21st-Century Oxford Authors: Algernon Charles Swinburne 
edited by Francis O’Gorman.
Oxford, 722 pp., £95, December 2016, 978 0 19 967224 0
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Swinburne​ was proud of sticking to his guns. In the dedication to his collected Poems (six volumes, 1904), he declared himself a writer who ‘has nothing to regret and nothing to recant’, who ‘finds nothing that he could wish to cancel, to alter, or to unsay, in any page he has ever laid before his reader’. Since these pages included the 1866 Poems and Ballads, whose necrophiliac, sadomasochistic and anti-Christian sentiments provoked such outrage in the press that his publisher was frightened into withdrawing the book, this was a defiant statement. But Swinburne liked defiance. He had ignored the pleas of his friends to moderate the poems before they were published, and he took pleasure in accusing his reviewers of finding the poems disgusting because of their own filthy minds. ‘Literature … must be large, liberal, sincere, and cannot be chaste if it is prudish,’ he bristled in Notes on Poems and Reviews (1866). ‘Where free speech and fair play are interdicted, foul hints and evil suggestions are hatched into fetid life.’ It took bravado to claim that ‘Dolores’, which celebrates the erotic charge of ‘the implacable beautiful tyrant’ Nero gazing at his human torches, was written in the service of liberality or chastity. It took gall to claim, in the same breath, that in the interests of free speech his critics should stop trying to sniff out moral wrongdoing. But when Edward Moxon pulled the book, Swinburne stood firm. ‘To alter my course or mutilate my published work seems to me somewhat like deserting one’s colours,’ he told Lord Lytton. ‘One may or may not repent having enlisted, but to lay down one’s arms, except under compulsion, remains intolerable.’

Politically, Swinburne saw himself as an apostle of liberalism, supporting ‘self-reliance, self-dependence, self-respect’ in the nation and the individual. His anti-theism, his justification of free speech and his belief in ‘art for art’s sake’ were interlocking defences of the right to self-rule. But it often seems to be the defending that interests him as much as the freedom. As a teenager he wrote an ‘Ode to Mazzini’ (1857), which praises the exiled rebel for thirty years of opposition to tyranny, its enforcers and PR tactics:

        Such honour ever follows thee
In peril, banishment and blame.
And all the loud blind world calls shame,
Lives, and shall live, thy glorious name
Tho’ death, that scorns the robèd slave,
Embrace thee, and a chainless grave.
        Whilst thou lives, there is one
        Free in soul beneath the sun.

Mazzini might die ‘chainless’, but the young poet’s sense of honour felt shackled. ‘Too long the world has waited,’ the second stanza begins, ‘Against his chain the growing thunder yearns/With hot swift pulses all the silence burns.’ In the last poem in Francis O’Gorman’s Oxford edition, ‘The Transvaal’ (1899), republican freedom is still under attack and Swinburne is still fuming: ‘Patience, long sick to death, is dead,’ it begins. ‘Too long/Have sloth and doubt and treason bidden us be/What Cromwell’s England was not … a commonweal that brooked no wrong.’ This time, the Boers were running ‘agape with jaws afoam’, savaging where ‘none may fight or flee’; ‘Strike, England, and strike home,’ the poem demands. The appeal to Cromwell can’t disguise the fact that the ardent republican Swinburne is now supporting the British Empire, in a sonnet published in the Times and modelled on Kipling’s. But the enemy are still attack dogs whose ‘foul tongues’ ‘defy the truth’, while the righteous must still endure intolerable delay.

Between the ‘Ode to Mazzini’ and ‘The Transvaal’, that theme of holding out against overwhelming opposition remains a constant amid a dazzling variety of genres and prosodies. There are ballads, whose singers robustly lament their fate while on the gallows (‘A Reiver’s Neck-Verse’) or compose extended variations on it from the grave (‘The Tyneside Widow’). There are thousands of lines of verse tragedy on families living out a curse: Atalanta in Calydon, three plays on the grim fate of Mary Stuart and her lover, and three versions of the doomed affair of Tristram (‘Queen Yseult’, ‘Tristram and Iseult’, ‘The Sailing of the Swallow’). There are many lyric poems set on cliffs, beaches or marshes which must endure the relentless assault of the waves, as in ‘By the North Sea’:

The waves are as ranks enrolled
Too close for the storm to sever:
The fens lie naked and cold,
But their heart fails utterly never:
The lists are set from of old,
And the warfare endureth for ever.

