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The Fascinating Bore

Poems , by Algernon Charles Swinburne, selected, with an Introduction, by Bonamy Dobrée. The Penguin Poets. Baltimore, Md.: Penguin Books, 1961.

Swinburne: A Selection , edited, with an Introduction, by Edith Sitwell. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1960.

Early in his book The White Goddess , Robert Graves provides this description:

The Goddess is a lovely, slender woman with a hooked nose, deathly pale face, lips as red as rowan-berries, startlingly blue eyes and long fair hair; she will suddenly transform herself into sow, mare, bitch, vixen, she-ass, weasel, serpent, owl, she-wolf, tigress, mermaid or loathsome hag . . .

He continues, "The test of a poet's vision, one might say, is the accuracy of his portrayal of the White Goddess and of the island over which she rules. . . ."

This same figure is made use of in Mario Praz's study, The Romantic Agony , as a characteristic presence in Romantic literature, and it is in the work of Swinburne he believes "this type of Fatal Woman found its most complete form." Unlike Graves, however, who is himself involved in this same tradition, Praz depends much upon the sexual terms of such reference in Swinburne and the other writers with whom he deals. The question of Swinburne's al-

Poetry , August 1962.


golagnia—the association of sexual fulfillment with pain—is the key to Praz's own use of the work itself. For example, he summarizes Swinburne's "formula" as follows:

 . . . man, in his work, aspires to be 'the powerless victim of the furious rage of a beautiful woman [here quoting from Swinburne's The Whippingham Papers ]'; his attitude is passive, his love a martyrdom, his pleasure pain. As for the woman . . . , she is always the same type of unrestrained, imperious, cruel beauty.

Whether or not such emphasis proves fair at last, it makes unequivocally clear the source of energy in Swinburne's early, and I think greatest, work. He himself, in the curious innocence of his nature, found it impossible to accept finally—or he could not use it as could Baudelaire, for whom he felt great admiration. In her introduction to Swinburne: A Selection , Edith Sitwell quotes from a letter of Swinburne's to his friend and mentor, Lady Trevelyan, who had warned him he was being attacked "on the score of his personal morality":

I cannot express the horror and astonishment, the unutterable indignation and loathing, with which I have been struck on hearing that anyone could be vile enough to tax me, I do not say with doing, but with saying anything of the kind to which you refer.

It does not seem to me possible to answer as simply as does Edith Sitwell, "I cannot believe this extremely brave man was a hypocrite." Nor does it seem otherwise possible to settle the question as does Bonamy Dobrée, the other editor here involved:

One need not close one's eyes to these things in Swinburne; indeed to do so would be foolish. Most men and women have in them vestiges of such destructive impulses, which normal beings turn into more beneficent channels, or suppress, but which Swinburne had no wish to hide. Such things need not concern the reader who seeks in poetry for imaginative release, for support of the more directive energies, for relations he can contemplate and ramify; they belong, rather, to the realm of psychiatry, and, so far as this Introduction is concerned, will be left there.

It is a little ironic that Swinburne found just that "imaginative release" and the "support of the more directive energies" which Dobrée notes in the writing of the very poems which raise these questions. And there the reader must follow him, or else lose contact with all that ambivalence of experience for which the poems serve as means. Had it not been for the complexity of Swinburne's


sexual nature, his work would be only a thin exercise of technical virtuosity few in fact have so acquired, yet which, by itself, serves little. It was his genius that in these poems he could so resolve, with such art as he had, "such destructive impulses."

Even in Swinburne's sense of liberty, "what his poetry sings out loudly," as Dobrée puts it, there is much equally equivocal. Those familiar with the writings of de Sade—"that illustrious and ill-requited benefactor of humanity," Swinburne calls him in a letter to Monckton Milnes—will recognize the basis for Swinburne's own antitheism. For example, here is a brief instance of de Sade's argument in Dialogue entre un Prêtre et un Moribond .



