Calydon (1865), which was quickly followed by Chastelard (1865) and Poems and Ballads (1866). The last named was accused of indecency and profanity, and produced a vociferous protest. The poet, however, was little moved, and continued to write in prose and verse with the greatest assiduity. His life, which was wholly dedicated to literature, was without external movement. In 1879, in consequence of his state of health, he was induced to take up his abode with a friend at Putney, and here he remained for nearly thirty years, in great retirement, which was partly forced upon him by his deafness. His daily walk over Putney Hill became classic. He died of pneumonia, after a short illness, on the 10th of April, 1909, and was buried at Bonchurch among the graves of his family.]
THE GIFT by which Swinburne first won his way to the hearts of a multitude of readers was unquestionably the melody of his verse. The choruses in Alalanta in Calydon and the metrical inventions in Poems and Ballads acted on the ear of his contemporaries like an enchantment. Swinburne carried the prosody of the romantic age to its extreme point of mellifluousness, and he introduced into it a quality of speed, of throbbing velocity, which no one, not even Shelley, had anticipated. In some of the odes in Songs before Sunrise he went even farther, and produced effects of such sonorous volume and such elaborate antiphonal harmony that it was obvious that English verse, along those lines, could proceed no farther. In point of fact, after 1871, it did proceed no farther even in Swinburnes own hands, his later efforts to surpass his own miraculous virtuosity being less and less completely satisfactory, and indeed more and more like an imitation of himself. The poem called Mater Triumphalis may be taken as the extreme instance of Swinburnes redundant volubility of sound before his talent in this direction began to decline, and we may hold it to be certain that in this species of prosody, about which a strong heretical reaction has long ago begun to set in, no other poet will ever surpass or even equal Swinburne.
This undisputed mastery in regular verse has, however, from the first tended to obscure the intellectual and imaginative qualities of a poet who was almost more directly and exclusively endowed with them than any one else who ever lived. There may, that is to say, have been greater poets than he, but none was ever more penetrated with a sense of his high calling, or enjoyed an intenser exhilaration in the performance of it. He was preserved by a remarkable strain of common sense from losing his sanity and even from plunging into extravagance, but he was always at the edge of frenzy, always simmering on the flames of his enthusiasm. This high literary temperature of Swinburnes was one of his most notable characteristics, and it must be borne in mind in every attempt to estimate the value of his work. It gave to his poems an impression of heat and speed, a sort of volcanic impetus, which delighted those who liked it and infuriated those who did not. In the beginning, it was impossible to estimate the poems of Swinburne without prejudice. There is still no recent figure more difficult to approach judicially.
To begin to comprehend him we must perceive that he was completely dominated by the intuitive forms of sensibility, in the Kantian sense. His mind and character are neither intelligible nor worthy of attention unless we regard them from the æsthetic point of view. Other great poets present various facets of being which may not be so important or so striking as their literary side, but are perceptible. Swinburne alone is a man of letters, or nothing at all. His long life offers us a series of extraordinary negatives; he was never married, he was never responsible for the career of another human being, he possessed no home of his own, he exercised no business or profession, he passed through the years like the fabulous Bird of Paradise, which never perched, because it had no feet. Swinburne never perched, but we may pursue the image so far as to say that when he was weary of his ceaseless flight, in middle age, he sank upon a nest from which he never had the energy to rise again. Charles Darwin tells us that birds appear to be the most æsthetic of all animals; Swinburne, who was often compared with a bird, was the most æsthetic of all human beings.
The dullness of his final thirty years in a sort of voluntary captivity at Putney has tended to obscure the picturesque legend of his prime, to which it is essential that memory should return. His childhood and early youthcontrary to the customary ideawere not artistically productive; his old age was monotonous and insipid; but there was a middle period of about twenty years in which he flamed like a comet right across our poetical heavens. This period extended from his last term at Oxford to the rapid decline of his energy when he had passed his fortieth birthday. During the first half of this part of his career he was known only to a close circle of admirers; from 1865 to 1875, or a little later, he was the cynosure and centre of public curiosity, awakening in the latter case such passions of adoration and loathing, rapture and fear, as literature had wholly ceased to rouse since 1815. He represented to a dazzled generation the uncontrolled worship of beauty, and he did so with unrivalled power because he was so disinterested. The world was astonished at the phenomenon of a voice which rang out like that of the angel of the Morning Star, and which yet, so far as action went, was nothing but a voice. Swinburne reminded us of the hero of Gautiers novel (which he admired so extravagantly) dont la sensualité imaginative sest compliquée et raffinée, avant lexpérience, dans les musées et les bibliothèques. Swinburne displayed a prodigious sensibility, which was fed on books and pictures, not on life.