There are numerous elegies, which dwell at length on what the mourners must now live without, like the farewell to Baudelaire, ‘Ave Atque Vale’:

And now no sacred staff shall break in blossom,
No choral salutation lure to light
A spirit sick with perfume and sweet night
And love’s tired eyes and hands and barren bosom.
There is no help for these things; none to mend,
And none to mar; not all our songs, O friend,
Will make death clear or make life durable.

This is the 16th stanza in this vein; the litany of ‘no’ and ‘not’ (I count 34) spares the reader no detail of the loss. And there are poems that combine curses, doomed love, the sea and the elegy, such as ‘The Death of Richard Wagner’, whose penultimate stanza describes the effect of hearing his music:

As a vision of heaven from the hollows of
        ocean, that none but a god might see,
Rose out of the silence of things unknown of
                a presence, a form, a might,
And we heard as a prophet that hears God’s
            message against him, and may not flee.

Swinburne’s grandest theme of all, the indomitable spirit of man unable to escape the remorseless pursuit of time, is a variant on the same line. No dialogue or persuasion is possible, nor escape, nor indifference: you simply have to stand there and face it.

But despite reverberating with the sounds of God’s rejection, the Wagner poem closes on a surprisingly cheerful note:

Eye might not endure it, but ear and heart with a rapture of dark delight,
With a terror and wonder whose core was joy, and a passion of thought set free.
Felt inly the rising of doom divine as a sundawn risen to sight
From the depths of the sea.

Not just in the alliteration of ‘doom divine’ or ‘dark delight’ but in the way ‘endure’ morphs into ‘rapture’, ‘ear’ into ‘terror’ and ‘wonder’, this poem welds the unbearable to the unbeatable. And although the Baudelaire elegy is about endless loss, on another level it keeps his tired, sick and hopeless loves alive by the very length of the lament; it’s significant that ‘ave’ as well as ‘vale’ appears in the title. Byron’s ‘noblest verse leapt on a sudden into life after the heaviest evils had fallen upon him’, Swinburne wrote in the same year as Poems and Ballads, when ‘every obscure and obscene thing that lurks for pay or prey among the fouler shallows and thickets of literature flew against him … with their foulest venom and their keenest fangs’:

Between ‘Childe Harold’ and ‘Don Juan’ the same difference exists which a swimmer feels between lake-water and sea-water; the one is fluent, yielding, invariable; the other has in it a life and a pulse, a sting and a swell, which touch and excite the nerves like fire or like music … life undulates and death palpitates in the splendid verse which resumes the evidence of a brave and clear-sighted man concerning life and death.

If poetry feels really alive when it stings, swells and palpitates, then no wonder Swinburne baited his critics by refusing to change a word of Poems and Ballads, whose tortured couples welcome snakebites. ‘Ah, ah, thy beauty!’ the jealous Sappho moans in ‘Anactoria’, ‘like a beast it bites,/Stings like an adder, like an arrow smites.’ Venus’ knightly lover in ‘Laus Veneris’, trapped in the certainty of his own damnation, thinks of her other conquests:

Who, sleeping with her lips upon their eyes,
Heard sudden serpents hiss across her hair.

Their blood runs round the roots of time like rain:
She casts them forth and gathers them again;
With nerve and bone she weaves and multiplies
Exceeding pleasure out of extreme pain.

‘Dolores’, a prayer to ‘Our Lady of Pain,’ pleads:

O lips full of lust and of laughter,
Curled snakes that are fed from my breast,
Bite hard, lest remembrance come after
And press with new lips where you pressed.

Verse was meant to hurt. The ballads collected in O’Gorman’s edition were originally composed for Lesbia Brandon, Swinburne’s unfinished novel about the endlessly disappointed loves of unconventional aristocrats. When the young Lady Wariston reads some of them aloud to her brother, they turn to each other, eyes shining, for ‘the verses had bitten and stung them sharply,’ and ‘their blood beat with the senseless and splendid rapture of martyrs conscious of a losing cause.’ When she reads more of them to her children, their eyes fill with tears, and she muses aloud:

Verse hurts horribly: people have died of verse-making, and thought their mistresses killed them – or their reviewers. You have the nerve of poetry – the soft places it hits on, and stings … it’s odd that words should change so just by being put in rhyme. They get teeth and bite; they take fire and burn. I wonder who first thought of tying words up and twisting them back to make verses and hurt and delight all the people in the world.