Who can comprehend the vast and infinite designs of God upon man, and who can understand all we see?


The man who simplifies things, my friend, and especially the man who does not increase the causes the better to muddle the effects. What do you want with a second difficulty when you cannot explain the first? And since it is possible that Nature quite unaided has done all that you attribute to your God, why do you want to look for a master for her?

Swinburne makes use of a like argument in "Hymn to Proserpine":

Wilt thou take all, Galilean? but these thou shalt not take,

The laurel, the palms and the paean, the breasts of the nymphs in the brake;

Breasts more soft than a dove's, that tremble with tenderer breath;

And all the wings of the Loves, and all the joy before death . . .

More than these wilt thou give, things fairer than all these things?

O daughter of earth, of my mother, her crown and blossom of birth . . .

I am also, I also, thy brother; I go as I came unto earth.

Atalanta in Calydon , described by Edith Sitwell as "indisputably Swinburne's greatest work," was also his first published book. Our knowledge of it is now usually confined to the choruses, "When the hounds of spring are on winter's traces . . . ," and "Before the beginning of years . . . ," and perhaps others like these. We cannot read it as the great release from Victorian limits it then seemed.


Although Browning, with some accuracy, felt it a "fuzz of words," Ruskin thought it, symptomatically enough, "The grandest thing ever done by a youth, though he is a demonic youth . . ." The play is, whatever else, a beautifully maintained control of means upon a classical theme, of no great depth of thinking—on Swinburne's part at least, since de Sade is again the clue to its logic of argument. But if sounds alone can engage us—and Edith Sitwell provides much provocative comment on this score—then we should be satisfied with this:

And I too as thou sayest have seen great things;
Seen otherwhere, but chiefly when the sail
First caught between stretched ropes the roaring west,
And all our oars smote eastward, and the wind
First flung round faces of seafaring men
White splendid snow-flakes of the sundering foam,
And the first furrow in virginal green sea
Followed the plunging ploughshare of hewn pine . . .

Yet the most incisive of Swinburne's poems remain those in which he underwent the "test of a poet's vision," in Graves' sense—or when his concern with the terms of his algolagnia is unmistakable, as here:

As one who hidden in deep sedge and reeds
Smells the rare scent made where a panther feeds,
     And tracking ever slotwise the warm smell
Is snapped upon by the sweet mouth and bleeds,

His head far down the hot sweet throat of her—
So one tracks love, whose breath is deadlier . . .
("Laus Veneris")

The major part of Edith Sitwell's selection comes from Poems and Ballads (1866), and includes the whole of Atalanta in Calydon (1865). Dobrée ranges more out of necessity, since the Penguin selection intends to represent the whole body of Swinburne's writing. After Swinburne's "rescue" by Watts-Dunton (with whom he shared a household for the thirty years until his death in 1909), there is little of interest in his poems. Perhaps it was the confinement from his excesses that quieted his earlier energy. It was Watts-Dunton's assertion that, "From this moment (1879) Swinburne's connection with Bohemian London ceased entirely." But much had in fairness stopped before that, it would seem. Songs Before Sunrise (1871), written in hero-worship of the Italian political exile Mazzini, shows


increased diffuseness and verbosity despite the occasional interest of a poem like "Hertha" or "Hymn of Man." Still both these last become a tedium of accumulation and patterned manner. The intensity is gone.

It is doubtful to me that Swinburne can now be of much use to us. We have come, or have tried to, so far from the manners of that period, moving toward (as Grierson notes in his monograph on Swinburne) an increased use of spoken rhythms. This is why, perhaps, Swinburne's poems must seem so interminably artificial a contrivance so very often. Or perhaps it is, as Robert Duncan suggests, that Swinburne's "pleasurable pain/painful pleasure specialty may have something to do with his aesthetic in the actual poem—going on almost unbearably as he does. The fascinating bore in discourse is a sadist in that way."


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