February 20, 2009

The Bear Press

This post now resides on my other site 50 Watts:

February 15, 2009

Lions of Literature: Swinburne, by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert (Part 4)

Harry Clarke binding illustration for Selected Poems of Swinburne
Harry Clarke, Selected Poems of Swinburne, binding decoration

Swinburne On Books

"The half-brained creature to whom books are other than living things may see with the eyes of a bat and draw with the fingers of a mole his dullard's distinction between books and life: those who live the fuller life of a higher animal than he know that books are to poets as much part of that life as pictures are to painters or as music is to musicians, dead matter though they may be to the spiritually still-born children of dirt and dullness who find it possible and natural to live while dead in heart and brain."

Use these links to read the four-part column in order:
by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert

With its driving, headlong rhythms and repetitive, trancelike drone, the imperative surge of incantatory utterances given voice by Swinburne's verse had all the strangeness of glossolalia. It rattled the guardians of tradition and shook the benumbed British mind from its tedious slumber. The startling new poetry sent shock waves shuddering through the repressed realm of Victoria Regina, not just because of its erotic content, but because of the jarring unfamiliarity of the very sound of its speech. In addition to his sexual, political, and theological provocations, Swinburne had waged what amounted to nothing less than an aural assault upon an unsuspecting England. A definitive lyric poet, Swinburne performs feats which seem to defy the physics of prosody. Tour de force is too weak a term to describe the effects he achieves routinely, almost offhandedly. With the urgency of its anapestic beat, its intricate symphonies and antiphonies alternately aggressive and lulling, its gushing rushes of adjectives strung together in alliterative syndicates and its scintillating trains of monosyllabic nouns, Swinburne's technique had, on the ear of England, the impact of a verbal avalanche.

photograph, a c swinburne

At its most opulent, the sensorial sumptuousness of Swinburne's verse cannot be overstated; stanza after stanza of perfumed notes and chords, overlush and decadent, cascade in dizzying, indefatigable torrents of eloquence. A spasticated frenzy of compounds and concatenations all but impossibly coordinated in splurging cataracts of rhetorical excess and complex scansion; all of it building, wave after wave, into a massive onslaught of music – this was Swinburne's artistry.

To the unprepared ears of the average Victorian, Swinburne's mesmeric monotone of manic diction and emotional intensity must have seemed staggering, unimaginable – an auditory circus, a congress of wonders. To the discerning, it was literary caviar.

Harry Clarke, Swinburne, Weary Wedding
Harry Clarke, Selected Poems of Swinburne, Weary Wedding

Like Austin Dobson, Swinburne was well at ease with the conventions of French versification. He was adept with the virelay, the sestina, and the villanelle, and is credited with having adapted the rondeau into his own invention, the English roundel. Moreover, he was an adroit practitioner of rarefied meters such as hendecasyllabics and trochaic tetrameter. Swinburne, nevertheless, was sometimes rebuked by critics for emphasizing sound over sense – a foible with which critics were to fault Dylan Thomas nearly a century later.

Swinburne was a lifelong Hellenist and Latinist of the highest order and a medievalist by temperament and taste, partly as a result of the principles and preferences that rubbed off on him during his affiliation with his Pre-Raphaelite brethren. He wrote verse dramas in the classical and medieval molds, featuring femmes fatales and sadomasochistic situations.

Harry Clarke, Swinburne, St Dorothy
Harry Clarke, Selected Poems of Swinburne, St. Dorothy

Three series of Poems and Ballads and volume on important volume of other verse; scores of scholarly treatises about fellow writers; histories; essays; historical plays and plays based on myth poured from his pen. He was a mighty workhorse who trotted out novels, hoaxes, burlesques and parodies, erotica and juvenilia, much of it still unpublished, in a continual, undifferentiated splurge.

Swinburne is noted for his metaphorical depictions of desolate, inhuman landscape. Pre-Raphaelite pictorial productions tended to render nature as an enchanted fairyland of dream settings a la Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Spenser's Faerie Queene, or Tennyson's Lady of Shallot. Though this sensibility tinged some of Swinburne's work, and he was intimately familiar with the Pre-Raphaelite painters and with the related creations of his contemporary Richard Dadd and of William Bell Scott and John William Inchbold, who were his friends, his own technique was generally Turnerian, impressionistic, and his aesthetic was that of the Sublime.

Scholar J. D. Rosenberg notes that Swinburne was "obsessed by the moment when one thing shades off into its opposite, or when contraries fuse." He was especially fixated on transitional states in nature – dawn and dusk, sea and sky; what Rosenberg terms "hermaphrodisms." Striving to express this singular sense of the inseparability of contraries, Swinburne emulated in words what his great countryman Turner had done with paint. Swinburne's various technical signatures – assonance and alliteration, synesthesia, monotony – comprised a palette prepared with incomparable virtuosity and they set him apart from all others. The "covert pathology" of his algolagnia, coupled with an exuberant morbidity and a preoccupation with exotic themes like necrophilia, sapphism, and states of sexual humiliation, combine with a truculent "theological defiance" deliberately blasphemous to the point of pastiche, to force a heretical and systematic upheaval by substituting a perverse facsimile of conventional expectations. This impulse, which permeates the preponderance of Swinburne's loftiest verse, manifests colorfully in his poisonous pantheon of cruel goddesses such as malignant Faustine and toxic Dolores. Their dolorous and baleful beauty demanding absolute adoration repaid with abasement, abjection, shame, and disgrace, emblematizes a veritable ethos of the bittersweet.

Harry Clarke, Swinburne, hymnprospertine
Harry Clarke, Selected Poems of Swinburne, Hymn to Proserpine

For Swinburne, love is a cruel god, "doomed, bleak, sick and sterile." He is the "poet of love's impossibility" and, according to scholar J. D. Rosenberg, "the laureate of barrenness in all its forms." Love, for Swinburne, is traumatic, and its victims always bruised and scarred. Swinburne's linkage of the frigid with the torrid, of love with death has been attributed to the loss of an often-hinted mystery sweetheart – almost certainly his cousin Mary Gordon – when she married another during his youth. Swinburne's compulsive conflation of affliction and infliction, agony with ecstasy, latent and patent, make him seem a mass of ambiguity and contradiction. Living paradox that he was, he nonetheless not only successfully sublimated the exuberant perversity of his algedonic world view into a balance of opposites but harnessed it as fuel for exquisite literature.

Swinburne studied painters and learned coloration from the Pre-Raphaelites and mirrored "indistinctness" and other innovations he observed in the works of Turner and Whistler. He aped Turner's diffuseness to create total impressionistic wholes displaying an "exaltation of energy over form, and infinite nuance over discrete detail." Within these parameters, Swinburne was able to give scope to his larger view of the cosmos, and of "man's fate on a cooling star." For Swinburne, that fate, according to Anthony Harrison, is "the tragedy of mankind whose pitiable part it is to strive for fulfillment through filial, erotic, and fraternal love, but, in doing so, to generate only strife and be freed from frustration and suffering only in death."

Swinburne uniquely used monotony to convey desolation. To this day, he remains unique in the application of this technique and the achievement of the resultant effect. He was equally unique in his ability to sustain a spree of highly ornate phrasings and fluid inflections perfect to the last scintilla and iota. It has been seriously speculated that the unaccustomed vigor and vivacity of Swinburne's verse and the source of its vital spark is attributable to a brain disorder. Swinburne's was a "music of enervation" in which "a sense of disorientation combined with insistent, mesmeric meters," a blurring, slurring mutedness, as if the drowsy cadences of the poem were enunciated in a dream.

Swinburne the humanist who celebrated in Hertha a Whitmanesque ideal of homo sapiens and who, as a ten-year-old Anglican ("quasi-Catholic," as he put it) had a working knowledge of biblical hermeneutics came, as an adult, to posit the presence of a God-but-not-God governing principle of the universe in which an infinitude of stars views man with cold indifference and even the supernal overlord Time Himself is susceptible to erasure. Just as his countrymen Matthew Arnold, Thomas Hardy, and James Thomson and their American cousins Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson were grappling with similar proto-existentialist notions of tragedy and pessimism, Swinburne subscribed to a "relentlessly fatalistic world view" of a sumptuous desolation void of all but Implacable Nature, tyrannical and irreducible, subject only to the supremacy of all-vanquishing Time.

The final paradox of Swinburne is his insistence on the absence of eschatological purpose or teleological scheme in the cosmos other than the rhythm of primordial forces – of oceans and tides and seasons, of the phases of nature and the predations of time. For the most part, Swinburne dispenses with cataloging the contents of Pandora's Box, unlike Baudelaire; he cleaves to a higher perspective from which he views the evils that beset mankind as mere incidentals of mortality all of which will be expunged in the ultimate onslaught – the eventual extinction of mortality and of the process of extinction itself – when, in Swinburne's own oracular words, "as a god self-slain on his own strange altar, Death lies dead."