Poetry seems to torment its maker, its listeners and even itself: part of the pleasure in this fantasy, as Freud’s ‘A Child Is Being Beaten’ surmised, comes from the mobile identifications it allows with punishers, bystanders and the punished.

But in any masochistic set-up, it is not the tying up which matters so much as the timing. Lady Wariston is inflicting these poems on the children because she is waiting for darkness to fall and – as far as we can tell from the unfinished chapter – for confirmation of the sickening news of her lover’s suicide. Reading the ballads is a way to mark time by theatricalising her own anticipated pain, to draw it out and make it bearable. Yearning for ‘the loves that complete and control’, the devotee of ‘Our Lady of Pain’ implores Dolores to bite so hard that she blocks out other, worse pains, ‘in yesterday’s reach and to-morrow’s … that smite not and bite not in play’. Despite their appearance of humiliation, the punishments undergone are carefully scripted by the fantasist, for then ‘the ego has made himself master of the world’s events’ and ‘master of the time at which they have to occur’, as Theodor Reik wrote in Masochism in Modern Man (1941). ‘Dolores’ keeps time by drawing itself out to 440 lines of intricately rhyming verse that involve a series of increasingly spectacular cues into the title’s rhyme word: from the mild-mannered ‘glories’ or ‘stories’, it steps up to the flashier ‘the love we adore is’, ‘sweet as the rind was the core is’, and, inevitably, ‘where thy foot on the floor is’. As you begin to anticipate the pattern, any wincing at the blood-flecked bodies is replaced by an increasing admiration for the professional poet at work. And then it becomes tiresome, and this too is part of the script: ‘barren’ and ‘sterile’ are terms of endearment in Poems and Ballads, moves to keep feelings of boredom and resentment within the game and delay the end still further. In Coldness and Cruelty, Gilles Deleuze noted how ‘the settings in Masoch, with their heavy tapestries, their cluttered intimacy, their boudoirs and closets, create a chiaroscuro where the only things that emerge are suspended gestures and suspended suffering.’ Part of the knight’s torment underground in ‘Laus Veneris’ is to ‘think now, as the heavy hours decease/One after one, and bitter thoughts increase/One upon one, of all sweet finished things’. After fantasising about torturing Anactoria to death, Sappho turns her thoughts to the greater torturer, God, who created a changing world:

        like me the waste white noon,
Burnt through with barren sunlight; and like me
The land-stream and the tide-stream in the sea.
I am sick with time as these with ebb and flow

The Earth itself is ‘sore spent with hungry lusts of birth and death’, while spring’s root is ‘fibrous and gnarled with poison; underneath/Serpents have gnawn it through with tortuous teeth.’ If spring itself is another snakebite opportunity, then cold winter need never end and the world itself can become the cruel mother/mistress’s boudoir. The fantasy is not fundamentally about seeking pain for its own sake, but investigates how feared suffering may be dramatised, internalised, and converted to something more predictable.

Thinking​ of Swinburne’s interests as lying as much in controlled endurance as in liberty or sex helps make sense of two enduring puzzles in his career. The first is how the hater of tyranny in public life could enjoy it so much in the poems. ‘Peculiar lover of pain in some respects, Swinburne found intolerable the thought of principled men chained up in jail,’ O’Gorman notes. But he was prepared to tolerate jails and chains if they maintained principles. Sensitive to the sneer that he had become a conservative in old age, Swinburne insisted that his politics had never changed:

Every passing word that I have since thought fit to utter on any national or political question has been as wholly consistent with the principles which I then did my best to proclaim and defend … the faith of all republicans in the fundamental and final principle of union, voluntary if possible and compulsory if not … Monarchists and anarchists may be advocates of national dissolution and reactionary division: republicans cannot be. The first and last article of their creed is unity: the most grinding and crushing tyranny of a convention, a directory or a despot, is less incompatible with republican faith than the fissiparous democracy of disunionists or communalists.

