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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837–1909)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by William Morton Payne (1858–1919)
 
EARLY in the eighties, there were living in England six great poets, whose work had given to the later Victorian era of English song a splendor almost comparable to that of the Elizabethan and later Georgian periods. All of those eminent poets have now passed away (Rossetti in 1882, Arnold in 1888, Browning in 1889, Tennyson in 1892, and Morris in 1896), while Mr. Swinburne survived until 1909. In the year of the Queen’s Jubilee he was left with no possible rival among the living; and stood as the Victorian poet par excellence in a peculiarly literal sense, for he was born in the year of her Majesty’s accession to the throne, which made his sixty years conterminous with the sixty years of her reign. So little has been made public concerning that life, that his personality has remained even more closely veiled than was that of Tennyson; and the facts at the command of the biographer are of the most meager description. He was the son of a distinguished officer of the Royal Navy; and on his mother’s side, descended from the third Earl of Ashburnham. He was educated at Balliol College, Oxford, but left in 1860 without taking a degree. A journey to Italy followed; made chiefly for the purpose of paying a tribute of affectionate admiration to the old poet Landor, then nearing the close of his days in Florence. The greater part of Mr. Swinburne’s life was passed in England: for a time he lived in London with the Rossetti brothers and Mr. George Meredith; but for many years he made his home at Wimbledon, where he had for a companion Mr. Theodore Watts-Dunton, the distinguished critic and the closest of his friends.  1
  Mr. Swinburne made his first appearance in literature as a dramatic poet; and published in rapid succession the four dramas—‘Rosamond’ (1860), ‘The Queen Mother’ (1860). ‘Atalanta in Calydon’ (1865), and ‘Chastelard’ (1865). The first of these works has for its subject the idyl and tragedy of Henry II. at Woodstock, the second the massacre of St. Bartholomew, and the last an episode in the early life of Mary Stuart at the French court. ‘Atalanta in Calydon’ is a noble tragedy upon a Greek theme, and written in as close a reproduction of the Greek manner as it is likely to be given to any modern poet to achieve. These four works gained for their author a considerable reputation with cultivated readers, yet made no direct appeal to the wider public. But the situation became changed in the year that followed the appearance of ‘Chastelard,’—the year of the famous ‘Poems and Ballads’ (1866). It is hardly an exaggeration to say that no other volume of English poetry published before or since, ever created so great a sensation as this. If Byron awoke to find himself famous the day after the first cantos of ‘Childe Harold’ made their appearance, Mr. Swinburne awoke to find himself both famous and notorious. For the ‘Poems and Ballads’ not only showed that a new poet had arisen with a voice of his own, and possessed of an absolutely unexampled command of the resources of English rhythm, but they also showed that the author deemed fit for poetical treatment certain passional aspects of human life concerning which the best English tradition had hitherto been one of reticence. The unerring instinct of sensational journalism at once sought out for discussion these poems (perhaps a dozen in number) of questionable propriety; and before the year was over, the volume had become the subject of a discussion so ample and so heated that a parallel is hardly to be found in the history of English literature.  2
  This discussion has proved peculiarly unfortunate for the poet’s fame; since there has grown out of it a legend which still persists in the popular consciousness, and which embodies a view of the poet so distorted and so grotesquely untrue, that those who are acquainted with his work as a whole can only smile helplessly and wait for time to set matters right. The facts of the matter are simply these: The ‘Poems and Ballads’ was essentially a first book. Its contents had been written for the most part by a mere boy, long before their collection into a volume; and bear about the same relation to his mature work as is borne by the vaporings of Shelley’s ‘Queen Mab’ to ‘Prometheus Unbound’ and ‘Epipsychidion.’ The objectionable pieces are few in number, and probably no one regrets more than the author himself the defective taste which permitted them to be preserved. “They are obviously,” to quote from a recent critic, “the hasty and violent defiance hurled in the face of British Philistinism by a youthful writer, who, in addition to the exuberance of his scorn of conventions, was also, it is plain, influenced by a very boyish desire to shock the dull respectabilities of the average Philistine.” But the unfair critical onslaught upon these poems (utterly ignoring the many pure and elevated numbers found in the same volume) was so noisy that its echo has been prolonged; and the opinion still obtains in many quarters that sensuality is the chief attribute of a poet who in reality might be charged with the fault of excessive spirituality, so far above earth and so tenuous is the atmosphere in which he has his intellectual being. If we accept Milton’s dictum that poetry should be simple, sensuous, and passionate, it may be admitted that Mr. Swinburne has passion (although mainly of the intellectual sort), but he is rarely simple; while in sensuous charm he is distinctly inferior to more than one of his contemporaries.  3
  The even-minded critic of Mr. Swinburne’s poetry thirty years ago (and there were such, notable among them being Richard Grant White and Mr. Stedman) might discern from an examination of the five works already mentioned, the leading traits that so many other volumes were to develop. There were already then evident the astonishing virtuosity in the use of English metres; the linguistic faculty, by virtue of which the poet composed Greek, Latin, and French verses with as much apparent readiness as English; the imitative power which made it possible for him to write like Chaucer, or the poets of the old ballad and the miracle play; the spiritual insight which made ‘Atalanta’ so much more than a mere imitation of Greek tragedy; the hero-worship which is so generous a trait of his character; the defense of religion against theology and priestcraft; and the intense love of liberty that breathes through all his work.  4
  From the year which made Mr. Swinburne’s name familiar to all lovers of English poetry, his activity became unceasing. Productions in prose and verse emanated from his pen at the rate of about a volume annually; the complete list of his works embracing upwards of thirty volumes, about one third of which are studies in literary criticism. Although these latter volumes form an important section of his writings, they must be dismissed with a few words. There are three collections of miscellaneous critical essays; separate monographs of considerable bulk upon Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Victor Hugo, and William Blake, briefer monographs upon George Chapman and Charlotte Brontë; a highly controversial examination of certain literary reputations, ‘Under the Microscope’; and several pamphlets more or less polemical in character. ‘A Year’s Letters,’ which is a sort of prose novelette, was written for periodical publication under the pseudonym “Mrs. Horace Manners”; but has never been reprinted. There are also many critical studies to be found in the pages of the English monthly reviews; notable among them being a nearly complete series of papers which examine in close detail the work of the Elizabethan dramatists, and constitute, together with the published volumes on Shakespeare, Jonson, and Chapman, the most exhaustive and scholarly commentary that has yet been produced upon that important body of English poetry. The style of these prose writings is sui generis, and as astonishing in its way as that of Carlyle. It defies imitation; which is probably fortunate, since it is not an altogether admirable style. But with all its vehemence, its verbosity, and its recondite allusiveness, it has somehow the power to carry the reader with it; sweeping away his critical sense for the time being, and compelling him to share in both the occasional prejudices and the frequent enthusiasms of the writer. And after due allowance has been made for the temperamental qualities of Mr. Swinburne, and for the extravagances of his diction, there will be found to remain a residuum of the highest critical value; so that it may fairly be said that he has illuminated every subject that he has chosen to discuss.  5