Permanent links to this four-part column
Part 1 * Part 2 * Part 3 * Part 4

Lions of Literature: Swinburne, by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert (Part 3)

Vanity Fair image, 21st November 1874
Caricature of Swinburne from Vanity Fair, November 21, 1874

Use these links to read the four-part column in order:

Part 1 * Part 2 * Part 3 * Part 4

by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert

The idea has been advanced, in certain circles, that A. C. Swinburne was a member of the so-called Spasmodic School or was, in some respects, a proponent of its principles and practices.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Though Swinburne was susceptible to influence from a number of quarters – he was a marvelous imitator who has been called the most gifted mimic in English letters for his uncanny ability to parody the style of other writers – most of his inspiration sprang from two distinctive and very different sources – classical literary models and contemporary visual aesthetics. From the Pre-Raphaelites and related contemporary visual artists who were his confederates, from his close friend James Abbott McNeill Whistler and, most particularly, from another great proto-impressionist – J. M. W. Turner – who was a friend of his grandfather, and a set of six of whose watercolors was so treasured a family possession that Algernon’s mother carried it with her in a special traveling case wherever she went – Swinburne drew much of his formation.

With regard to the Spasmodists, however, Swinburne stood so far above and apart both in originality and in grandeur, as to be likened to an eagle atop Olympus gazing down upon pismires crawling on a stinkweed in meadows leagues below. Swinburne went his own way and had no association with the Spasmodists, either formally or otherwise. From no plausible perspective whatsoever does he share characteristics with those construed "spasmodic."

Max Beerbohm, Riverside Scene, 1922
Caricature by Max Beerbohm, 1922

Spasmodic was a largely facetious and derogatory term directed at "mushy" poets of the early Victorian period in England. Originally coined by Thomas Carlyle in reference to Byron, it was appropriated by Charles Kingsley and W. E. Aytoun and applied to a group of popular sentimentalist poets whose attitudes and stylistics were prevalent in the 1840s and 1850s. John Stanyan Bigg, Owen Meredith, Gerald Massey, George Gilfillan, Sydney Dobell, Philip James Bailey, were charter members. Other names later linked with the movement include J. W. Marsten, William Bell Scott (a Swinburne crony), Ebenezer and Ernest Jones, R. H. Horne and, intermittently, in their more effusive phases, Alfred Tennyson, Elizabeth Barrett (Browning), and Arthur Hugh Clough. Although the names adorning the preceding roll call are predominantly, if not exclusively masculine, Kingsley pronounced the "spasmodic vogue" "dangerously effeminate." Mawkish, saccharine, and emotionally indulgent, the Spasmodists might be likened to the cloyingly sentimental Hallmark Poets – Rod McKuen, Maya Angelou, et al. – of our own day.

Spasmodic loosely designated "neoromantic yearners toward the cosmic, exploiters of intensity and formlessness," whose "main feature was said to be an undercurrent of discontent with the mystery of existence, characterized by vain efforts, unrewarded struggle, skeptical unrest, and an uneasy straining after the unattainable." Elsewhere, it is defined as "a willful delight in remote and involved thinking, abrupt and jerking mental movements, and 'pernickitieness' of expression."

max beerbohm, The Small Hours in the Sixties at 16, Cheyne Walk, Algernon Reading Anactoria to Gabriel and William
Caricature by Max Beerbohm
The Small Hours in the Sixties at 16, Cheyne Walk, Algernon Reading Anactoria to Gabriel and William

From the vantage of half a century after the evaporation of the Spasmodic movement, Lafcadio Hearn devoted a lecture to the subject. He had this to say:

The sarcastic term "spasmodic" must not be taken literally. It was unjust and the school, although having no great sustained force, did some good work and must not be despised. Some of the best examples have found their way into the best Victorian anthologies, proof positive that the school has merit. If it could not live, that was because its keynote was strong emotion, and you cannot keep up such a tone indefinitely. The school exhausted itself at an early day.

The term Spasmodic refers to the faults of the school. The meaning of the word "spasmodic" is, as I told you, excess of emotion wrought up to the point of morbidness or sickness. But this does not mean that emotion is to be condemned because it is too strong. On the contrary such emotionalism, in real life, indicates weakness, sickness, disease of the nerves, loss of will power. An emotion cannot be too strong for artistic use. But such passions, when artistically expressed, come like sudden storms and as quickly pass; for they are the passions of powerful and healthy men and women. Not so in the case of sickly or mawkish feeling; that is long-drawn and wearisome like the crying of a fretful child, or like the complaining of a sick man whose nerves are out of order. In the case of a child crying for good reason, we are sorry, and try to comfort the child; if the crying goes on too long, if the child continues to cry long after the pain is over, we become tired, and think it ugly as it cries. And if the child persists in crying for another hour, we suspect a malicious intention, and we become angry with the child. Now the Spasmodic poets make us angry in the same way; they cry without reason. Fledgling poets are likely to be too pathetic. Emotion must be compressed like air to serve an artistic object. Emotion in literature is, in the same way, a motive force; but you must compress it to get power. This the poets of the Spasmodic School refuse to do.

Nevertheless, they obtained immediate, though brief, popularity – which encouraged them to cry still louder than before. But why? Simply because to persons of uncultured taste the higher zones of emotion are out of reach. Their nerves are somewhat dull; they are moved by very simple things, and would not be moved at all perhaps by great things. Everywhere there is a public of this kind, to whom lachrymose emotion and mawkish sentiment give the same kind of pleasure that black, red and blazing yellow give to the eyes of children and savages. When the English public learned the faults of what they were admiring, they dropped the Spasmodics and forgot their beauties as well as their faults.

There was a belief prevalent in certain circles at the time that Tennyson and his followers were too cold and that a more emotional school of poetry was needed. The Pre-Raphaelites had the same opinion. But while the Pre-Raphaelites went in the right direction to improve on the methods of the earlier Romantics, the Spasmodics went to work in the wrong direction. They exaggerated pathos without perceiving that the more room given to it, the weaker it becomes. Nevertheless, before they failed, they succeeded in giving a few beautiful things to the English anthologies, and several of these are by Dobell. He generally takes a death bed scene or a tragedy of some kind, and heaps up the sorrow at wearisome length. Arthur O’Shaughnessy but partly belongs to the group. He is not always a Spasmodic, but always a Rhapsodist. He was a clerk in the British Museum. Like all members of this school, he was nervous, sensitive, sickly and, to a great extent, unhappy. He sang of his own pains, mostly, and sang best when he was most unhappy. Besides poetry of regret, he wrote The Silences and The Fountain of Tears, this last a typical poem of the school: it pushes the emotion to the extreme of rhapsody. In the poem there is a spring in some retired place made of the tears of all mankind. In the poem the spring of tears at first appears to well up very gently and softly, with a music in its flowing that brings a strange kind of consolation to the hearer. But gradually the stream becomes strong, the ripples change to waves, the waves to billowings, and at last the flowing threatens to drown the world. So the imagination is carried almost to the edge of the grotesque.

It must be remembered that the Spasmodic poets, fighting for the expression of sincere emotion in literature, were themselves nearly all weak, sick, unhappy persons; and many of their mistakes must have been due to nervous conditions. All the more do they deserve credit for having been able to add something to the treasure-house of English poetry, especially something of a new kind. It must not be forgotten, at the same time, that their principal weakness constitutes a literary object lesson. To dwell upon an emotion at an unnecessary length is always dangerous and not necessarily likely to be powerful.

The Spasmodists were made a laughingstock by Aytoun’s burlesque Firmilian: A Spasmodic Tragedy which poked fun at the spasmodic fashion for whiny dramatic monologues in verse frequently structured so that the speaker was a maundering, self-indulgent, woe-is-me-spouting poet.

Thus we see that, though the term "spasmodic" was meant to deride and ridicule, the school has a legitimate claim to a place in history, despite its limited credo. But any affiliation of spasmodism with Swinburne or the ascription to him of its traits remains a shallow and grossly inaccurate assessment.




Lord Redesdale on Swinburne (childhood)

What a fragile little creature he seemed as he stood there between his father and mother, with his wondering eyes fixed upon me! Under his arm he hugged Bowdler's Shakespeare, a very precious treasure, bound in brown leather, with, for a marker, a narrow slip of ribbon, blue I think, with a button of that most heathenish marqueterie called Tunbridge ware dangling from the end of it. He was strangely tiny. His limbs were small and delicate; and his sloping shoulders looked far too weak to carry his great head, the size of which was exaggerated by the tousled mass of red hair standing almost at right angles to it. Hero-worshippers talk of his hair as having been a 'golden aureole.' At that time there was nothing golden about it. Red, violent, aggressive red it was, unmistakeable, unpoetical carrots.

His features were small and beautiful, chiselled as daintily as those of some Greek sculptor's masterpiece. His skin was very white — not unhealthy but a transparent tinted white, such as one sees in the petals of some roses. His face was the very replica of that of his dear mother, and she was one of the most refined and lovely of women. Another characteristic which Algernon inherited from his mother was the voice. All who knew him must remember that exquisitely soft voice with a rather sing-song intonation. His language, even at that age, was beautiful, fanciful and richly varied. Altogether my recollection of him in those school days is that of a fascinating, most loveable little fellow.

Ecce Barditus

In the poet's maturity, a close friend remarked, "Even when I knew Swinburne only by fleeting glimpses, his personality struck me as something quite out of the ordinary. To begin with, he looked what we call "a celebrity." Having once seen him, much less met him, no one could fail to understand he had come into contact with a very extraordinary being, for certain characteristics removed Swinburne definitely outside the pale of ordinary mortals. Had I met him for the first time in the street or in a room, and not knowing he was Swinburne, had been asked to guess what manner of man he was by profession, I should unhesitatingly at the first glance have said " Poet."