If it is not liberty but unity that must ultimately be preserved – against second thoughts, against moralising art critics, against an interfering God – then the masochistic attitude may be a help. Asking for bondage unifies the self or the state, and gives it consistency.

The other puzzle is what to make of the rest of Swinburne’s poetry after Poems and Ballads. Like many later musicians with a stunning debut album and a reputation for outrageous behaviour, Swinburne struggled with the difficulty that the next release – even if it were more of the same – would always feel less exciting. The consensus is that he turned to drink and anger: ‘Poems of sexual perversion, calculated to astonish, gave way, on the whole, to poems of fiery, indignant republicanism and anti-clerical polemic,’ Alex Wong remarks in his 2015 edition of Swinburne’s Selected Verse. There were far more types of poem than this, but it is true that the hothouse atmosphere of luxuriant sexual oppression was replaced by more open-air poems of sea and storms, meditations on life’s brevity, static, unplayable verse dramas and – later still – poems about how cute babies are. In his early forties, Swinburne was rescued from alcoholism by Theodore Watts-Dunton, who became his carer at 2, The Pines, Putney, and many felt that this suburban rest home was all too symbolic of what had happened to his writing.

If flamboyantly cruel sex is taken to be the heart of the work, then Swinburne certainly became duller. Compilations of his work have reinforced this perception by reprinting most of the scandalous Poems and Ballads and then adding a sprinkling of pieces from the rest of his career. Believing that attention to the controversial poems alone stops readers seeing that Swinburne is ‘one of the greatest writers of lyric in the history of the language’, Wong includes a hundred pages of mid-career publication, but still devotes almost half of his selection to the controversial poems of the first Poems and Ballads. O’Gorman’s edition, on the other hand, leaves out two-thirds of Poems and Ballads to allow an evenly paced selection from each subsequent volume, along with a good portion of the dramas and carefully chosen critical prose, though he can’t bring himself to print the baby poems. This arrangement reflects the academic attention given to Swinburne’s writing these days, but its implication is pointed: violent sex was only one phase of a much longer search for states where life’s abundant cruelty could be invoked and suspended.

Swinburne had perhaps hinted at this in the metaphor of the ‘hothouse’. It was his own invention, in a brilliant description of the aura of Les Fleurs du mal: ‘the languid, lurid beauty of close and threatening weather – a heavy, heated temperature, with dangerous hothouse scents’. The hints of intense, threatening sexual profusion set a tone for decadent verse in the succeeding decades, but Swinburne meant to pay equal tribute to Baudelaire’s astonishing powers of formal engineering. Victorian hothouses were places of scientific management, climate-control systems designed to counteract the natural turning of the seasons in the temperate zones. ‘Glasshouse culture epitomised the desire to rule natural process using artificial means,’ according to the architectural historian Dustin Valen. The more venomous or erotic or languid the plants looked, the more the hothouse’s tiered shelving showed off Britain’s colonial power to import and propagate such strange blooms at will. By Swinburne’s time, its architecture of wrought iron and glass was visible in the Crystal Palace and the shopping arcade. If the hothouse meant not just the pricklingly humid atmosphere but the carefully regulated mechanisms which kept it that way, then Swinburne’s verse – and especially his prosody – engineered these static zones for the rest of his life.

‘A Forsaken Garden’ (1876) describes a seaside rose garden overrun with thorns:

The dense hard passage is blind and stifled
That crawls by a track none turn to climb
To the strait waste place that the years have rifled
Of all but the thorns that are touched not of time.
The thorns he spares when the rose is taken,
The rocks are left when he wastes the plain.
The wind that wanders, the weeds wind-shaken,
These remain.

