Why Swinburne? (An Open Letter)
The other night at the bar, when I had just gotten in from the street and we had barely started the first round, you asked, “Why Swinburne?”
The long version of that question might go something like this: “You’re a poet who looks to J. H. Prynne and Susan Howe as lodestars; you don’t write in traditional forms or meters, you avoid linear statement and consistent points of view: a standard-issue late-modernist, in short. Your critical work—essays and reviews on the Objectivists, Ronald Johnson, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Nathaniel Mackey, a scholarly monograph and a big critical biography of Louis Zukofsky—is of a piece with that stance.
“And now you’re editing a selection of the poems of Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909), perhaps the most Victorian of the Victorians, a central fixture of the poetic landscape of the last third of the nineteenth century, a poster boy for the sort of poetry—formally regular to the point of obsession, dreamy, abstract, diffuse, and above all long—that the high modernists went to the barricades to destroy. What gives?”
A good question, and I didn’t answer it very well the other night. So I’m going to try again.
For me, discovering a writer is usually a matter of sheer happenstance, sometimes followed by obsessive-compulsive collecting and reading. When I was twelve or thirteen I bought a copy of Michael Moorcock’s The Silver Warriors on the strength of its Frank Frazetta cover painting: now I have almost three hundred Moorcock titles, and probably know as much about him as anyone in the world. When I was a senior in college, I bought sale copies of Zukofsky’s “A” and Prepositions because I was curious about this oddly-named guy to whom Pound had dedicated Guide to Kulchur. And there went the next twenty-odd years of my life (which, had it not been for that sale, might have been devoted to Jonathan Swift or James Joyce).
Winding down the Zukofsky biography, I followed a lead in Guy Davenport’s essay “The House that Jack Built” and decided to read something of John Ruskin’s. It helped that among my late father’s books was Quentin Bell’s smart and well written Ruskin, the kind of book that inspires an immediate desire to read into its subject. And that the first Ruskin I happened on in a secondhand shop was an Everyman Unto This Last, perhaps his most electrifying socio-political critique. I was hooked within minutes, and in the decade and a half since I’ve read all of Ruskin, and probably forty or fifty books about him.
But Swinburne— I can’t remember not knowing the name (how does one fail to register “Algernon Charles Swinburne”?). He must have been mentioned in my undergraduate English classes, and there were vast quantities of his verse in the anthology we used for Victorian Poetry (though none on the syllabus). In grad school I audited a seminar where we read the famous choruses from Atalanta in Calydon, but I wasn’t “grabbed” enough to read the rest.
Swinburne was at the back of my mind, though, if only as convenient shorthand for what the Victorians had gotten wrong in poetry, what the modernists Pound and Eliot—at whose shrines I worshipped as an undergrad—had set out to correct. If two hallmarks of the modernism I valued were concreteness (“go in fear of abstraction,” said Pound) and conciseness (“Dichten = condensare,” said Pound), Swinburne was a walking advertisement for abstractness and prolixity. In a series of his best catty takedowns, Eliot considered Swinburne’s “diffuseness” (“That so little material as appears to be employed in The Triumph of Life should release such an amazing number of words, requires what there is no reason to call anything but genius”); he deplored Swinburne’s lack of concrete visual or intellectual imagery (“he uses the most general word, because his emotion is never particular, never in direct line of vision, never focused”); and he offered a analysis of how Swinburne’s verse represents, well, a disease of language:
Language in a healthy state presents the object, is so close to the object that the
two are identified. They are identified in the verse of Swinburne solely because
the object has ceased to exist, because the meaning is merely the hallucination of
meaning, because language, uprooted, has adapted itself to an independent life of
(Hydroponic poetry!) That, along with some peppery asides from critics like Hugh Kenner, pretty much settled Swinburne for me: I knew about him, I didn’t need to read him.
Nonetheless, on a trip to Italy twenty years ago, I emerged from a Florentine bookshop with a discounted copy of the Carcanet Swinburne Selected Poems—possibly because of the striking cover portrait (Sir Robert Staples’s chalk of the elderly poet, all enormous bald head and tangled beard), possibly because it was the only English-language book there of any interest. I didn’t read a lot of it in Europe, and when I got home it went onto a high shelf next to similar Carcanet selections of Christopher Smart and the Earl of Surrey. I took it down from time to time and read a few pages. I remember being rivetted by “Dolores” one night by the pool at an Orlando resort, the rest of the family sleeping off a day at Disney.