Clara Watts-Dunton on Swinburne (old age)

Often when he sat opposite me at meals I would mentally frame Swinburne's head in the pianist's wealth of copper-coloured hair and the resemblance between them would then become positively surprising. But his hair had never been copper-coloured. When his cousin first showed me a lock of Algernon's hair, I could hardly believe such a colour could have grown on a human head. It was not a bit like the hair so often described as "the sort Titian would have loved to paint"; it was just a fiery red.

His eyes were what specially attracted me. They were wonderful, and by far the best feature of his face. If the eye is the window of the soul, truly the eyes of Swinburne spoke for him. I would look at him long and searchingly across the table to try to ascertain what colour they really were. Sometimes they would look soft and tender enough to suggest pansies, at other moments they seemed to be greyish green; and, again, I would think the speckles in them made them marvellously expressive. I have seen them dance and catch fire, according to his various moods. When he read aloud any passage requiring dramatic emphasis, these speckles would grow more radiant and quiver with every cadence of his rather high-pitched voice.

Taking it for granted that Swinburne possessed a superabundance of hair as a young man, I cannot agree with those who think that he possessed a head too big for his body. I would have been the first to have noticed any abnormality of this sort, had it existed. In figure he was slender and boyish, the top-heavy look with which he is credited was no doubt due to the thick hair standing out bush-like from both sides of his head.

Had Nature given Swinburne a body worthy of his mental gifts, he would have been better looking than the Apollo Belvedere. But it was other-wise decreed. His facial features were remarkably good, but his figure was against him. He would have been handsome if he had been a few inches taller and his figure good. But he was short, and his shoulders were far too sloping. His physical imperfections had become less noticeable when I knew him, for he had 'filled out' since the days of "Dolores" and "Chastelard," and his lim

bs, unusually muscular, for a man of his size, had taken on a more solid look. His hands were not beautiful or well-shaped, and they were not particularly small. I would often look at his rather podgy digits and prosaic finger nails. [Ed. - I love this woman.]

In the days of his young manhood, Swinburne may or may not have evinced a partiality for fine clothes, but I am sure his good sense never allowed him to adopt any sort of eccentricity of attire. The poet of tradition and the stage has always something of the guy about his clothing. He wears a pair of rusty black trousers, baggy at the knees, a nondescript waistcoat, and a shabby velveteen coat surmounted by a very low turned-down collar with a huge bow under it. His hair is long, and his hat is an umbrageous sombrero.

Swinburne's attire, as I observed it, flatly contradicted this caricature. He took great pains to avoid advertising his metier. He did not wear his hair long; it only reached the nape of his neck, and the little he possessed was often cut by the barber.

He was always very plainly dressed, and I never saw him wearing any other sort of tie than a plain black silk one. At home, and sitting restfully in his chair with a book, he offered no mark for the caricaturist. But outside, when he had donned his wideawake, he somehow looked eccentric. For one thing he braced his trousers too high; in his absence of mind, he would pull them above the ankles, showing several inches of white sock. Furthermore, he had a curious prancing gait, and his deliberate way of flinging out his feet before him as he trod the ground reminded one of a dancing-master or a soldier doing the goose-step.

With his head thrown stiffly back and his body almost rigid from the waist upwards, Swinburne out-of-doors seemed to me an individual distinct from the Swinburne at home.


Permanent links to this four-part column
Part 1 * Part 2 * Part 3 * Part 4

Lions of Literature: Swinburne, by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert (Part 2)

Harry Clarke, Swinburne, decoration 4 (also on title page)
Harry Clarke, Selected Poems of Swinburne, decoration

Use these links to read the four-part column in order:

by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert
(part 2)


Swinburne, together with Oxford academician and "gospel of beauty" high priest Walter Pater, and American expatriate painter James McNeill Whistler, adopted Théophile Gautier's dictum of "art for art's sake" and codified what came to be known as the Aesthetic Movement in England, which pre-dated but was embraced and championed by Oscar Wilde and remains most famously associated with his name. At the same time, the movement anticipated many concerns of the Symbolists and Decadents and was, along with the vogue for Poe and Baudelaire, a principal pater familias. Bracketed by Pre-Raphaelitism and the Symbolist phase and Art Nouveau, the Aesthetic Movement effectively bridged this period of artistic ferment, finding full flower between 1870 and 1875. Swinburne's "religion of beauty" was a creed shared wholeheartedly by former Pre-Raphaelites and by prominent Aesthetic Movement adherents such as Wilde and Whistler.

swinburne photo


Undeserved or not, Swinburne's reputation for vice and license followed him for a decade, from the late 1860s to the late 1870s. It was a reputation he cultivated and did nothing to counteract. His reckless lifestyle continued unabated. William Gaunt imagines the trio of Milnes, Swinburne, and Burton in the social swirl of London's velvet underground during a nocturnal tour: "…at Cremorne in the Hermit's Cave and Fairy Bower amid the polka-dancing mob. One hears the pop of champagne corks and the gurgle of the brandy bottle in some blazing resort near the Haymarket. One sees Swinburne subsiding in the midst of a wreck of glasses, repeatedly comparing himself with Shelley and Dante, asserting that two glasses of green Chartreuse were a perfect antidote to one of yellow or two of yellow to one of green. One sees him and his companions venturing into the slum quarters which were then infernal in their wildness and riot…" These years "furnish innumerable accounts of Swinburne's disgraceful behavior, snatching at bottles 'like a mongoose,' 'belching out blasphemy and bawdry and wasted by drink.'" He had fallen in with a bad crowd. He announced at a party that he wanted to "build seven towers, in each of which to enact one of the seven deadly sins." He and a chum raided the cloak room of a prominent gentlemen's club, gathered up the top hats of the members and crushed them by stomping on them until they were unceremoniously ejected from the premises. Careening around the night spots of the capitol, Swinburne might turn up at a function at Rossetti's in evening clothes or might just as unsurprisingly justify Ruskin's bemused wonder "whether the boy would ever be fully clothed." He had achieved Byronic status, which had been his goal from the outset.

Harry Clarke, Swinburne, Queen
Harry Clarke, Selected Poems of Swinburne, The Queen

Edmond de Goncourt wrote a novel involving a character based on a composite of Swinburne and Oscar Wilde. Goncourt asserted that Wilde's homosexuality was largely a pose plagiarized from Verlaine and Swinburne. Goncourt, who wrote the introduction to the 1891 French edition of Swinburne's Poems and Ballads, and who was never averse to the raw and the raunchy, cited in his famous Journal a number of juicy and salacious entries concerning Swinburne, beginning with an incident related by Guy de Maupassant which supposedly took place in 1868 on the Normandy coast near Dieppe as Swinburne was visiting the seaside town of Étretat where he shared a cottage with his confrere, the folklorist and translator George Powell. It seems that one morning, while out for a swim, dainty and petite Algernon was swept out to sea by treacherous undercurrents and barely saved from drowning, as legend would have it, by none other than the teen-aged Maupassant who, coincidentally, happened to be vacationing in the area at the same time. After hearing shouts for help, the huskily-built Maupassant dove into the waves, and made his way through the rock arches near the palisaded beach and began to race towards Swinburne as he floundered some two miles offshore. Soon enough, the hapless poet was scooped from the brine by a passing boat, but all who participated in the rescue were feted by the grateful near-victim, most of all the handsome and brawny Maupassant, who was invited to dine with Swinburne and Powell chez eux. (Safely back on shore, Maupassant stated that Swinburne had been "dead drunk" at the time of his nautical misadventure.)

What happened next, according to Goncourt who, as a French naturalist, did not shy from the raw and the raunchy, was a juicy and salacious series of incidents that have been handed down to posterity as fact, however much they may have been embellished by both the gossip-loving popular imagination and by the sensation-hunger of Swinburne himself, who never refuted them.

Harry Clarke, Swinburne, Fair Amouress
Harry Clarke, Selected Poems of Swinburne, Complaint of the Fair Armouress

At the cottage, ominously named in honor of the domicile of the protagonist of de Sade's Philosophy in the Bedroom, Maupassant found the occupants Powell to be short and fat, and Swinburne to be short and skinny, "with a pointed face, a hydrocephalic forehead, pigeon-chested, and agitated by a trembling which affected his glass with St. Vitus' dance, and talking incessantly like a madman." The décor suggested the haunt of a pair of bohemian gothicists, with arrangements of bones and a preserved human hand. Besides being pestered by Powell's pet monkey, Maupassant was regaled with dirty pictures of German men engaged in a variety of pornographic activities." In these exotic and ghoulish surroundings, the conversation proceeded at the highest cultural level. Swinburne displayed 'an immense fund of learning.' He translated some of his poems for Maupassant's benefit and enthused about Victor Hugo (whose entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica he was subsequently to write). The two men struck Maupassant as 'singularly original, remarkable and bizarre,' a pair of hallucinatory visionaries in the tradition of Poe and E. T. A. Hoffmann. 'If genius,' he concluded, 'is, as people say, a kind of delirium of the higher intelligence, then Algernon Charles Swinburne is assuredly a genius.'" In Goncourt's journal, Maupassant goes on to say: "Yes, they lived there together, copulating with monkeys or with young boys imported periodically from England. The monkey that slept in Powell's bed and shat in it every night was hanged by the servant boy, partly out of jealousy but also out of annoyance at having to change the sheets all the time. The house was full of strange noises and the shadows of sadism; one night, Powell was seen and heard firing a revolver in the garden at a black man. Those two were real sadeian heroes, who wouldn't have held back even from crime." For the rest of his life, Swinburne kept the 'outsize garments' in which the rescuing fishermen had dressed him.