The underlying anapaestic rhythms and alliterations give this Swinburne’s typical feeling of unstoppable propulsion, the sound that thrilled his readers from the first chorus of Atalanta in Calydon: ‘when the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces,/The mother of months in meadow or plain’. But Swinburne’s frequent additional stresses here (‘dense hard passage’, ‘strait waste place’, ‘weeds wind-shaken’) do more than push. They can be taken as impulses to go faster and harder, interrupting the regular on-off pulse with more ‘on’. But they can also be felt as impediments, requiring momentary pauses to be inserted around them to keep the beat regular. The effect is both a hurrying along and a slowing down. There is great energy, and it is going nowhere. What absorbs Swinburne’s attention is not the sense of sadness or peace in this abandoned spot, but its uselessness. The concluding twist is that change itself, which brings everything to ruin, has ceased and lies ‘as a god self-slain on his own strange altar’. In comparison to Poems and Ballads, the blasphemy is now a passing flicker, but the link between impasse and victorious self-punishment remains.

A brisker kind of suspension comes in Swinburne’s experiments with very long lines, like the octometer of ‘March: An Ode’, from the third series of Poems and Ballads (1889). The speaker is perked up by the late return of a snowy nor’easter:

And now that the rage of thy rapture is
    satiate with revel and ravin and spoil of
    the snow,
And the branches it brightened are broken,
    and shattered the tree-tops that only
    thy wrath could lay low
How should not thy lovers rejoice in thee,
    leader and lord of the year that exults
    to be born
So strong in thy strength and so glad of thy
    gladness whose laughter puts winter
    and sorrow to scorn?

Rage and rapture together arouse the lover to enthusiastic incoherence: ‘the breath of thy lips is freedom,’ the poem continues, a ‘kingdom whose empire is terror and joy’. And yet for all the galloping anapaests, those long lines require the sentences to be stretched out into additional descriptions and dependent clauses which make the thought falter and lose pace before the next line starts. By the end, the attraction of the March storm isn’t its gleeful destruction but its arrest to the progress of the year, superimposing winter onto spring, cold onto warmth: ‘his hands that were laden with blossom are sprinkled with snow,/And his lips breathe winter, and laugh, and relent; and the live woods feel not the frost’s flame parch.’

These were more than local effects. For Swinburne, art never left the past behind. ‘Dependent on herself alone … art knows nothing of time; for her there is but one tense, and all ages in her sight are alike present,’ he asserted in a review of Victor Hugo’s L’Année terrible, and this must have been one source of T.S. Eliot’s idea of artistic tradition – and modernist technique – as a ‘simultaneous present’. In ‘On the Cliffs’ (1880), Swinburne experimented with blending quotations from Sappho, Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Keats and other unhappy poets of the nightingale, and the poem gets its title because, like Eliot, he found another irresistible image for the ever-present in the ocean itself. ‘On the Verge’ (1884) uses the octometer’s length to allow its clauses to break and tumble over themselves, while the verbs seem to tug loose from their nouns:

                here on land
Flash and fade the wheeling wings on wings of mews that plunge and scream.
Hour on hour along the line of life and time’s evasive strand
Shines and darkens, wanes and waxes, slays and dies: and scarce they seem
More than motes that thronged and trembled in the brief noon’s breath and beam.

It takes careful rereading to realise that the ‘hour’ of the second sentence is shining and darkening, not the seagulls, and the feeling remains that the slaying and dying are somehow simultaneous, not linked to one precise agent, cause or effect. The syntactic disturbance is modernist before its time; appropriately, the poem starts by gazing into the endless ocean from ‘where the waste Land’s End leans westward’.

A Century of Roundels (1883) keeps the past unhappily present through sound. The rondeau, the Athenaeum’s reviewer snorted, was one of the forms in which French poets ‘from the 14th to the 17th century loved to fetter the muse’. But to Swinburne, ‘a roundel is wrought as a ring … to hang in the ear of thought’, as ornament and as memory. All of them twist pleasure round to bitterness and back again, by stringing the two together on the same clusters of sound. ‘Before Sunset’ is one of the best:

Love’s twilight wanes in heaven above,
        On earth ere twilight reigns:
Ere fear may feel the chill thereof,
        Love’s twilight wanes.

Ere yet the insatiate heart complains
        ‘Too much, and scarce enough,’
The lip so late athirst refrains.

Soft on the neck of either dove
        Love’s hands let slip the reins:
And while we look for light of love
        Love’s twilight wanes.