Reading Swinburne after a decade immersed in “high” and “late” modernism did not come naturally: I had pretty much internalized those strictures against abstraction and diffuseness. As well, an inherent prejudice against emotionality and self-display has always made Romantic and post-Romantic verse a hard sell for me. For whatever reason—perhaps being raised in a strait-laced, fundamentalist household—I’ve grown up a rather thin-lipped, intensely private, and painfully repressed chap. Emotional opera arias embarrass me, as do self-revealing dramatic soliloquies. Among the Romantics, I embraced Blake fully (he had a system!), Byron with some enthusiasm (irony! satire!), and Wordsworth and Coleridge with (occasionally gingerly) respect. Keats was okay because of his peerless music. Shelley, however—“I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed!”—was a bridge too far. Swinburne was abstract, prolix and diffuse, but worst of all he was spectacularly emotional, even historionic, like his idol Shelley.
On the other hand, as I discovered from the Carcanet Selected, Swinburne could be seriously erotic, even downright kinky—and I’m always amenable to a dose of eroticism, particularly of the exotic variety. Certainly a decade of studying Ruskin was making space for the erotic in my reading. That isn’t to say that there aren’t sensual passages in Ruskin’s work—but not many. Ruskin himself was notoriously repressed, even non-functional, in the amatory department, and physical love—and for that matter straight-up romantic, interpersonal love—played a rather small role in his published writings.
I’d been working through Ruskin for a decade with an eye towards writing something about his importance to fin-de-siècle and modernist writing, and a few years ago I decided that I ought to know more about the figures surrounding him, especially the Pre-Raphaelites. I’d been looking at Pre-Raphaelite art for ages before I began reading Ruskin—really since my early teens, when I figured out that what made Barry Windsor-Smith’s Conan the Barbarian artwork so great was his obsession with the Pre-Raphaelites, Edward Burne-Jones in particular. (I suspect he also got his hyphenated last name from Burne-Jones.) But I hadn’t read much of the group’s writing: Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris, after all, were important poets. So in I plunged, initially with Morris.
There’s something to be said for studying a writer you admire on a simply human level. I love Zukofsky’s poetry and prose, but over the years I found myself increasingly exasperated by his passive-aggressiveness, his resentment at having been passed over by the world (a malady shared with maybe 95% of poets), and his general mole-like OCD. Ruskin’s writings thrilled me—I was carried away by the extravagance of his art criticism and the biblical passion of his savage social pronouncements—but the man himself was something of a monster, wedded to archaic notions of social hierarchy, utterly convinced of his own infallibility.
Morris, on the other hand, was an immensely likeable, even loveable human being, both as an artist and as a person. I loved his designs and textiles; I loved his humane social conscience, as fierce as Ruskin’s but far more attuned to the structural roots of the nineteenth century’s social inequities; I even came to love his workmanlike narrative poetry, at once grand in its ambitions and entirely unpretentious. And I read with fascination his late prose fantasy romances, so influential for C. S. Lewis and Tolkien but shot through with an aching eroticism utterly absent from the sexless worlds of Narnia or Middle-earth.
Spending time with Morris and the other Pre-Raphaelites (Rossetti, alas, was far less loveable) kept bringing me back to Swinburne. He was always cropping up in the biographies, critical studies, and letters, and I was increasingly aware of him as a lacuna in my knowledge of the period, a crucial bridge-figure between mid-Victorianism and the “decadent” turn of the century. I had finally worked my way through the Carcanet selection, and even read a biography of the poet. A fistful of Swinburne books had found their way onto my shelves. I realized that the time had come to dive into Swinburne, at the deep end.
Many thousands of pages later, I’ve gotten to the point where I’m enthusiastic enough about Swinburne that I’ll head straight for the “S” section of the secondhand bookshop, that I’ll talk the ears off anyone who expresses the slightest interest in the poet, that I’m now editing a selection of his poems. Which still leaves the question: Why Swinburne? Why do I find this odd duck so worth pursuing?