Home in London, it was clear that Swinburne's life of dissipation did not mean one of dessication. His authorial output was unattenuated though "in these years he sometimes became so ill as a result of the unregulated habits of his life that he had to be taken to his parents house to recuperate." It was evident from the appearance of the second series of Poems and Ballads in 1878 that an "autumnal mood" had descended over Swinburne's verse. It was "a mood not of the residue of energies desperately spent or fearfully thwarted, but rather of the slow encroachment of time, the sea eroding the shore, the night darkening the sea." These poems fulfilled Swinburne's "ambition to be a great poet in the way of his masters. In them Swinburne leaves the desolate landscapes and the quiet tonalities characteristic of late century verse to penetrate again the deep, dense life of things and to find again words, rhythms and forms that will make or manifest realities whose power and meaning none will know until a poet speaks them." Swinburne's "energy was at fever height, the current of his poetry continued unchecked"; his poetry had transited from "the sensual sphere, through the political and ecclesiastical, with the virulent animosity of its detestation of kings and priests" and through the phase of "what has been called his 'pan-anthropism' – his universal worship of the holy spirit of man, the gospel of the 'body electric' and the glory of human nature" to a new plateau of "passages of power and intensity unsurpassed, in which the fecundity of his versification and the force of his melody were unbroken, and his magnificent torrent of words inexhaustible."

Although, by the time he was in his early forties, Swinburne's literary precocity remained unimpaired both in quantity and quality, he was physically fading fast. His boozing had worsened. When he was out on the town, he often had to be assisted to a cab and, when delivered home in the wee, wee hours, dumped on his doorstep, blind drunk. When left to himself, he drank until he blacked out. The squalid cycle of dissipation, collapse, recovery, and fresh dissipation was taking its toll, and his health began to fail. His masochistic indulgences continued undiminished and his deafness deepened. By 1879, periodic "recuperative intervals were too rare to save him" and his "phenomenal energies were at last subdued by alcoholism." Swinburne is a pathetic figure at this point. A plaintive tone informs his letters, a note of sadness, a wistful sorrow tinges his conversation. Pining for his "lost love" and pained by the slanders of others, he finds himself snared by mounting isolation and by the downward spiral of dissolution. Ruing his revels and carousals, and suffering in conscience, he is penitential over the debaucheries from whose consequences he may soon succumb. "Incapable of moderation," Swinburne had become a lush of epic proportions – a prototype of Dylan Thomas and Brendan Behan and all titanic tipplers of British literature to follow. Both Swinburne and his quondam comrade Rossetti were broken men at this point but their mythic stature had been irrevocably cast.

An epileptic algolagniac prostrated by alcoholic dysentery and spiraling towards death, he helplessly awaited his fate…

Harry Clarke, Swinburne, endpapers
Harry Clarke, Selected Poems of Swinburne, endpapers


Enveloped by solitude, swallowed by squalor, eaten alive by sheer physiological deterioration, Swinburne's situation was one of the acutest peril. Realizing the emergency, Swinburne's mother importuned his friend, the poet-solicitor Theodore Watts-Dunton, to intervene before it was too late. A sordid scene ensued when Watts-Dunton entered Swinburne's rooms, and found before him a crippled wretch. The kindly lawyer bundled the wreckage of the greatest nether-poet then living in England, and helped him into the compartment of a waiting coach. The grimness of Swinburne's condition is not to be exaggerated and Watts-Dunton's simple act of gallantry unquestionably saved the bard from certain catastrophe.

By 1879, Swinburne was living in an advanced state of misery and degradation to which Watts-Dunton's wife, in a memoir, macabrely refers as the days of "roses and raptures." He was a broken reed who had reached a point where family, friends, and physician had all but written him off. When Swinburne's attorney, business manager, and literary cohort broke in on him and scooped him up from his rooms in Great James Street, in the center of London, and spirited him off to the outlying district of Putney, first to No. 11 Putney Hill, then down the way to No. 2, The Pines, a house which Watts-Dunton, or "Walter," as he was familiarly known, shared with his sister and servants and, later, with his young, worshipful wife Clara, he removed a creature lost to the world, and installed him in the bosom of comfort and security. Swinburne had been altogether unable to take care of himself. Now he had residence in a country retreat, a salutary haven formed by congenial quarters and the quiet companionship of caring friends. The simple remedial measure of removing him from the pernicious influences which had undermined his health resulted in a miraculous cure, and Swinburne underwent a remarkable and complete restoration.

Shut up at The Pines but for an occasional trip to the coast (under supervision) to satisfy his infatuation with the sea, Swinburne effectively became a scholar-hermit, devoting the last thirty years of his life to assiduous literary activity, and growing into an increasingly respected grand old man of letters under the benign stewardship of Watts-Dunton, who became his de facto guardian. Many of his old friends thought him "imprisoned," but his prodigious productivity during these years proves incontrovertibly the salubrious effect of tranquil surroundings and steady routine on his equilibrium. By successive steps and stages, Watts-Dunton gradually weaned Algernon from an accustomed intake of brandy in ghastly amounts to a few glasses of milder wine and, eventually, to a single tankard of ale per diem. The unusual filial arrangement of this Damon and Pythias of Putney Hill ensured that, "after 1880, Swinburne's life remained without disturbing event, devoted entirely to the pursuit of literature in peace and leisure."

A.C. Swinburne (seated)1

Prejudice and malice caused some observers to regard his shrinking sociability, owing to progressive deafness, as evidence of an insidious conspiracy to engineer his abduction and subject him to an incarceration which sapped his genius and reduced him to a parody of his former self. "The cry went round that the physical improvement of the poet synchronised with his mental decay." Some critics opined that the syndrome of "early flourish and later decline" afflicted Swinburne as it had so many another whose flame burned uncommonly bright during the bloom of youth only to flicker and fade with the passage of the years. And, indeed, The Pines did "serve Swinburne as a sort of suburban sanitorium." But he was far from the victim of a sinister plot. The fact is that Watts-Dunton acted as a stabilizing influence over him, and his extraction of the poet from "pitiable surroundings and mischievous companionship" at a time he was depleted and demoralized and all but left for dead not only enabled Swinburne to rebound from the breakdown and regain his health, but to revitalize his creative energies and enter a new, Herculean phase of serious scholarship and original production. "The Pines," in effect, "became the tomb of a great poet and the birthplace of a distinguished man of letters."

During this picturesque period of retirement at Putney, Swinburne's eccentricities multiplied and intensified. In the course of his daily wanderings through the woodlands surrounding Putney Heath, he would greet his favorite trees and do them obeisance by chivalrously bowing and doffing his hat on parting from each one. He spoke to them familiarly; running from one to the next, repeatedly ejaculating "ah-h-h!" An impish, elfin figure, he flitted through the woods like a nature-sprite, springing and leaping, cavorting and capering, skittering among his arboreal friends, rhapsodizing them with eloquent tributes. One could easily be persuaded that he honored them above mere creatures of flesh and blood. He composed poems during his sylvan rambles, and sang them as he strolled along.

swinburne, rackham
Arthur Rackham, from The Springtide of Life: Poems for Children

An Edwardian era portrait of Swinburne as a hairy satyr delighting an audience of naked babes (above), which adorns a posthumous collection of his child-poetry reinforces a popular perception that, in his later years, the illustrious bard had become a "babyolater." His volume A Century of Roundels included twenty-four florid poems about infants and toddlers. From among them, Edward Elgar, the English composer, adopted as a libretto the odelet A Baby's Death. (Perhaps this is no stranger than the fixation on juvenile themes peculiar to Eugene Field, James Whitcomb Riley, or other august predecessors of the Hallmark School but, coming from an author once accused of promulgating "peccant" verse which was the product of "the spurious passion of a putrescent imagination" in which "the Bottomless Pit encompasses us on one side and stews and bagnios on the other," it carries more than a little resonance of something odd.) Now, in his upper years, Swinburne routinely spent part of his daily round rejoicing in "beautiful," fresh-faced infants randomly encountered in their nanny-propelled prams while taking the air in Wimbledon Common, and apostrophizing these beaming babies of the neighborhood in reverent paeans and jocund odes. With a touch of the dotard, he goofily fawned over these bubbling bundles of joy, gushing like a grandmother over every dimple, squint, hiccough, and burp. He also amused himself during these years by writing farces and hoaxes, pornography, bawdy limericks, naughty skits, and a lubricious treatise about flogging titled The Whippingham Papers. Some of his efforts remain "unpublished and unprintable." These essays in the racy and risqué were not a passing phase; Algernon the prankish schoolboy had been at them all along. It was an impulse he had never outgrown.

