C. Swinburne: Biography
Charles Swinburne was born April 5, 1837 in Grosvenor Place, London,
but spent most of his boyhood on the Isle of Wight, where both his parents
and grandparents had homes. With Shelley and Byron, he is one of the
very few poets since the days of Raleigh and Sidney to come from the
aristocracy: his father was an admiral and his maternal grandfather
the third earl of Ashburnham. He was very close to his other grandfather,
who was born and brought up in France and continued to think and dress
like a French nobleman of the ancien régime (the days before
the Revolution). He and the poet's mother trained young Algernon in
French and Italian.
In religion, the
Swinburnes were true to their class, meaning that they were High Church
Anglicans (see Church of England), and the poet had a Bible reader's
detailed knowledge of the scriptures and of standard interpretative
methods, including typology, prophecy, and apocalyptics. His treatment
of Christianity seems a characteristically idiosyncratic one -- that
is, although he delighted in opposing organized religion and savagely
attacked the Roman Catholic Church for its political role in a divided
Italy, he makes detailed use of biblical allusion, though often for
blasphemous ends. Although Algernon turned to nihilism while at Oxford,
he never became indifferent to religion, as "Hymn to Proserpine"
(text of poem) and "Hertha" make clear.
Growing up, he had
a very close relationship with a cousin, Mary Gordon, and was disconsolate
when she married. At Oxford he met nearly everyone who would influence
his later life, including Rossetti, Morris, and Burne-Jones, who in
1857 were painting their Arthurian murals on the walls of the Oxford
Union, and Benjamin Jowett, the master of Balliol College, who recognized
his poetic talent and tried to keep him from being expelled when he
began celebrating Orsini, the Italian patriot who attempted to assassinate
Napoleon III in 1858. Leaving Oxford in 1860, he became very friendly
with the Rossettis. After Elizabeth Siddall's (Mrs. Rossetti)'s death
in 1862, he and Rossetti moved to Tudor House, 16 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea.
a curious combination of frail health and strength. He was small (just
over 5 feet tall) and slightly built, but an excellent swimmer and the
first to climb Culver Cliff on the Isle of Wight. He had an extremely
excitable disposition: people who met him described him as a "demoniac
boy" who would go skipping about the room declaiming poetry at
the top of his voice. In this as in many things, he seems to have eschewed
moderation. Once or twice he had fits, perhaps epileptic, in public;
but he made this condition much worse by drinking past excess to unconsciousness.
More than once while he was living with Rossetti he was delivered to
the door in the small of the night, dead drunk. Throughout the 1860s
and '70s he rode an alcoholic cycle of dissolution, collapse, drying
out at home in the country, then returning to London where he would
begin all over again.
Although some of
his work had already appeared in periodicals, Atalanta in Calydon (1865)
was the first poem to come out under his name and was received enthusiastically.
"Laus Veneris" and Poems and Ballads (1866), with their sexually
charged passages, were attacked all the more violently as a result.
Swinburne's meeting in 1867 with his long-time hero Mazzini, the Italian
patriot living in England in exile, led to the more political Songs
His mania for masochism,
particularly flagellation, probably began at Eton and was encouraged
by his later friendships with Richard Monckton Milnes (one of Tennyson's
fellow Apostles), who introduced him to the works of the Marquis de
Sade, and Richard Burton, the Victorian explorer and adventurer. Some
gamey stories survive from the year or so that he spent living at 16
Cheyne Walk with Rossetti: according to one, Rossetti once had to tell
him to keep down the noise--he and a boyfriend had been sliding naked
down the bannisters and disturbing Rossetti's painting. In another,
Rossetti gave to Adah Menken, the American circus rider, to introduce
Swinburne to heterosexual love. She returned it because, she said, "I
can't make him understand that biting's no use." He took a sardonic
delight in what the critic and biographer, Cecil Lang, calls "Algernonic
exaggeration": When people began to talk scathingly about his homosexuality
and other sexual proclivities, he circulated a story that he had engaged
in pederasty and bestiality with a monkey--and then ate it. How many
of the stories were true and how many inventive fiction is still unclear.
Oscar Wilde, thoroughly capable of inventing his own interesting fictions,
called him "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."