As I’ve already intimated, it’s hard to get around the compelling eroticism of Swinburne’s work. After all, the selection I’m working on is entitled Our Lady of Pain: Poems of Eros and Perversion by Algernon Charles Swinburne, which makes it pretty clear that the erotic—and the perverse—are precisely the focus of my selections. Swinburne’s first collection, Poems and Ballads (1866), was roundly pilloried in the press for its licentiousness: “A mind all aflame with the feverish carnality of a schoolboy over the dirtiest passages in Lemprière,” the Saturday Review called him. The same reviewers were horrified by Swinburne’s strident anti-theism, but one suspects that they would have gone a little easier on the book if it hadn’t contained so many pieces devoted to sexual passion. And not just to sexual passion, but to various non-normative manifestations thereof: sexual ambiguity, lesbianism, necrophilia, and—relentlessly—sado-masochism.
In the twenty-first century, after Genet, Bataille, Kathy Acker, and so many others, it’s a little surprising that Swinburne’s poems still retain their capacity to shock and arouse. It’s not necessarily a matter of their subjects: same-sex desire is nothing new to a contemporary reader, and the scenario of the humble love-smitten clerk of “The Leper,” kissing and caressing his beloved daily for six months after her death from leprosy, is apt to strike one as a tamer version of a German horror film (Nekromantik, specifically). The redoubtable femmes fatales that torment the speaker in so many of Swinburne’s poems (most notably “Faustine” and “Dolores”) are pretty much stock figures from the pantheon of masculine neuroses chronicled in Mario Praz’s The Romantic Agony and Bram Djikstra’s Idols of Perversity.
What is compelling, however, is the intensity with which Swinburne evokes erotic desire and the conjunction of pleasure and pain (two words rarely distant from one another in his work) in his finely-crafted lines. Consider the sestet of “Love and Sleep,” one of the evidences I’d cite to call Swinburne the supreme nineteenth-century poet of physical love:
And all her face was honey to my mouth,
And all her body pasture to mine eyes;
The long lithe arms and hotter hands than fire,
The quivering flanks, hair smelling of the south,
The bright light feet, the splendid supple thighs
And glittering eyelids of my soul’s desire.
Consider the intensity of Swinburne’s Sappho, addressing her former lover in “Anactoria”:
Ah that my lips were tuneless lips, but pressed
To the bruised blossom of thy scourged white breast!
Ah that my mouth for Muses’ milk were fed
On the sweet blood thy sweet small wounds had bled!
That with my tongue I felt them, and could taste
The faint flakes from thy bosom to the waist!
That I could drink thy veins as wine, and eat
Thy breasts like honey! that from face to feet
Thy body were abolished and consumed,
And in my flesh thy very flesh entombed!
Consider how the savagery of his “Lady of Pain” is drummed into a reader through the hypnotic rhythms of (the mostly over-the-top) “Dolores”:
By the ravenous teeth that have smitten
Through the kisses that blossom and bud,
By the lips intertwisted and bitten
Till the foam has a savour of blood,
By the pulse as it rises and falters,
By the hands as they slacken and strain,
I adjure thee, respond from thine altars,
Our Lady of Pain.
And while we’re on the subject of love-bites, consider the audacity of Swinburne’s offhandedly opening his version of the Tannhäuser story (“Laus Veneris”) with the knight’s contemplating the mark he’s left on Venus’s throat during their last love-bout:
Asleep or waking is it? for her neck,
Kissed over close, wears yet a purple speck
Wherein the pained blood falters and goes out;
Soft, and stung softly—fairer for a fleck.
But if one comes to Swinburne for the (kinky) sex, one might well end up hanging around for the formal mastery. Swinburne could write in any English verse form he essayed, and delighted in inventing fiendishly complex metrical combinations. When Swinburne is “on”—and he’s on more often than not—he has a flawless ear for the modulation of vowel sounds and the recurrence of consonants. It may be an old chestnut, but the opening chorus of Atalanta in Calydon remains a sublime formal achievement:
And Pan by noon and Bacchus by night,
Fleeter of foot than the fleet-foot kid,
Follows with dancing and fills with delight
The Maenad and the Bassarid;
And soft as lips that laugh and hide
The laughing leaves of the trees divide,
And screen from seeing and leave in sight
The god pursuing, the maiden hid.