Harry Clarke, Swinburne, decoration 1
Harry Clarke, Selected Poems of Swinburne, decoration

In his library Swinburne kept a bronze statuette of Victor Hugo presented to him by his sculptor friend Lord Ronald Gower. "A lithe, energetic man with wonderful, twinkling eyes" surrounded by thousands of books in his study at The Pines, Swinburne radiated happiness. An impassioned bibliophile, he knew exacting details about, and could rattle off minutiae concerning every one of the thousands of books in his personal collection, and was puzzled and amazed whenever a visitor to his study didn't possess the same erudition in book lore as he. With mathematical precision, he could pinpoint the precise location of any volume on his groaning shelves and, after pulling it down for display from the tottering stacks, would go over it thoroughly with a red and black checkered duster, as he had a horror of handling a dusty book and couldn't bear to touch one unless immaculate. Puttering merrily about his library rapturously muttering oohs and ahs as he flitted from book to book, this was where Swinburne received the occasional visitor.

Contented as he was in his comfortable surroundings, he wasn't always docile as a kitten. As has been mentioned already, the poet felt a scathing hatred for Napoleon Bonaparte; the merest reference to that detested Gallic personage would provoke him to spew niagaras of abusive verbiage. Such outbursts were not confined to execrations of the emperor exiled to Elba; other peeves could trigger furious tirades just as easily. He was the gentlest of gentlemen except when fuming about some literary foe. It may be this was a belated release of steam for all the high-handed and vindictive pontifications hurled at him during the 1860s and 1870s, against which he had never publicly retaliated.

This epicure of books regularly could be found "inarticulately ecstasizing" over one of his favorites or indecisively flipping through another, assessing its virtues or demerits, pronouncing commendation or condemnation. Woe unto the author who did not meet with his approval; such an unfortunate would be flayed alive. Against those he disliked, his tongue lashed viciously. Courteous to a fault with visitors, he was nevertheless roused to petulance when confronted by the merest divergence from strictly regulated daily routine. Punctilious and pedantic, he would fly into "gusts of ill-temper" when his opinions were crossed. He was so expert and so exactingly knowledgeable in matters of literature that he bristled to the point of apoplexy when confronted by the slightest inaccuracy in connoisseurship or any lapse in taste.

In the evenings, he ritualistically read by candlelight. He dilated on this and expatiated on that in a shrill, metallic voice rendered still the more strange by certain peculiarities of elocution. For all this, visitors found him charming company and far from a garrulous old man. He was even known, on occasion, to give out with an expansive laugh.

In later years, Swinburne composed major studies of literary kingpins such as Byron, Blake, and Ben Jonson. Swinburne himself soon became the subject of studies, dedicatory poems, appreciations and commemorations of all sorts by fellow men of letters the august likes of Ezra Pound (who lionized him), fuddy-duddy T. S. Eliot (who, in some ways, denigrated him), Edmund Gosse, Edmund Wilson, Mario Praz, George Saintsbury, and C. M. Bowra. A. E. Housman wrote a précis on him. Thomas Hardy, who idolized Swinburne and never spoke of him "save in words of admiration and affection," penned a touching poem about him while sitting next to his grave, after placing a spray of ivy at the spot where he spends "the vast forever."

Swinburne's literary criticism has prompted a good deal of comment. It has been called "a tangled thicket of prejudices and predilections marred by exaggerated vituperation and praise, digressiveness, and a flamboyant style." Then again, "he was, of course, a master of the phrase, and it never happened that he touched a subject without illuminating it with some lightning-flash of genius, some vivid, penetrating suggestion that outflames its shadowy and confused environment." But "even his best appreciations are disfigured by error in taste and proportion" and "when aroused to literary indignation the avalanche of his invective sweeps before it judgment, taste and dignity. His dislikes have all the superlative violence of his affections" and are apt to spawn a glib melee of epithets and imprecations. Nonetheless, any characterization of the lordly literateur as some sort of quibbling crank is doomed to fall short of the mark, since consensus confirms his unshakeable place in the firmament of critical exegetics.

Swinburne's twilight years were dazzlingly prolific. Among his late works were Songs of the Springtides; Tristram of Lyonesse; Locrine; Astrophel and Other Poems; A Century of Roundels, dedicated to Christina Rossetti, Swinburne's favorite poetess after Sappho; and a number of essays and studies, such as those devoted to Hugo and Shakespeare. His physical aspect changed and he gradually grew deaf while contributing over two hundred reviews and poems to periodicals, and publishing twenty volumes of prose, poetry, and verse drama on historical and classical subjects. "He rose to an eminence as a learned man of letters and a poet on the old, grand scale, a master of his craft and the creator of a distinctive voice and presence." Installed in a suitable environment, and insulated from perturbations and vexations, Swinburne had shed the skin of his disorderly, self-destructive existence and emerged from the chrysalis as a new creature – the venerable man of letters. He had produced copious quantities of poetry and prose during his years of dangerous illness. Now that he was ensconced in feather-down confinement, his productivity was undiminished and his glory unsubdued. Watts-Dunton's decisive, humane gesture had preserved for posterity a poet who would continue to create for thirty years after the crisis.

swinburne, last photograph


In April, 1909, after traipsing in the woods without a brolley or a cloak, Swinburne contracted influenza which flared into pneumonia. After a handful of delirious days and fever-fuddled nights during which he muttered incomprehensibilities in scrambled Greek, he succumbed at the age of seventy-two. He was exactly five feet in height and his shoe-size was 8 ½. He was buried on the Isle of Wight, near the family home at Bonchurch which, after his demise, became a convent. Queen Victoria declared she had heard him held to be the "finest poet in my dominions." He had been considered to hold the post of Poet Laureate following Tennyson but was rejected because he had once made a diplomatically reprehensible statement about the Russian Tzar. (He advocated tyrannicide.)


If consensus fixes Swinburne's artistic zenith at the period of Atalanta in Calydon and the first series of Poems and Ballads, the flower of later periods found him still singing "in chaste magnificence" and, while his stature rests securely on a handful of supreme masterpieces which alone are sufficient to ensure his immortality, his position as a critic of high distinction and his eminence as a general man of letters remain unshakeable. Lauded and denigrated both during his life and since, his mythical status, like Byron's, like Wilde's, firmly endures.

In 1911, Edmund Gosse, Swinburne's amanuensis, offered a fitting memorial tribute to the master with this stirring summation:

Of his poetic technique, it may safely be said to have revolutionized the whole system of metrical expression. It found English poetry bound in the bondage of the iambic; it left it reveling in the freedom of the choriambus, the dactyl and the anapest, entirely new effects; a richness of orchestration resembling the harmony of a band of many instruments; the thunder of the waves, and the lisp of leaves in the wind; these, and a score of other astonishing poetic developments were allied in his poetry to a mastery of language and an overwhelming impulse towards beauty of form and exquisiteness of imagination. In Tristram of Lyonesse the heroic couplet underwent a complete metamorphosis. No longer wedded to antithesis and a sharp caesura, it grew into a rich melodious measure, capable of an infinite variety of notes and harmonies, palpitating, intense. The service which Swinburne rendered to the English language as a vehicle for lyrical effect is simply incalculable. He revolutionized the entire scheme of English prosody. Nor was his singular vogue due only to his extraordinary metrical ingenuity. The effect of his artistic personality was in itself intoxicating, even delirious. He was the poet of youth insurgent against all the constraints of conventionality and custom.

No one did more to free English literature from the shackles of formalism; no one, among his contemporaries, pursued the poetic calling with so sincere and resplendent an allegiance to the claims of absolute and unadulterated poetry. Some English poets have turned preachers; others have been seduced by the attractions of philosophy; but Swinburne always remained an artist absorbed in a lyrical ecstasy, a singer and not a seer. His personality was, in its due perspective, among the most potent of his time; and as an artistic influence it will be pronounced both inspiring and beneficent. The magnificent freedom and lyrical resource which he introduced into the language will enlarge its borders and extend its sway so long as English poetry survives.


Swinburne's funerary enclosure bears no inscription from his vast literary annals. If it did, such an inscription might consist of these lines from his poem Nephilidia:

"Life is the lust of a lamp for the light that is dark till the dawn of the day when we die."


Permanent links to this four-
part column
Part 1 * Part 2 * Part 3 * Part 4

Harry Clarke, Swinburne, decoration 2
Harry Clarke, Selected Poems of Swinburne, decoration

Lions of Literature: Swinburne, by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert (Part 1)

algernon charles swinburne by william bell scott, 1860
Swinburne by William Bell Scott, 1860
Even if you've never read Swinburne (guilty) – or hope to never read him – you'll enjoy this Lions of Literature column from Gilbert Alter-Gilbert, which features Harry Clarke's fantastic but little-seen illustrations (courtesy of Golden Age Comic Book Stories). Visit the Swinburne Project to sample the poet's work.

2009 marks the centenary of Swinburne's death in (April) 1909. This fact allowed us to rationalize the extra length of a normally brief column.
Use these links to read the four-part column in order:

by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert

If ever there was such a being as a "born poet," that being was Algernon Charles Swinburne.