It’s not just that ‘reigns’/‘refrains’/‘reins’ link ruling and pulling back in the same rhyme sound. Sonically, ‘feel’ returns in ‘chill’, ‘lip’ as ‘slip’, and ‘insatiate’ in ‘late’, so that the penultimate ‘while … light’ seems to become compressed into the final ‘twilight’. None of them is an exact match, and none of them has to be: it is the touch of the love-words in the betrayal-words which creates the effect. Defending Swinburne against Eliot’s complaint that his vocabulary was imprecise, Veronica Forrest-Thomson remarked on his semantic ‘oscillations’, where the same word is introduced and then redefined several times within the same poem, without quite settling down in one context. This is the semiotic equivalent, and both find their myth in the late poem that Swinburne thought ‘one of the best and most representative things I ever did’, ‘A Nympholept’ (1891). It begins in the hothouse – ‘the breathless air,/In the pulseless peace of the fervid and silent flowers’ – and then senses the familiar co-presence of pleasure and hostility: ‘Is it rapture or terror that circles me round, and invades/Each vein of my life with hope – if it be not fear?’ These emotions signal the presence of Pan, ‘in each life living … the God who art all’. Pan is all sides of the case: killer and victim, life and death, ‘rapture or wrath’, or in another brilliant sound coinage, the ‘superb and subdued’, and the poem links all his manifestations together by its rhymes within the line and across far distant stanzas. Swinburne had tried personifying a universal, non-moral life and death force before, in ‘Hertha’, rebuking mankind for theistic moral cowardice in the cadences of God’s questions to Job. But this time pantheism instils its own fear. The poem, Swinburne advised his readers, is about ‘the splendid oppression of nature at noon which found utterance of old in words of such singular and everlasting significance as panic and nympholepsy’. A nympholept is someone caught in a frenzy of desire for the ungraspable nymphs, a definition that casts shadows on the speaker’s closing relief at a heavenly ‘rapture that casts out fear’. If panic and oppression are Pan’s hallmarks, there will be no place on earth without them.

But there were places Swinburne’s art could not go. Art ‘is omnipresent and eternal, and forsakes neither Athens nor Jerusalem, Camelot nor Troy, Argonaut nor Crusader, to dwell as she does with equal good will among modern appliances in London and New York’, he had confidently asserted in the Hugo review. While his historical dramas are happy enough in Camelot and Troy, Swinburne never really found art in modern appliances or city life. His characters have no vivid, conversational speech, his lyrics no telegraphs or trains. It would take The Waste Land to see the towers of Jerusalem, Athens and postwar London collapsing simultaneously. The ever-fresh inventiveness of his prosody also distracts attention from a lack of emotional development. No matter what transpires, people remain pretty much the same all the way through his poems and dramas. Arthur Symons’s description of Locrine shows where Swinburne’s interests really lay:

The dialogue twists and twines, without effort, through rhyme arrangements which change in every scene, beginning and ending with couplets, and passing through the sonnet, Petrarchan and Shakespearean, ottava rima, terza rima, the six-line stanza of crossed rhymes and couplet, the seven-line stanza used by Shakespeare in The Rape of Lucrece, a nine-line stanza of two rhymes, and a scene composed of seven stanzas of chained octaves in which a third rhyme comes forward in the last line but one (after the manner of terza rima) and starts a new octave, which closes at the end in a stanza of two rhymes only, the last line but one turning back instead of forward to lock the chain’s circle. No other English poet who ever lived could have written dialogue under such conditions.

O’Gorman doesn’t print a word of it. ‘I do not think that the life of human character or the lifelikeness of dramatic dialogue has suffered from the bondage of rhyme,’ Swinburne protested, but really, his own word reveals where the emotional ties are.

Where that intense need to lock the chain came from is less certain. Swinburne blamed the emotions of the first Poems and Ballads on a broken relationship with a woman most biographers now agree was his cousin Mary Gordon, with whom he used to play games of tying up and twisting, and with whom he wrote some flagellation novels. But these pleasures, he told friends, went back to punishments at boarding school, to which he was sent at the age of 12. The more lasting legacy might have been the difficulties forming close friendships that are now known as boarding-school syndrome. Psychologists describe an ironclad self-reliance and great pride in endurance, coupled with a fear of intimacy and deep confusion about the love of the parents who left you there. Survivors describe the feeling of never being able to leave the place. Swinburne held on for life.

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