Algernon Charles Swinburne

Born: 5 April 1837
Died: 10 April 1909
Algernon Charles Swinburne was an English poet, playwright, novelist and critic. Born in London on the 5th of April 1837.
English poet and critic, was born in London on the 5th of April 1837. He was the son of Admiral Charles Henry Swinburne (of an old Northumbrian family) and of Lady Jane Henrietta, a daughter of George, 3rd earl of Ashburnham. It may almost be said to have been by accident that Swinburne owned London for his birthplace, since he was removed from it immediately, and always felt a cordial dislike for the surroundings and influences of life in the heart of a great city. His own childhood was spent in a very different environment. His grandfather, Sir John Edward Swinburne, owned an estate in Northumberland, and his father, the admiral, bought a beautiful spot between Ventnor and Niton in the Isle of Wight, called East Dene, together with a strip of undercliff known as the Landslip. The two homes were in a sense amalgamated. Sir Edward used to spend half the year in the Isle of Wight, and the admiral’s family shared his northern home for the other half; so that the poet’s earliest recollections took the form of strangely contrasted emotions, inspired on the one hand by the bleak north, and on the other by the luxuriant and tepid south. Of the two, the influences of the island are, perhaps naturally, the stronger in his poetry; and many of his most beautiful pieces were actually written at the Orchard, an exquisite spot by Niton Bay, which belonged to relatives of the poet, and at which he was a constant visitor. After some years of private tuition, Swinburne was sent to Eton, where he remained for five years, proceeding to Balliol College, Oxford, in 1857. “He was three years at the University, but left without taking a degree. Clearly he must have cultivated while there his passionate and altogether unacademic love for the literature of Greece; but his undergraduate career was unattended by university successes, beyond the Taylorian prize for French and Italian, which he gained in 1858. He contributed to the ” Undergraduate Papers,” published during his first year, under the editorship of John Nichol, and he wrote a good deal of poetry from time to time, but his name was probably regarded without much favour by the college authorities. He took a second class in classical moderations in 1858, but his name does not occur in any of the ” Final ” honour schools. He left Oxford in i860, and in the same year published those remarkable dramas, The Queen Mother and Rosamond, which, despite a certain rigidity of style, must be considered a wonderful performance for so young a poet, being fuller of dramatic energy than most of his later plays, and rich in really magnificent blank verse. The volume was scarcely noticed at the time, but it attracted the attention of one or two literary judges, and was by them regarded as a first appearance of uncommon promise. It is a mistake to say, as most biographers do, that Swinburne, after leaving Oxford, spent some time in Italy with Walter Savage Landor. The facts are quite otherwise: The Swinburne family went for a few weeks to Italy, where the poet’s mother, Lady Jane, had been educated, and among other places they visited Fiesole, where Landor was then living in the house that had been arranged for him by the kindness of the Brownings. Swinburne was a great admirer of Landor, and, knowing that he was likely to be in the same town with him, had provided himself with an introduction from his friend, Richard Monckton Milnes. Landor and Swinburne met and conversed, with great interest and mutual esteem; but the meetings were not for more than an hour at a time, nor did they exceed four or five in number. Swinburne never lived in Italy for any length of time. In 1865 appeared the lyrical tragedy of Atalanta in Calydon, followed in the next year by the famous Poems and Ballads, and with them the poet took the public gaze, and began to enjoy at once a vogue that may almost be likened to the vogue of Byron. His sudden and imperative attraction did not, it is true, extend, like Byron’s, to the unliterary; but among lovers of poetry it was sweeping, permeating and sincere. The Poems and Ballads were vehemently attacked, but Dolores and Faustine were on everyone’s lips: as a poet of the time has said, “We all went about chanting to one another these new, astonishing melodies.” Chastelard, which appeared between Atalanla and Poems and Ballads, enjoyed perhaps less unstinted attention; but it is not too much to say that by the close of his thirtieth year, in spite of hostility and detraction, Swinburne had not only placed himself 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. Meanwhile, his