He was the poet of natural energies and primal forces. He was a lyrical poet par excellence, whose ethereal melodies are unparalleled in his native tongue, and he was equally adept at majestic laments of fantastic despair, soaring hymns to Nature, existential anthems of uttermost metaphysical desolation, and love songs (albeit thwarted love songs) of unearthly beauty. He was, like his contemporary Baudelaire, whom he was first to appreciate outside of France, a sensory poet, an exultant master of mood, scent, and color, as well as a sorcerer of sound and cadence. He could vary his register at will, with unsurpassed dexterity, achieving effects as delicate as the muffled scream of a butterfly whose wing is snagged by a thorn, or as thunderous as a towering wave crashing on a rocky, storm-lashed shore. He was, moreover, of all the great poets, the Grand Initiate of the Mystery of All-Devouring Time.

According to one unimpeachable authority, "Swinburne was the last nineteenth century British poet to create a major body of work commanded by an idea, dominant in England since the generations of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, that the poet was the maker of a new reality and the prophet of a universal truth unknown to common apprehension."

The birth of this messianic poet did indeed occur – in Chester Street, near Grosvenor Place, London, England, April 5, 1837, when a son came to grace the estimable escutcheon of Admiral Swinburne and Lady Jane Ashburnham.


Algernon's was an idyllic childhood divided between ancestral estates at East Dene, Bonchurch, Isle of Wight, Capheaton, Northumberland, and Ashburnham Place, Sussex. Always a sickly child – he was not expected to live more than an hour after birth – he thrived, nevertheless and, though frail, became an avid climber, a stalwart swimmer (in the tradition of Byron and Poe, both outstanding aquatic athletes), and a dashing, devil-may-care equestrian. With absolute abandon, he hurtled into the breakers along the beaches of Wight like a maddened sea-creature delirious to regain its native medium. He never tired of galloping his pony hell-for-leather over the furzy Northumbrian downs. Fearless on horseback, he would dare a prancing steed to any feat, and take bolts and spills in stride. Once, without alerting anyone, he made a dangerous solo climb of Culver Cliff, scaling the sheer, seaside precipice to prove his courage to himself. This reckless streak would manifest in wholly other forms later in life.

Arrangement in Grey and Black, 1871 (popularly known as Whistler's Mother): oil portrait of his maternal parent by American expatriate artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Whistler's mother revived Swinburne and nursed him to recovery after he fainted while reciting his poetry in the Whistlers' London home. Swinburne was accident-prone, partly because of an innate excitability, partly because of a probable neuromuscular disorder and, partly, because of a devil-may-care approach to physical recreation.

An exceptionally precocious child, young Algernon was educated by his highly refined mother, by an erudite grandfather in whose far-famed library the boy loved to roam and explore and, intermittently, by private tutors. Swinburne was a polyglot at a tender age and genuinely enjoyed linguistic scholarship. He thrived on the classics, translated Greek and Latin with ease, mastered French and Italian and, as was to continue throughout his life, his facility with language expressed itself in the creation of complex neologisms, such as "polypseudonymuncle," for which improbable vocable he readily supplied a friend the impromptu definition: "a horrible little sewer rat who had been convicted under a hundred aliases." Contemporaries variously described the redoubtable juvenile as "a fascinating, most loveable little fellow," "a very spoilt child," and as something of a holy terror – a "demoniac boy who would go skipping about the room declaiming poetry at the top of his voice." While still a child, Swinburne was presented to Wordsworth and to poet, art connoisseur, and cultural arbiter Samuel Rogers who gave the literary cadet his prophetic benediction, proclaiming "you will be a poet." Swinburne was a single-minded literary prodigy from the first and every inch of him looked the part. He wore his shock of red hair in the Struwwelpeter fashion and, relates historian John Drinkwater, "the boy was simply an astounding freak. Imagine a Lilliputian body, with very sloping shoulders, a neck as slender as a lily-stalk, a giant's head, with a crest of orange-fiery hair 'like some strange bird of paradise,' eyes and lips forever twitching in a kind of spasm, a tiny body that, at the least excitement, shivered like a leaf in a tempest, and a voice that shrilled upward like a piccolo." In one youthful incident, the impetuous and high-strung Swinburne burned one of his manuscripts, following its criticism, but then re-wrote it overnight from memory. "Such," says Drinkwater, "was the strange wild being from whom there was to come a strange wild poetry, that yet was charged with the intensest beauty."


Always "nervous and slight," Algernon wasn't allowed to read a novel until he attained the age of twelve and, after he was enrolled at Eton, he exhibited a voracious appetite for literature. It was there that he conceived his lifelong passion for Sappho, Shakespeare, and Victor Hugo, and composed the first of his gory tragedies about Mary Queen of Scots. He excelled in Greek and Latin, but left the school under a cloud, officially for "reasons still undisclosed" but ostensibly for "incapacity to respond to discipline." Apparently, having acquired a taste for the caning which was a customary method of corporal chastisement at the venerable boys' academy, Algernon not only failed to respond in the anticipated fashion to its application but, having developed a pleasurable sexual fixation for it, deliberately misbehaved as a means of gratifying his pathological craving for the lash. Thus began his much-publicized masochism which, because of his inability to separate pleasure from pain or, by extension, to disassociate other dualities, not only ultimately came to permeate his most powerful poetry, but came close to destroying him physically and morally. Much later in life, a relative cryptically referred in a memoir to "the persecutions at Eton, when he learned to hate all the boys about him."

swinburne by rossetti
portrait by Rossetti


After leaving Eton, he was intent on joining the Royal Dragoons, but his father, the admiral, mindful of the lad's physical delicacy, and less-than-robust health, refused his entreaties and would not relent. Instead Algernon was enrolled at Balliol College, Oxford, where he was befriended by the master Benjamin Jowett (noted translator of Plato) who is said to have "discreetly rescued" the poet "from his excesses." Swinburne was so skilled with classical Greek that he sometimes clarified some finer point for the distinguished scholar. At Oxford, Swinburne consciously modeled himself after Shelley. He joined the literary society, Old Mortality, and kicked around with the "revolutionary set" "of advanced taste and opinions" who read texts outside the formal curriculum, disdained religion, and embraced radical republican politics. It was also at Oxford that he first met his longtime friends and comrades "Gabriel" (Dante Gabriel Rossetti), "Topsy" (William Morris), and "Ned" (Edward Burne-Jones), as they were painting the Arthurian frescoes for the Union Debating Hall. (Swinburne's own nickname was "Carrots," no doubt on account of his violently red hair.) Rossetti, Morris, and William Holman Hunt, another painter, comprised the founding triumvirate of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, an alliance of poets and painters whose shared aesthetic, by sparking a fascination for medieval subjects and decorative imagery, inflected much of Swinburne's writing during this period.

At Oxford, Swinburne's gnawing religious skepticism culminated in a violent repudiation of authoritarian institutions and ruling hierarchies, including the church and its officers and he even went so far as to spurn God as yet another tyrannical force established to oppressively govern mankind. Swinburne entertained notions of himself as an honorary Gaul – his adored paternal grandfather had been educated in France, was a friend of Mirabeau and dressed himself in the attire of an ancien regime aristocrat. Swinburne loathed Napoleon and all his heirs and became enraged at the mention of the detested name of Bonaparte. He was threatened with expulsion from Oxford in consequence of his very vocal and undisguised support of an Italian patriot who made an assassination attempt against Napoleon III. When neglect of his studies and the disfavor in which his ideological extremism was held by authorities threatened Swinburne's expulsion, college master Jowett intervened on the fledgling poet's behalf, declaring that he couldn't stand by and watch "Oxford sin twice against poetry." (The expulsion of Shelley being the first occasion.) Complaining of his late hours and "general irregularities," Swinburne's landlady, too, was ready to give him the boot. In any case, a riding accident (on horseback, Swinburne had an insatiable craving for speed) prevented him from taking his final examinations and effectively put paid to his academic career and, in 1859, "erratic in studies and intemperate in habits," he left without taking a degree. "Liberty" became the motto emblazoning Swinburne's banner. As had been from his birth and as was to obtain for the rest of his life, it was his preeminent philosophical impetus and his rallying cry.

Algernon_Charles_Swinburne_sketch, Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Sketch by Rossetti


