“Nothing is so tenacious of life as a bad poet,” wrote Swinburne of (the fictitious) Ernest Wheldrake. “The opossum, we are credibly informed, survives for hours after its brains are blown out by a pistol.” Algernon Charles Swinburne: the very name is purple, decadent. It wears a snowy cravat. We all know that Swinburne is himself the brainless possum, even if we’ve never read a word he wrote. Here is Housman:
Swinburne picks up the sausage-machine into which he crammed anything and everything; round goes the handle, and out at the other end comes ... noise.... There is no reason why [his poems] should begin where they do or end where they do; there is no reason why the middle should be in the middle; there is hardly a reason why, having once begun, they should ever end at all; and it would be possible to rearrange the stanzas which compose them in several different orders without lessening their coherency or impairing their effect.
There is no defense against that, even if it were wrong, and it’s not exactly wrong. Still, Housman concludes:
Who is the greatest English poet of the nineteenth century it is difficult, gloriously difficult, to say; assuredly not Swinburne; but its two most original poets are Wordsworth, who began the age, and Swinburne, who ended it.
This sounds like the sort of thing you say when you don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings — “Well, it’s certainly original.” But it’s no small thing to end an age.
Swinburne can remind one a little of Hopkins (if Hopkins had hated Christianity and been into S&M), a little of Gertrude Stein, a little of Liberace, a little of Meat Loaf. He can get swept away by the “spent waves’ riot / In doubtful dreams of dreams.” (No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative.) What he said of attempts to define the beautiful — “you have merely reduced an affair of things to an affair of words” — others said of him. He dwelt “exclusively and consistently among words,” Eliot wrote; he has admirers among the Language poets. But the finest parodist of Swinburne was Swinburne himself:
In a maze of monotonous murmur
Where reason roves ruined by rhyme,
In a voice neither graver nor firmer
Than the bells on a fool’s cap chime,
A party pretentiously pensive,
With a Muse that deserves to be skinned,
Makes language and metre offensive
With rhymes on the wind.
A perennial procession of phrases
Pranked primly, though pruriently prime,
Precipitates preachings on praises
In a ruffianly riot of rhyme
Through the pressure of print on my pages:
But reckless the reader must be
Who imagines me one of the sages
That steer through Time’s sea.
— From Poeta Loquitur
If I were reading that aloud to you, I would conclude by looking up and raising an eyebrow slightly, which is the scholarly equivalent of dropping the mic. Empson is righter than Eliot: “People are oddly
determined to regard Swinburne as an exponent of Pure Sound with no intellectual content” (a summer sound, and sound alone), but “his sensibility was of the intellectual sort which proceeds from a process of analysis.”
The best text of Swinburne available at present, Jerome McGann and Charles L. Sligh’s edition of the Major Poems and Selected Prose, is not only outrageously overpriced but unaccountably excludes Swinburne’s two best poems, “August” and “At a Month’s End.” They are two of the most beautiful poems in the language, and I know hardly anyone who’s read them. Here is the beginning of “At a Month’s End”:
The night last night was strange and shaken:
More strange the change of you and me.
Once more, for the old love’s love forsaken,
We went out once more toward the sea.
For the old love’s love-sake dead and buried,
One last time, one more and no more,
We watched the waves set in, the serried
Spears of the tide storming the shore.
Hardly we saw the high moon hanging,
Heard hardly through the windy night
Far waters ringing, low reefs clanging,
Under wan skies and waste white light.
This is over the top in a way Stevens would learn from:
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry.
Swinburne’s “insults to Christendom’s creed” and masochistic fantasias (“He liked to be whipped by women and visited brothels for this purpose,” Camille Paglia tells us) can’t titillate as they once did, and he was misinformed about possums, but his vertiginous song, “full of windy weather, / Clouds and blown stars and broken light,” abides.