Algernon Swinburne, detail of his portrait by Rossetti
Algernon 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 commented upon.
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 Dorothy".
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 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 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 disorderly mind."
Some of his poems:
- Hymn to Proserpine
- The Triumph of Time
- Dolores (Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs)
- "The Oblation"
Wikisource has original works written by or about:
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.
- 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 fiction.
- 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."
- 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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