For a year or so, Swinburne sporadically continued to study with tutors. During the Crimean War, he was a volunteer, along with Rossetti and the other PRBs, of The Artists Rifles, a rag-tag, comically unlikely company of Laurel-and-Hardy civilian soldiers forming a detachment of the Home Guard pledged to defend England in case of invasion by Russia. He traveled abroad with his family during this formative period, stayed periodically in Newcastle with his painter friend William Bell Scott, and mixed with intellectual circles, frequenting Lord Houghton's literary breakfasts and Lady Trevelyan's soirees at Wallington Hall. Then, in 1861, he set out for London to establish himself as a literary professional. "Poetry," he declared, "is quite work enough for any one man." At first, he resided in North Crescent, off Oxford Street, where rooms had been arranged for him, along with an allowance from his father. Swinburne, now in his early twenties, savored the attractions and distractions of London to the full. Pre-Raphaelitism was in its heyday, and he fell more fully under the sway of Dante Gabriel Rossetti with whom, beginning in 1862, he came to move from his lodgings in Grafton Street, Fitzroy Square into a house in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, also shared with Rossetti's sister Christina and, briefly, with the novelist George Meredith. In 1848, poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in concert with fellow painters William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, had organized the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as a secret society revolving around a rejection of the materialism of an increasingly industrialized Britain, and as a reaction against what they considered the low standards of British art then prevailing. The Pre-Raphaelites, so named because they "found a happy innocence in the works of Italian painters prior to Raphael," sought refuge, through symbolism and imagery, in a fablelike vision of the Middle Ages. They fancied themselves devotees of "nature and truth," cleaving to the simplicity of a more innocent time, acolytes of a cult of beauty built around a melancholy nostalgia for the code of chivalry and the idyllic epoch of Arthurian romance. Some scholars have linked Swinburne artistically with the Pre-Raphaelite movement and classified him as a card-carrying practitioner. But Swinburne was always his own man and, though sharing an affinity for medieval lore, and a fondness for the period which framed it, he was drawn at least as much to still more archaic models – classical Greek and Latin literature – and was as apt to daydream about Sappho on her glittering Aegean Isle and centaur-and-nymph-filled Arcadian meadows pre-dating the Age of Pericles as about Lancelot and Guinevere. Strictly speaking, the majority of poetry that can be considered Pre-Raphaelite proper is that found in the pages of The Germ, a short-lived literary journal that served as the unofficial organ of the movement during the year of 1850, when Swinburne was still a schoolboy at Eton. Consequently, it is a mistake to lump him with Pre-Raphaelitism's principal players, as he was peripheral to the movement, at best. He and Rossetti, Pre-Raphaelitism's high priest, remained intimate friends and, in a general sense of artistic trail-blazing, comrades-in-arms throughout the 1860s. However, when Swinburne and his sidekick, the transvestite painter Simeon Solomon (who later, much to the discomfort and chagrin of all who knew him, ended up in Oscar-Wilde-like disgrace when he was convicted of homosexual soliciting) ran around Rossetti's Tudor House decked out as Greek pagans in nothing but laurel wreaths and sandals, then slid down the banister naked, Rossetti threw them out. Two years prior, Rossetti's wife, Elizabeth Siddall, had died from an overdose of laudanum. During the period leading up to her death, Swinburne had been her closest companion and was required to testify at the inquest. As a formal unit, Pre-Raphaelitism would not outlive this shock to its chieftain. Haunted Rossetti grew morbidly involutional and became addicted to alcohol and chloral hydrate. Morris continued as something of a spokesman and apologist for Pre-Raphaelite principles and theories and went on to lay the groundwork for the Arts and Crafts movement in architecture and design. Burne-Jones and the other painters attained the heights of artistic acclaim.

Harry Clarke, Swinburne, decoration 3
Harry Clarke, Selected Poems of Swinburne, decoration


During the early 1860s, Swinburne suffered many shocks and losses – besides the death of Elizabeth Siddall, there were several significant deaths in his own family, and he was rejected in love – some say by his cousin Mary Gordon; others say by Jane Faulkner, daughter of Sir John Simon. In any case, this romantic rebuff was a blow from which, in one sense, he never quite completely recovered. He had already spurned the church. Now his pessimistic nihilism set in, and assumed a permanent cast. He had fallen in with a fast company – the scoundrel and all-around shady character Charles Augustus Howell, the exquisite and roué Richard Monckton Milnes (Lord Houghton, one of Tennyson's fellow Apostles), and the anti-Victorian Richard Burton, translator of the Arabian Nights and interpreter of the sexual mores of the Levant. This trio of rogues expertly led him astray and schooled him in the ways of haute dissipation. Milnes introduced him to the writings of de Sade; Burton introduced him to brandy, of which he soon began to assimilate inordinate amounts. Svengali-like Howell, who charmed both Algernon and Gabriel Rossetti (also whose affairs he managed) is described in contemporary accounts as a suave buccaneer who, in an earlier era, would have gone about in seven-league boots, with a sword and a flintlock pistol in his sash, and a plumed hat on his head. Milnes later arranged for Algernon to meet Robert Browning and Matthew Arnold. Though he admired these poets as well as Tennyson and Dickens, none of them much reciprocated. Swinburne and Burton shared a hearty contempt for Oxford University, from which Burton, like Shelley, had been expelled; Swinburne avoiding the same fate only because he quit before expulsion could be effected. Throughout his twenties and thirties, Swinburne was caught in a vicious circle of drunken binges, recuperation, then more binges. More than once, he turned up at Rossetti's doorstep in the wee hours, dead drunk. Burton had often "after their sessions, to tuck the unconscious Swinburne under one arm and carry him out to a cab." Algernon went to Paris and the Pyrenees with his family in 1862, he went again to Paris with Whistler in 1863, and with Milnes in 1864 (during this last trip venturing as far as Italy to meet Landor). His drinking increased during this period and he developed epilepsy. He was known to pass out during the throes of furor poeticus, so carried away did he sometimes get during a recitation. In the summer of 1863, after a fall at the studio of James McNeill Whistler, he was nursed back to health by the artist's mother. Swinburne's refined aestheticism influenced Whistler who, in turn, became one of the two men most associated with the Aesthetic Movement; simultaneously, the Rossettis influenced Swinburne by deepening his interest in Blake and Shelley, about whom he wrote studies in 1868 and 1869 respectively.

Harry Clarke, Swinburne, satialesanguine
Harry Clarke, Selected Poems of Swinburne, Satia te Sanguine

In 1864 he joined the Art Club in London and, in 1865, the Cannibal Club.

Around this time, Swinburne enjoyed a brief dalliance with the flamboyant American poetess and circus bareback rider Adah Isaacs Menken, a sort of Lola Montez type notorious for her multiple marriages and steamy liaisons with famous literary men. Celebrated for both her pulchritude and her charm, Menken was internationally famed for the skimpy flesh-toned leotard which clingingly costumed her curvaceous figure during her performances. Once, when she began to converse about literary matters, Swinburne politely cut her short, saying "Darling, a woman who has such beautiful legs need not discuss poetry." In a photograph with her, William Gaunt describes him as "looking meek and dwarfed by her buxom contours." Swinburne idolized Adah and wrote a poem for her but, apparently, was unable to satisfactorily consummate this conventional heterosexual passion; in his finest sadomasochistic fashion he tried to excite her by biting her – alas, to no avail.

In 1868 Swinburne was invited by the Reform League to stand for Parliament.

Like a fugitive from a page of de Sade, Algernon had a weakness for the swish of the whip and was a regular visitor to houses of flagellation, such as the quaintly named Verbena Lodge, a bondage lounge in St. John's Wood, and his health was increasingly compromised both by his worsening algolagnia and the excessive consumption of alcohol. (As with Poe, a capful would send him over the edge.) For thirteen years, from 1866 on, his patronage of gin mills, paddling pits, and other sloughs of iniquity would make his life a putrefying sink. A climbing expedition to Auvergne to scale the Puy de Dome with Richard Burton, and salubrious outings to Cornwall and Scotland with Benjamin Jowett briefly fortified Swinburne's fragile constitution. He visited Paris and Florence and met Manet, Turner, Victor Hugo and Landor, then ninety years old and living in Fiesole in a house secured for him by the Brownings. All the while he was struck by blow after cruel blow: Simeon Solomon was prosecuted, a la Oscar Wilde, for homosexual enticement, death claimed Mazzini, and Rossetti suffered "permanent emotional collapse." He would never see them again.

Algernon Charles Swinburne. Atalanta in Calydon- A Tragedy. Hammersmith, England, Kelmscott Press, 1894

In 1865, Swinburne's drama in verse Atalanta in Calydon made its sensational debut, and instantly put him on the literary map. In the wake of the publication of the first series of Poems and Ballads, which quickly followed in 1866, Swinburne became the subject of a famous denunciatory diatribe by Robert Buchanan called The Fleshly School of Poetry printed in The Contemporary Review. The Saturday Review joined the fray, proclaiming a state of siege against decency and accepted social standards.

Summarizing not the effect, but the inner character of this novel, high-impact poetry, one scholar notes that "in Atalanta in Calydon, Swinburne used his thorough classical knowledge and sympathy with classical Greek literature to turn a Greek myth and tragic form into a fundamentally lyric enactment of a reality in which love, beauty, human consciousness, and the capacity for speech itself are painful ironies in a world governed by accident and doomed by time and death. In the first series of Poems and Ballads, he continued to explore this world and, like Baudelaire, registered a moral disgust at the exhaustions and perversions of mortal flesh pushed to its limits by wishes for a wholeness and health that material existence cannot satisfy. In these poems time itself is running down, the fabric of things is unraveling, and gods as well as men are dead or dying."

Swinburne's Olympian appetite for freedom, coupled with the elegant nastiness of his anti-theist nose-thumbing, incensed strait-laced Victorians. Oppositional elements aligned on every side to revile the concupiscent sympathies and degenerate sensibilities of Swinburne's intoxicating new poetry and, throughout his stormy career, from this ominous onset forward, his work was "vigorously attacked for its 'immorality' and 'feverish carnality,'" while the shrill objections to the "diseased state of mind" whence the poetry derived never entirely died away.