private life was disturbed by troublous influences. A favourite sister died at East Dene, and was buried in the little shady churchyard of Bonchurch. Her loss overwhelmed the poet’s father with grief, and he could no longer tolerate the house that was so full of tender memories. So the family moved to Holmwood, in the Thames Valley, near Reading, and the poet, being now within sound of the London literary world, grew anxious to mix in the company of the small body of men who shared his sympathies and tastes. Rooms were found for him in North Crescent, off Oxford Street, and he was drawn into the vortex of London life. The Pre-Raphaelite movement was in full swing, and for the next few years he was involved in a rush of fresh emotions and rapidly changing loyalties. It is indeed necessary to any appreciation of Swinburne’s genius that one should understand that his inspiration was almost invariably derivative. His first book is deliberately Shakespearian in design and expression; the Atalanta, of course, is equally deliberate in its pursuit of the Hellenic spirit. Then, with a wider swing of the pendulum, he recedes, in Poems and Ballads, to the example of Baudelaire and of the Pre-Raphaelites themselves; with the Song of Italy (1867) he is drawing towards the revolt of Mazzini; by the time Songs before Sunrise are completed (in 1871) he is altogether under the influence of Victor Hugo, while Rome has become to him ” first name of the world’s names.” But, if Swinburne’s inspiration was divine, his manner was in no sense imitative ; he brought to poetry a spirit entirely his own, and a method even more individual than his spirit. In summing up his work we shall seek to indicate wherein his originality and his service to poetry has lain; meanwhile, it is well to distinguish clearly between the influences which touched him and the original, personal fashion in which he assumed those influences, and made them his own. The spirit of Swinburne’s muse was always a spirit of revolution. In Poems and Ballads the revolt is against moral conventions and restraints; in Songs before Sunrise the arena of the contest is no longer the sensual sphere, but the political and the ecclesiastical. The detestation of kings and priests, which marked so much of the work of his maturity, is now in full swing, and Swinburne’s language is sometimes tinged with extravagance and an almost virulent animosity. With Both-well (1874) he returned to drama and the story of Mary Stuart. The play has fine scenes and is burning with poetry, but its length not only precludes patient enjoyment, but transcends all possibilities of harmonious unity. Erechtheus (1876) was a return to the Greek inspiration of Atalanta; and then in the second series of Poems and Ballads (1878) the French influence is seen to be at work, and Victor Hugo begins to hold alone the place possessed, at different times, by Baudelaire and Mazzini. At this time Swinburne’s energy was at fever height; in 1879 he published his eloquent Study of Shakespeare, and in 1880 no fewer than three volumes, The Modern Heptalogia, a brilliant anonymous essay in parody, Songs of the Springtides, and Studies in Song. It was shortly after this date that Swinburne’s friendship for Theodore Watts-Dunton (then Theodore Watts) grew into one of almost more than brotherly intimacy. After 1880 Swinburne’s life remained without disturbing event, devoted entirely to the pursuit of literature in peace and leisure. The conclusion of the Elizabethan trilogy, Mary Stuart, was published in 188 1, and in the following year Tristram of Lyonesse, a wonderfully individual contribution to the modern treatment of the Arthurian legend, in which the heroic couplet is made to assume opulent, romantic cadences of which it had hitherto seemed incapable. Among the publications of the next few years must be mentioned A Century of Roundels, 1883; A Midsummer Holiday, 1884; and Miscellanies, 1886. The current of his poetry, indeed, continued unchecked; and though it would be vain to pretend that he added greatly either to the range of his subjects or to the fecundity of his versification, it is at least true that his melody was unbroken, and his magnificent torrent of words inexhaustible. His Marino Falicro (1885) and Locrine (1887) have passages of power and intensity unsurpassed in any of his earlier work, and the rich metrical effects of Astrophel (1894) and The Tale of Balin (1896) are inferior in music and range to none but his own masterpieces. In 1899 appeared his Rosamund, Queen of the Lombards; in 1908 his Duke of Gardia; and in 1904 was begun the publication of a collected edition of his Poems and Dramas in eleven volumes. Besides this wealth of poetry, Swinburne was active as a critic, and several