We shall, therefore, not merely fail to appreciate the position of Swinburne, but stumble blindly in our examination of his qualities, if we do not begin by perceiving that, to a degree unparalleled, he was cerebral in all his forces. He was an unbodied intelligence hidden in the light of thought, showering a rain of melody from some altitude untouched by the drawbacks and privileges of mortality. Tennyson might have been a farmer, Browning a stock-broker; Rossetti was a painter and Morris an upholsterer; but it is impossible to conceive Swinburne as taking up any species of useful employment. To our great good fortune, he was possessed of what are called moderate means, which happily clung to him, by no conscious effort of his own, to the end of his days. He was therefore able to spin out his dream and his music without any species of material disturbance, his only approaches to action being the chimerical controversies, always on æsthetic questions, in which he engaged with mimic fury. These were to him what golf is to other ageing men: they were a form of health-preserving exercise.
It might have been supposed that a being so isolated from the common occupations of mankind, and so exclusively saturated in literature, would be imitative, artificial, and ineffective when he came to the task of composition. But the paradox is that Swinburne, soaked as he was in the wisdom of the ages, responsive like an Æolian harp to every breath of the wind of past poetry, is one of the most definitely original of all writers. He is himself to a fault, to our positive impatience and annoyance; he has a quality of style, a sort of perfume, which is so exclusively his own that it vexes us when or where it ceases to please us. Swinburne was a master of every artifice of imitation, and yetexcept where he is intentionally a parodisthe is instantly recognizable under all disguises. He floods whatever he touches with his own pungent musk.
By heritage on both sides Algernon Swinburne was an aristocrat, and of his descent and bringing-up he retained something perceptible in his poetryits fastidiousness, its independencewhich was affected neither by popular prejudice nor by the authority of tradition. In private life his manners were affable and gracious, but they were ceremonious too; and we may see in his poetical attitude a distinct trace of hauteur. Apart from this emphasis, this touch of conscious dignity, there was in his original gesture towards literature a certain arrogant disregard of public taste, a disdain which was of the aristocratic order. At a marvellously early age, and apparently by unaided instinct, he discovered the poets who were, to the very close of his life, to remain his most cherished companions. The little Eton schoolboy who selected Landor, Marlowe, and Catullus as his favourite writers, without the smallest affectation, because they pleased him best, because they thrilled him with rapture, might be expected, when, long years later, he too became a writer, to trouble himself not a whit about the accepted fashions of the hour.
Swinburnes attitude of rebellion was not plainly discerned, though it was indicated, in his earlier publications, which were all of the dramatic order. But from 1859 until he published Poems and Ballads in 1866 he was preparing what amounted to a lyrical and therefore apparently a personal manifesto of rebellion against the poetical taste of the day. The key-note of that much-discussed volume was a mutinous one; on the ethical, the religious, and the purely literary sides it was essentially revolutionary and provocative. The general public and the reviewers, outraged in their dearest convictions, sought a refuge in an indignant reproof of the overpassionate sensuousness of Poems and Ballads. It was treated so vehemently as a work of unseemly tendency, as an incentive to dissolute conduct, that a certain stigma of practical immorality has rested upon it ever since. But although this view was very loftily presented by the moralists of 1866, it was founded less upon fact than upon terror and prejudice. It was only so far true as it is true to say that any reference to certain sexual aberrations may tend to immorality. But what the poet was actually engaged in projecting was a reaction not against the morals but against the æsthetic authorities of the hour, with the design of replacing them by a wider range of intellectual interests, a warmer glow of imagination, and a more spirited exercise of executive skill. The result of contemplating Dora to excess was to create a curiosity as to the case of Anactoria. Alike in the classic, the mediæval, and the biblical subjects of which Poems and Ballads treat, the moral or immoral significance of the poets statement was very slight in comparison with the artistic passion which he exercised in making it, his object being in all cases beauty, and nothing but beauty, even where the subject might seem to demand a reprobation which it was none of his business to supply.