In 1879, with Swinburne
nearly dead from alcoholism and dissolution, his legal advisor Theodore
Watts-Dunton took him in, and was successful in getting him to adopt
a healthier style of life. Swinburne lived the rest of his days at Watts-Dunton's
house outside London. He saw less and less of his old friends, who thought
him "imprisoned" at The Pines, but his growing deafness accounts
for some of his decreased sociability. He died of influenza in 1909.
It is clear that
Swinburne had an addictive personality, one nearly incapable of moderation.
His criticism is perceptive and useful but suffers from praise too lavish
of the things he liked and attacks too vituperative on those that he
didn't. His poetry follows the by now standard pattern of early flourish
and later decline; some of the fresher pieces in the second and third
series of Poems and Ballads (1878 and 1889) were actually written during
his days at Oxford. Nevertheless, his last collection, A Channel Passage,
has some lovely poems, including "The Lake of Gaube." He is
best remembered as the supreme technician in metre, with a versatility
which exceeds even Tennyson's, but which lacks a corresponding emotional
range. His obsessions are not widely enough shared; and if he can not
shock us by the strangeness of his desires nor the shrillness of his
anti-theistical exclamations, often too little remains.
detail of his portrait by RossettiAlgernon Charles Swinburne (April
5, 1837 – April 10, 1909) was a Victorian era English poet. His
poetry was highly controversial in its day, much of it containing recurring
themes of sadomasochism, death-wish, lesbianism and irreligion.
Swinburne was born
in London, and raised on the Isle of Wight, and at Capheaton Hall, near
Wallington, Northumberland. He attended Eton college and then Balliol
College, Oxford but had the rare distinction (like Oscar Wilde) of being
rusticated from the university in 1859. He was associated with the Pre-Raphaelite
movement, and counted among his best friends Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
He 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
Many of his early
and still admired poems evoke the Victorian fascination with the Middle
Ages, and some of them are explicitly medieval in style, tone and construction,
including "The Leper," "Laus Veneris," and "St
He was an alcoholic
and a highly excitable character. His health suffered as a result, until
he finally 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 in Putney. Thereafter he lost his youthful rebelliousness and developed
into a figure of social respectability.
His mastery of vocabulary,
rhyme and metre arguably put him among the most talented English language
poets in history, 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.
was once quite popular among undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge,
though today it has largely gone out of fashion. This largely mirrors
the popular and academic consensus regarding his work as well, 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. Swinburne may have felt this way himself.
He was a highly intelligent man and in later life a much-respected critic,
and he himself believed that the older a man was, the more cynical and
less trustworthy he became. This of course created problems for him
as he aged.
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, but the content is much less shocking. His versification,
and especially his rhyming technique, remain in top form to the end.
Works include: Atalanta
in Calydon, Tristram of Lyonesse, Poems and Ballads (series I, II and
III -- these contain most of his more controversial works), Songs Before
Sunrise, and Lesbia Brandon (published posthumously).
T.S. Eliot, reading
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, found that as a poet writing notes
on poets, he had mastered his material and was "a more reliable
guide to them than Hazlitt, Coleridge, or Lamb," Swinburne's three
Romantic predecessors, though he characterized Swinburne's prose as
"the tumultuous outcry of adjectives, the headstrong rush of undisciplined
sentences, are the index to the impatience and perhaps laziness of a
Ernest Wheldrake was a fictional character invented by Swinburne, who
reviewed imaginary works by him. This was as a satire on the spasmodic
poets. Wheldrake is also a character used by Michael Moorcock in his
"A Cameo," a sonnet by Swinburne, is quoted by Mrs. Highcamp
in the grand dinner scene of Kate Chopin's novella The Awakening. "There
was a graven image of Desire/Painted with red blood on a ground of gold."
Algernon's poem, "The Oblation" is quoted by the character
Buck Mulligan in James Joyce's Ulysses. Buck Mulligan jestingly quotes
it to the milk woman as he pays her. "Ask nothing more of me, sweet./All
I can give you I give."
The Polish blackened death metal band Behemoth on their 2004 album Demigod
cite Swinburne's work as being the source for the lyrics to the track
"Before the Æons Came".