volumes of fine impassioned prose testify to the variety and fluctuation of his literary allegiances. His Note on Charlotte Bronte (1877) must be read by every student of its subject; the Study of Shakespeare (1880)—followed in 1909 by The Age of Shakespeare—is full of vigorous and arresting thought, and many of his scattered essays are rich in suggestion and appreciation. His studies of Elizabethan literature are, indeed, full of “the noble tribute of praise,” and no contemporary critic did so much to revive an interest in that wonderful period of dramatic recrudescence, the side-issues of which have been generally somewhat obscured by the pervading and dominating genius of Shakespeare. Where his enthusiasm was heart-whole, Swinburne’s appreciation was stimulating and infectious, but the very qualities which give his poetry its unique charm and character were antipathetic to his success as a critic. He had very little capacity for cool and reasoned judgment, and his criticism is often a tangled thicket of prejudices and predilections. 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 no one of his studies is satisfactory as a whole; the faculty for sustained exercise of the judgment was denied him, and even his best appreciations are disfigured by error in taste and proportion. On the other hand, when he is 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 while both alike present points of great interest to the analyst, revealing as they do a rich, varied and fearless individuality, the criticism which his hatreds evoke is seldom a safe guide. His prose work also includes an early novel of some interest, Love’s Cross-currents, disinterred from a defunct weekly, the Taller, and revised for publication in 1905. Whatever may be said in criticism of Swinburne’s prose, there is at least no question of the quality of his poetry, or of its important position in the evolution of English literary form. To treat first of its 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 revelling in the freedom of the choriambus, the dactyl and the anapaest. 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 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 this 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 restraints of conventionality and custom. The young lover of poetry, when first he encounters Swinburne’s influence, is almost bound to be swept away by it; the wild, extravagant licence, the apparent sincerity, the vigour and the verve, cry directly to the aspirations of youth like a clarion in the wilderness. But, while this is inevitable, it is also true that the critical lover of poetry outgrows an unquestioning allegiance to the Swinburnian mood more quickly than any other of the diverse emotions aroused by the study of the great poets. It is not that what has been called his “pan-anthropism”—his universal worship of the holy spirit of man—is in itself an unsound philosophy; there have been many creeds founded on such a basis which have impregnably withstood the attacks of criticism. But the unsoundness of Swinburne’s philosophy lies in the fact that it celebrates the spirit of man engaged in a defiant rebellion that leads nowhere; and that as a “criticism of life” it has neither finality nor a sufficiently high seriousness of purpose. Walt Whitman preaches very much the same gospel of the “body electric” and the glory of human nature; but Whitman’s attitude is far saner, far more satisfying than Swinburne’s, for it is concerned with the human spirit realizing itself in accordance with the unchangeable laws of nature; while Swinburne’s enthusiasm is, more often than not, directed to a spiritual revolution which sets the laws of nature at defiance. It is impossible to acquit his poetry entirely of the charge of an animalism which wars against the higher issues of the spirit—an animalism sometimes of love, sometimes of hatred, but, in both extremes, out of centre and harmony. Yet, when everything has been said that can be said against the unaesthetic violences of the poet’s excesses, his service to contemporary poetry outweighed all disadvantages. 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. When the history of Victorian poetry comes to be written, it will be found that 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 topics that he touched were often ephemeral; the causes that he celebrated will, many of them, wither and desiccate; but 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. On the 10th of April 1909, after a short attack of influenza followed by pneumonia, the great poet died at the house on Putney Hill, “The Pines,” where with Mr Watts-Dunton he had lived for many years. He was buried at Bonchurch, Isle of Wight.

All books by Algernon Charles Swinburne