In the Hothouse

Peter Howarth

  • 21st-Century Oxford Authors: Algernon Charles Swinburne edited by Francis O’Gorman
    Oxford, 722 pp, £95.00, December 2016, ISBN 978 0 19 967224 0

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.’

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