Well satisfied with the effect of his ethical lyrics, Swinburne turned to the transcendental study of politics; or rather, he now concentrated for some years upon this subject elements which had long existed side by side with his analysis of passion. We must go back to 1849, when the extraordinary little boy, as he read the Italian newspapers in the College library at Eton, perceived Mazzini entering Florence in triumph and proclaiming the short-lived Republic of Tuscany. From that deceptive moment, from that flash in the cloud, the eyes of Algernon Swinburne were riveted upon the deliverer of Italy. It was to be long before the worship of Swinburne for Mazzini was to become articulate, but it continued to intensify, while the irritation against kings and priests grew more and more violent, until the full volume and vehemence of it was poured out upon the world in the Songs before Sunrise of 1871. The revolutionary aspirations of which Swinburne made himself the trumpet were mainly those of one country, and that not his own; he was practically the mouthpiece of what he called Italia, the worlds wonder, the worlds care. This would greatly restrict our final interest in the collection of poems, were it not that the poet combined with his fury for Italian revolution a whole system of philosophical considerations. These were so original and profound that they must always give such pieces as Hertha and Tiresias and the Prelude a permanent value not to be measured in terms of Aspromonte or Mentana. The emotion of the poet in presence of the supreme and eternal characteristics of the universe gives to the noblest parts of Songs before Sunrise an unparalleled intensity.
But, meanwhile, in several dramas, of which Atalanta in Calydon and Chastelard are the most important, Swinburne had shown himself desirous to compete with the great playwrights of Athens and of Elizabeth. These chamber-plays were diversified with enchanting lyrics, but they are mainly composed in a highly competent and suave blank verse, the merit of which, however, does not prevent our missing something of the burning colour and vehement motion of the wholly lyrical volumes. Swinburne was never weary of the dramatic form, and he continued to cultivate it to the very close of his life. The dozen plays which are enrolled in the list of his writings do not exhaust the tale of his dramatic experiments. Among them all Bothwell stands out as theatrically the most successful; it approaches near to our conception of what a vast theatrical romance should be, and the characters in it are built up with great solicitude and deliberation. Of the choral plays Erechtheus, though it can never enjoy the popularity of Atalanta, has a majesty of ceremonial perfection hardly to be sought elsewhere in English literature. But Swinburne, in spite of all his effort, remains a lyrical poet who crowded an imaginary stage with historical and literary rather than histrionic conceptions.
If he was never wholly successful in drama, he was still less so in narrative. He had no faculty for telling a story either in prose or in verse, and in this he is much inferior not only to William Morris, but even to D. G. Rossetti. Swinburne, however, was persistently anxious to excel in this direction, and by dint of immense labour he completed a romantic epic, Tristram of Lyonesse, which he hoped would be the crowning triumph of his career. In spite, however, of passages of extreme beautyall of them of the lyrical orderTristram was found to possess the fatal fault of making no progress in the telling of its tale. In the phrase of Marvell, the reader of it exclaims:
Stumbling on melons, as I pass,
Ensnared with flowers, I fall on grass,
the complication and excess of ornament positively choking the progress of the narrative. If Tristram of Lyonesse, however, is a splendid failure, it is important as illustrating a side of Swinburnes poetry which is of great importance, his passion for and intimate knowledge of the sea. Like the child in Thalassius (a consciously autobiographical poem),
The only physical exercises in which at any time of his life he took pleasure were riding and swimming, each of which ministered to his craving for rapid and impetuous movement. He is like a swimmer and a rider in his dithyrambic melodies, and there is an intimate connexion between the vehemence of his poetry and his delight in headlong exercise. But in his continuous passion for and cultivation of the sea there is more than this. When he was in middle life, and his bodily fire had much decayed, he wrote, in a private letter, As for the sea, its salt must have been in my blood before I was born . It shows the truth of my endless passionate returns to the sea in all my verse. No one, indeed, has ever questioned either the sincerity or the felicity of the constant allusions to the sea which animate, with a marvellous variety, almost every work which Swinburne has signed. In this he surpasses all other poets, for they have celebrated deeds on ships or the life of the maritime profession, but Swinburne more than any of them has dealt with the various moods, appearances, and voices of the element itself. In particular he has introduced, with magical effect, a new motif into poetry, the physical intoxication of the swimmer, employing it as a symbol of the intense and hazardous progress of the soul through the mystery of experience.
It does not lead us far to inquire, with the critics of forty years ago, what Swinburne owes to Greece and France and Northumberland, or to trace in him evidences of the influence of Baudelaire or Shelley, of Marlowe or of Victor Hugo. We grant that this great musician was of the composite order, that his genius was built up with precious materials for which he had ransacked the ages. But he melted these materials in a fire of intellectual passion hotter than that possessed by any of his contemporaries, and he applied the result explosively to the poetical conventions of his youth. He compelled the world at large to take a more exalted view than it ever had taken of the heritage of the past, and he added to that treasure a magnificent contribution of his own. He was a disinterested enthusiast, and Beauty was never celebrated in purer or more rapturous music.