There he’s in a light mood, darting between long and short vowel sounds in triple feet, like a playful nymph in a grove. At the close of “Ave Atque Vale,” his elegy for Charles Baudelaire, the music has become hushed, solemn, and altogether magnificent:
For thee, O now a silent soul, my brother,
Take at my hands this garland, and farewell.
Thin is the leaf, and chill the wintry smell,
And chill the solemn earth, a fatal mother,
With sadder than the Niobean womb,
And in the hollow of her breasts a tomb.
Content thee, howsoe’er, whose days are done;
There lies not any troublous thing before,
Nor sight nor sound to war against thee more,
For whom all winds are quiet as the sun,
All waters as the shore.
At Swinburne’s best, his only equals in English verse music are Spenser, Keats, and Bunting.
But verse music isn’t the only thing I look for in poetry, and Swinburne was altogether too facile at stringing together beautiful-sounding lines. Tennyson said that “He is a reed through which all things blow into music,” and even Swinburne’s mother admitted that Algie didn’t know when to stop once he got started writing: the triple meters, the lush alliterations, and the rhymes just kept tumbling out. Those rhymes, alliterations, and meters hypnotize; we find ourselves reading along, lulled by the music, with no idea of what’s been going on for the past few stanzas. This is a problem, for very often what’s going on is very interesting indeed. Swinburne is not merely a poet of extreme emotional states and burning physical desire, but a very subtle psychologist. “Ave Atque Vale” closely tracks not merely the career and significance of Baudelaire but the English poet’s shifting reaction to his works; “The Triumph of Time” is an elegy to a lost love that rivals a Henry James novel in its discriminating analysis of the despairing but resigned lover’s emotions.
We can’t read Swinburne, however, for the sort of vivid concrete images and symbols the modernists led us to expect of poetry. He’s simply not interested in the mot juste, the “objective correlative,” the “natural object” as “adequate symbol” (that’s Pound). I sometimes find myself agreeing with Eliot that in Swinburne “the object has ceased to exist, because the meaning is merely the hallucination of meaning”—but only if you adopt a very restricted definition of “meaning.” Swinburne isn’t giving precise equations for events in the real world, or even for personal emotions; instead, his poetry—at its most profound—with its lush, hypnotic music, its ever-shifting deployment of a fairly restricted vocabulary, is leading us through a series of emotional states, is laying out in shimmering overlays a series of symbols that can induce in us a new relationship to the “real” world of objects. In this, Swinburne is perhaps closer to the symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé than to any of his Victorian contemporaries.
I can’t of course demonstrate this in a brief compass, but you can see it working in his most successful poems—“The Triumph of Time,” “Thalassius,” or that astonishing Arthurian tour-de-force Tristram of Lyonesse, which has the bonus of rivalling Wagner’s version of the Tristan story in its sensuousness. (It was written in direct riposte to Tennyson’s prim Victorian Idylls of the King, which Swinburne called the “Morte d’Albert.”) But you can’t take any of them too quickly, or let the music of the verses deaden your mind to the subtle and complex syntax or the shifting symbolism.
Of course, sometimes the music of the verses isn’t deadening your mind to much of anything. Swinburne wrote far too much, kept versing away when he really had nothing significant to say. I know—I’ve read my way through the six stout volumes of his collected poems, and can confirm that way too many pages towards the end are devoted to cooing over how sublime babies are, or extolling the might and righteousness of the British Empire, or waxing ecstatic over seasonal changes. Eliot is dead right: “almost no one, to-day, will wish to read the whole of Swinburne.”
That’s what selected volumes are for. The Carcanet selection, I’ve decided having seen what it’s quarried from, is first-rate. So are more recent, more comprehensive selections (including Swinburne’s excellent criticism and fiction) by Jerome McGann and Charles Sligh (Yale, 2004) and Francis O’Gorman (Oxford, 2017). If you want a beautifully edited version of the one-two punch of Atalanta in Calydon and Poems and Ballads, Kenneth Haynes has done one with Penguin. But if your tastes lean towards the slightly spicier—if you’d like to make your entrance to Loch Swinburne by way of the Low Road of the flesh rather than the High Road of the sublime, perhaps I can interest you in this volume I’m editing?