As Atalanta in Calydon and Poems and Ballads had time to take hold, the public became polarized in their defense or disapprobation. Even Swinburne's champion, John Ruskin, who called Atalanta in Calydon and its coruscating choruses "the grandest thing ever done by a youth," qualified his judgment by temperately adding "though he is a demoniac youth." Swinburne's work was "savagely attacked for its sensuality and anti-Christian sentiments, but almost as excessively praised in other quarters for technical facility and infusion of new energy into Victorian poetry." The poet took the public gaze, and began to enjoy at once a vogue that may almost be likened to the vogue of Byron. He exerted a "sudden and imperative attraction" and, "by the close of his thirtieth year, in spite of hostility and detraction, Swinburne had placed himself not only in the highest rank of contemporary poets, but had even established himself as leader of a choir of singers to whom he was at once master and prophet." Oxford undergraduates regarded him as little short of a demi-god and marched through the ancient halls and ivy-clad cloisters chanting Dolores as if it were a revolutionary oath. He reveled in his popular image as an "exultant dervish of the immoral." He was a bit of a show-off and didn't shrink from grand-standing when the opportunity presented itself. He bragged that when his projected Hymn of Man appeared, it would put Shelley's Queen Mab to shame. As Swinburne's lyrical masterpieces percolated into the bloodstream of Victorian consciousness, the poet began to swing away from pagan themes and erotic dreams to songs of the Risorgimento (Songs Before Sunrise), for he had befriended the revolutionary Mazzini and embraced the cause of Italian reunification. Even as he cranked out book after book, shifting in theme and approach (and including, besides important poetry, groundbreaking studies of William Blake, Percy Shelley, and Charlotte Bronte), he embarked on a decade and more of intermittent dissipation. Public perceptions of the poet, whether warped or accurate, couldn't be disentangled from the work and became conflated in the general mind. The fact that Swinburne enjoyed riling smug Victorian society and flaunted his taboo-exploding poetical provocations in its sanctimonious face caused the more conservative of his countrymen to conclude that this poet enamored of lesbians and dominatrices, necrophiliacs and lepers must be a deviate guilty of who-knows-what perverse pleasures and unspeakable indiscretions in his private life. Pungent and pugnacious critics prodded him with their pikestaffs as if he were an execrable monster, a depraved and degenerate dragon to be slain in the interests of the public moral good. Critical attacks were fierce and Swinburne girded himself for battle against a rising tide of animadversion, a literary pugilist publishing pamphlets such as Under the Microscope defending his position as a free-thinking artist.

Harry Clarke, Swinburne, Faustine
Harry Clarke, Selected Poems of Swinburne, Faustine

Public perceptions and critical estimations of Swinburne's persona and poetry have been vociferous and mixed. He has been called virginal, homosexual, bisexual, polysexual perverse, an atheist, a sublimated theist, a radical, a reactionary, a nihilist. Edmund Gosse called him "not quite a human being"; Maupassant called him "supernatural"; Turgenev said "positively anything could be expected from him – he was far from a normal person." Oxford don and all-around cultural cicerone John Ruskin leapt to his feet blurting encomia on first hearing Swinburne's verse. Ejaculating "What divine music!" and "Glorious!," the High Victorian poohbah gushed that Swinburne's lines were marked by a "frenzied rush of rhythm that sweeps the soul before it"; and of the author who created them, "he simply sweeps me away before him as a torrent does a pebble": according to Drinkwater, "these sayings perfectly express the double gift of Swinburne – the strange new tunes of his rhythms and the torrent-sweep of his verse." Alfred, Lord Tennyson called him "a reed through which all things blow into music." Oscar Wilde remarked, "He is so eloquent that whatever he touches becomes unreal." John Drinkwater maintained that experiencing a Swinburne poem is, "as it were, to hang a splendid picture in the gallery of the mind or to fill the soul with the remembrance of a glorious symphony," and that Swinburne's poetry carries us away to "a land enchanted, a land of strange, unearthly blossoms," a "wonder-world" which is the dwelling place of "phantasmal women who are the daughters of sweet dreams." By and large, however, Swinburne's Victorian elders strongly disapproved. A dismissive Browning summarized Swinburne's verse as "a fuzz of words." Crotchety Carlyle referred to it as "the miaulings of a delirious cat." A carping Matthew Arnold, in a less than generous mood, referred to the upstart as a "sort of pseudo-Shelley." Swinburne was caricatured in Punch by novelist / cartoonist George du Maurier as poet Jellaby Postlethwaite while the role of Bunthorne in the Gilbert and Sullivan opera Patience, ultimately based on Oscar Wilde, was originally conceived as a satire of Swinburne. In Mortimer Collins's novel Two Plunges for a Pearl, Swinburne was burlesqued as the character Reginald Swynfen, "a little man built like a grasshopper." The press called him "Mr. Swineborn" and plastered him with pejoratives.

Swinburne courted this notoriety and took a devilish delight in being the cynosure of scandal. Because of what were perceived by the public as his heretical, anti-theist views and gross licentiousness, he was branded an apostate (shades of Percy Shelley) and dubbed the "libidinous laureate of a pack of satyrs." He thrived on the attention and on his ability to cause the British tea kettle to "seethe and rage," as he coyly put it.

john buckland wright, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Pasiphae

"There were of course antecedents for Swinburne's idea of himself as a poet in society. Among the models – he called them 'masters' – of his early poetry were William Blake, Shelley, Victor Hugo, and Walt Whitman, poets who wrote in large literary forms and who wanted to effect philosophical, social, and political change by their words. Until the end of his life he wrote in the familiarly grand forms of Elizabethan as well as classical drama, long narratives, elegies, ceremonial odes, and a kind of long meditative lyric, in the tradition of Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey and Shelley's Mont Blanc, of which On the Cliffs is an exceptionally complex example. At the climax of his powers, he made the new mythologies of Hertha and Hymn of Man, in which he articulated the doctrine that the redemption of an exhausted time would come not from an incursion of the divine but from a fulfillment of the capacities of the human. He wanted to perform the entire office of the romantic poet as prophet. Swinburne's contemporaries often thought him not only extreme, but excessive." [Ed.: we lost the source for this quote.]

Certainly Swinburne gave his fellow Victorians ample grounds for regarding him as an ogre. It is difficult to determine which of his transgressions offered greater offense: the lush sensuality, diseased with debauchery and dripping with decadence; the blasphemous paganism, which "attacked Christianity for its doctrine of death"; the advocacy of Shelley's idea of a religion-free society, borrowed from the French Revolution and its Goddess of Reason; or the depiction of a stern, implacable Nature which marched in concert with the gods Time and Inevitability towards the extinction of all things in a cycle of eternal recurrence. Is it any wonder that when Poems and Ballads appeared in 1866, it sent shock waves through Victorian England? "It was received with a scream of hysterics on the grounds of immorality" and, so startling was its effect, that the publisher canceled the book and it dropped from circulation before being re-issued by another. "God is the supreme sadist in Poems and Ballads," observes John D. Rosenberg. Swinburne, according to Rosenberg, rebelled against and committed "defiance and desecration" of a God who "grinds men in order to feed the mute, melancholy lust of heaven." Swinburne was not only the "poet as impudent sensualist insulting prevailing Victorian mores," he was the poet of Time, poet as prophet of a New Order; poet as harbinger of a philosophical message; poet as metaphysical initiate of life's deepest mysteries.

Swinburne was possessed by an indefinable quality poetically known as the divine afflatus or, as Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca called it, the duende – a spirit force that charged his every utterance with maniacal fervor. Max Beerbohm referred to the experience of listening to Swinburne speak as like listening (to borrow the refrain from one of Swinburne's own poems) to the "song of a secret bird." Beerbohm states that ever after Swinburne's days at Oxford, generations of students continued to ape his speech patterns and mannerisms. When Swinburne recited his poetry, so feverish was his delivery and so ardent his excitement that he would bounce to his feet from his seat on a sofa, and back again to a seated position, all the while gesticulating wildly like one possessed. He was chronically fidgety and twitchy, and couldn't keep his hands still. The slight frame of his small body shook convulsively and jerkily as a puppet's when he was animated by some passion. At different times, Swinburne was said to suffer from a nervous tic, fainting spells, trembling "fits," and uncontrolled speech which Beerbohm informs us an attending medical specialist attributed to "an excess of electric vitality." It has been theorized that Swinburne's condition consisted of anything from Tourette's Syndrome to epilepsy.

His masochism apparently found extended expression in hero-worship; he seems to have substituted a sense of abasement before human idols for the traditional equation of supplicant to deity. When he was introduced to the Italian nationalist Mazzini, he kneeled in prostration. He toted a footstool to a banquet in order to pay proper homage to Robert Browning. He was forever writing adulatory tributes to this one and that. He had a great capacity for fanaticism and adoration. He tried to seduce Adah Isaacs Menken by applying childlike love-bites. Unexcited by his clumsiness, she did not respond. Swinburne routinely indulged in a raft of additional gestures of self-humiliation that went well beyond the superior grooming, impeccable manners, and even the most rudimentary and conventional courtesies presupposed of a lordly English gentleman.

He had a perpetually juvenile, even infantile quality. Puckish, implike, he was Peter Pan personified, and had a dependent nature which, when not nourished, led him to quickly disintegrate.

Swinburne carried in the very fiber of his being the anti-industrial creed of the Pre-Raphaelites. Even though he lived well into the early years of the automobile, he studiously avoided machinery. He hated typewriters, read by candlelight and refused to adapt to gas jets let alone electric fixtures, and couldn't work the squirter of a seltzer bottle.


Permanent links to this four-part column
Part 1 * Part 2 * Part 3 * Part 4