Saturday, April 10, 2010

Deathday: Algernon Charles Swinburne, Decadent Poet

Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837–1909) was an English poet, controversial in his own day. He invented the roundel form, wrote some novels, and contributed to the famous Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. From 1903 to 1909 he was constantly nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature.[1]


Swinburne was born at 7 Chester Street, Grosvenor Place, London, on 5 April 1837. He was the eldest of six children born to Captain (later Admiral) Charles Henry Swinburne and Lady Jane Henrietta, daughter of the 3rd Earl of Ashburnham. He grew up at East Dene in Bonchurch on the Isle of Wight and attended Eton college 1849-53, where he first started writing poetry, and then Balliol College, Oxford 1856-60 with a brief hiatus when he was rusticated from the university in 1859, returning in May 1860.

He spent summer holidays at Capheaton Hall in Northumberland, the house of his grandfather, Sir John Swinburne (1762-1860) who had a famous library and was President of the Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle upon Tyne. Swinburne considered Northumberland to be his native county, an emotion memorably reflected in poems like the intensely patriotic 'Northumberland,' 'Grace Darling' and others. He enjoyed riding his pony across the moors (he was a daring horseman) 'through honeyed leagues of the northland border.' He never called it the Scottish border.

In the years 1857-60, Swinburne became one of Lady Pauline Trevelyan's intellectual circle at Wallington Hall and after his grandfather's death in 1860, would stay with William Bell Scott in Newcastle. In December 1862, Swinburne accompanied Bell Scott and his guests, probably including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, on a trip to Tynemouth. Scott writes in his memoirs that as they walked by the sea, Swinburne declaimed the as yet unpublished 'Hymn to Proserpine' and 'Laus Veneris' in his strange intonation, while the waves 'were running the whole length of the long level sands towards Cullercoats and sounding like far-off acclamations.'

At university Swinburne associated with the Pre-Raphaelites and counted among his best friends Dante Gabriel Rossetti. After leaving college he lived in London and started an active writing career, where Rossetti was delighted with his 'little Northumbrian friend', a reference to Swinburne's diminutive height - he was just over five feet tall[2].

His poetic works include: Atalanta in Calydon (1865), Poems and Ballads I (1866), Songs before Sunrise (1871), Poems and Ballads II, (1878) Tristram of Lyonesse (1882), Poems and Ballads III (1889), and the novel Lesbia Brandon (published posthumously).

Poems and Ballads I caused a sensation when it was first published , especially the poems written in homage of Sappho of Lesbos such as "Anactoria" and "Sapphics": Moxon and Co. transferred their publication rights to John Camden Hotten.[3] Other poems in this volume such as "The Leper," "Laus Veneris," and "St Dorothy" evoke a Victorian fascination with the Middle Ages, and are explicitly mediaeval in style, tone and construction. Also featured in this volume are "Hymn to Proserpine", "The Triumph of Time" and "Dolores (Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs)".

Swinburne devised the poetic form Roundel, a variation of the French Rondeau form, and some were included in A Century of Roundels dedicated to Christina Rossetti. Swinburne wrote to Edward Burne-Jones in 1883: "I have got a tiny new book of songs or songlets, in one form and all manner of metres ... just coming out, of which Miss Rossetti has accepted the dedication. I hope you and Georgie [his wife Georgiana, one of the MacDonald sisters] will find something to like among a hundred poems of nine lines each, twenty-four of which are about babies or small children". Opinions of these poems vary between those who find them captivating and brilliant, to those who find them merely clever and contrived. One of them, A Baby's Death, was set to music by the English composer Sir Edward Elgar as the song Roundel: The little eyes that never knew Light.

Swinburne was an alcoholic and algolagniac, and a highly excitable character. His health suffered as a result, and in 1879 at the age of 42 he had a mental and physical breakdown and was taken into care by his friend Theodore Watts, who looked after him for the rest of his life at 11 Putney Hill, Putney SW15 [4] . Thereafter he lost his youthful rebelliousness and developed into a figure of social respectability. He died in South West London,[5] on 10 April 1909 at the age of 72 and was buried at St. Boniface Church, Bonchurch on the Isle of Wight.


Swinburne is considered a decadent poet, although he perhaps professed to more vice than he actually indulged in, a fact which Oscar Wilde famously and acerbically commented upon, stating that Swinburne was "a braggart in matters of vice, who had done everything he could to convince his fellow citizens of his homosexuality and bestiality without being in the slightest degree a homosexual or a bestializer."[6]

His mastery of vocabulary, rhyme and metre is impressive, although he has also been criticized for his florid style and word choices that only fit the rhyme scheme rather than contributing to the meaning of the piece. He is the virtual star of the third volume of George Saintsbury's famous History of English Prosody, and A. E. Housman, a more measured and even somewhat hostile critic, devoted paragraphs of praise to his rhyming ability.

Swinburne's work was once quite popular among undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge, though today it has gone out of fashion. This is at least somewhat contextual, as it tends to mirror the popular and academic consensus regarding his work, although his Poems and Ballads, First Series and his Atalanta in Calydon have never been out of critical favor.

It was Swinburne's misfortune that the two works, published when he was nearly 30, soon established him as England's premier poet, the successor to Alfred Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning. This was a position he held in the popular mind until his death, but sophisticated critics like A. E. Housman felt, rightly or wrongly, that the job of being one of England's very greatest poets was beyond him.

After the first Poems and Ballads, Swinburne's later poetry is devoted more to philosophy and politics (notably, in favour of the unification of Italy, particularly in the volume Songs before Sunrise). He does not stop writing love poetry entirely (including his great epic-length poem, Tristram of Lyonesse), but the content is much less shocking. His versification, and especially his rhyming technique, remain in top form to the end.

T. S. Eliot read Swinburne's essays on the Shakespearean and Jonsonian dramatists in The Contemporaries of Shakespeare and The Age of Shakespeare and Swinburne's books on Shakespeare and Jonson. Writing on Swinburne in 'The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism', Eliot found that as a poet writing notes on poets, he had mastered his material, writing "'he is more reliable to them than Hazlitt, Coleridge, or Lamb: and his perception of relative values is almost always correct." However, Eliot disliked Swinburne's prose. About this he wrote "the tumultuous outcry of adjectives, the headstrong rush of undisciplined sentences, are the index to the impatience and perhaps laziness of a disorderly mind."


Algernon Charles Swinburne, A Century of Roundels, London: Chatto and Windus 1883
The Complete Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne, ed. Sir Edmund Gosse and Thomas James Wise. London: William Heinemann, 1926

A modern study of his religious attitudes:

Margot Kathleen Louis, Swinburne and His Gods: the Roots and Growth of an Agnostic Poetry ISBN 0-7735-0715-9
Jerome McGann, Swinburne: An Experiment in Criticism (1972) initiated modern Swinburne criticism.
Works by or about Algernon Charles Swinburne at Internet Archive (scanned books original editions color illustrated)
Robert Peters's Crowns of Apollo


1.^ "Algernon Charles Swinburne". The Nomination Database for the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1901-1950. Nobel Foundation. Retrieved 2010-02-04.
2.^ New World Encyclopedia,Swinburne, Algernon Accessed December 2009
3.^ Walter M. Kendrick, "The secret museum: pornography in modern culture", University of California Press, 1996, ISBN 0520207297, p.168
4.^ Blue Plaques Listing for London, English Heritage, Accessed December 2009.
5.^ Deaths England and Wales 1837-1983
6.^ A. C. Swinburne: Biography
T. S. Eliot, "Swinburne as Critic" in Eliot's essay "Imperfect Critics", collected in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, 1922.

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