  In dealing with the volumes of poetry—about a score in number—of which nothing has yet been said, we are confronted with an embarras de richesses. Chronologically, the earliest of them is the ‘Songs Before Sunrise’ (1871), and the latest ‘The Tale of Balen’ (1896). Perhaps the first thing that should be said about them, in view of still current misconceptions, is that whatever taint of sensuality clung to the productions of the poet’s youth, the work of his manhood is singularly free from any offense of this sort. In its dramatic portions, it handles the noblest of themes with superb creative power, and deals with them in grave harmonious measures; in its lyrical portions, it clothes an almost austere ideal of conduct in melodies whose beauty is everlasting. The dramatic poems include ‘Erechtheus,’ a Greek tragedy fully as fine as ‘Atalanta,’ and exhibiting more of artistic restraint; the two works ‘Bothwell’ and ‘Mary Stuart,’ which complete the magnificent trilogy begun by ‘Chastelard’; ‘Marino Faliero,’ a Venetian subject treated with splendid effect; ‘Locrine,’ a tragedy suggested by Milton’s ‘Comus,’ and upon a theme dealt with by an unknown Elizabethan dramatist; and ‘The Sisters,’ a comparatively unimportant domestic tragedy. Strongly dramatic in spirit, although in form a narrative in rhymed couplets, the tale of ‘Tristram of Lyonesse’ completes the list of Mr. Swinburne’s longer poetical works down to ‘The Tale of Balen,’ which is essentially a verse paraphrase of a section of the ‘Morte d’Arthur’ of Malory. The lyrical division of Mr. Swinburne’s work includes two additional series of ‘Poems and Ballads’; the impassioned volume of ‘Songs Before Sunrise,’ inspired by the Italian revolutionary movement, and dedicated to Mazzini,—a work which is probably the highest and most sustained expression of the poet’s lyrical powers; the ‘Songs of Two Nations,’ which includes the great ‘Song of Italy,’ the superb ‘Ode on the Proclamation of the French Republic,’ and the fierce sonnets called ‘Diræ’; the ‘Songs of the Springtides,’ whereof ‘Thalassius’—a sort of spiritual autobiography, in which the poet pays the noblest of his many tributes to the memory of Landor—is the first and the greatest; the ‘Studies in Song,’ which includes the wonderful lyrical group inspired ‘By the North Sea’; the ‘Tristram’ volume, which contains, besides the titular poem, many other pieces,—among them ‘A Dark Month,’ the group of songs which has made their author the supreme English poet of childhood; ‘A Century of Roundels’; ‘A Midsummer Holiday’; and ‘Astrophel.’ Mention should also be made, as illustrating the lighter aspect of Mr. Swinburne’s genius, of the anonymously published ‘Heptalogia; or The Seven against Sense,’ a collection of the cleverest parodies ever written, in which the poet travesties his own style with no less glee than the style of half a dozen of his contemporaries. If one would seek for further indications of his sense of humor, they may be found in the poem ‘Disgust,’ which parodies Tennyson’s ‘Despair,’ and in the ‘Report of the Proceedings on the First Anniversary Session of the Newest Shakespeare Society.’  6
  The mere enumeration of Mr. Swinburne’s works requires so much space that little remains for any general comment upon them. It should be said that he early outgrew the doctrine of “art for art’s sake,” and has made his verse more and more the ally of great and worthy causes. Such ardent and whole-souled admiration of man for man as finds expression in his many poems to Landor, Hugo, and Mazzini, to say nothing of his many tributes to lesser men, is hardly paralleled in literature. And the sweep of his lyre becomes even more impressive when its strings are plucked in behalf of France crushed beneath the heel of the usurper; of Italy struggling to be free. The fierce indignation with which he inveighs against all the social, political, and religious forces that array themselves against the freedom of the body and soul of man, the glowing patriotism which fires his song when its theme is the proud heritage of achievement to which every Englishman is born, and the prophetic inspiration which imparts to him the vision of a regenerated humanity, and all the wonder that shall be when “the world’s great age begins anew” and “the golden years return,”—these are indeed subjects for the noblest sort of poetical expression; and they are the very warp and woof of the many-colored verbal fabric that has come from Mr. Swinburne’s loom. And with these great words spoken for mankind in the abstract there comes also a personal message, exalting the virtues of heroism, and sacrifice of self, and steadfast devotion to high impersonal ends,—a message that finds its highest embodiment in such poems as ‘Super Flumina Babylonis,’ and ‘The Pilgrims,’ and ‘Thalassius’; a message that enforces as fine an ethical ideal of individual conduct as may be found anywhere in English literature. Swinburne’s later publications were ‘Rosamund, Queen of the Lombards’ (1899), ‘The Duke of Gardia’ (1908), and ‘The Age of Shakespeare’ (1909). He died on April 9th, 1909.  7
 
 
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