Prose from Poetry Magazine

Mimic Motion

Michael Robbins on Algernon Charles Swinburne.

by Michael Robbins

“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.

Originally Published: February 1, 2013


On February 6, 2013 at 10:33pm Tim McGrath wrote:
Shakespeare, with his "prophetic soul," may have been
looking ahead to Swinburne when he wrote "Not that the
summer is less pleasant now/Than when her mournful hymns
did hush the night." Swinburne's hymns were deeply
mournful, and they still hush the night:

And the murmur of spirits that sleep
In the shadow of gods from afar
Grows dim in thine ears and deep
As the deep dim soul of a star.

On February 9, 2013 at 9:54pm Mark Esrig wrote:
I, for one, am glad to read what Michael Robbins wrote in “Mimic Motion”. Not that I entirely agree with him…Since when do objective correlatives like the opossum with its brains blown out as analogous to the tenacious life of a bad poet have to be right or wrong? Why does Robbins reveal the psychologist’s superiority so nakedly, as if Swinburne, having died 103 years ago, needs to be reborn just to hear these empty pronouncements. Houseman’s comments, though very acute, are merely his opinions. Houseman was not concerned about Wordsworth’s or Swinburne’s feelings when he awarded them the 19th century bookends consolation prize for originality. If he could not name the greatest, why not cop out with originality. His other comments on Swinburne are just too sweeping to stand up to analysis. Robbins’ point of view is for the most part received and run of the mill. It reveals nothing new: the S&M, the windy impressionistic style, and finally, Eliot’s acutely perceptive yet strategic condescension. The only thing really new is that he is writing about Swinburne at all!
What Eliot was driving at is that Swinburne has little in common with the metaphysical poets like Donne whom Eliot extolled. So being in touch with your thoughts is only half of the equation. “A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility..When a poet's mind is perfectly equipped for its work,and is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man' experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.” Eliot would not have granted Empson’s distinction as advancing an argument against Swinburne’s love of pure sound for its own sake, as if somehow refuted Eliot’s argument by simply recognizing that Swinburne had an intellectual and analytical sensibility. That was not the sort of intellect, according to Eliot, that could create the best poetry. Of course, the art for art’s sake movement, to which Swinburne was a source of inspiration, would have no problem with pure sound either.
It is little known today that Swinburne was also a prolific critic as well as a major poet. He rescued Blake from obscurity, and was a forerunner to the so-called new critics. He pioneered textual analysis and wrote numerous entries for the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Swinburne was, indeed, a very interesting and tenacious character. I see him more like the Badger in the John Clare poem, his brain fully intact. It is as easy to bait a dead Swinburne as a dead badger. But alive both are formidable. Houseman was, of course, a much more measured and conservative literary figure. It is no surprise that like Eliot after him, Houseman believed that Swinburne’s poems were the products of “a disorderly mind.” And for all Robbins’ cleverly connecting Stevens and Swinburne, we are left with the same estimate that Laura K offered up for Stevens: a couple of poems pronounced as perfect or beautiful. Swinburne detested mental pygmies. I wonder how he would have reviewed Robbins…

Mark Esrig
New Mexico

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This prose originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Poetry magazine

February 2013


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 Michael  Robbins


Michael Robbins is the author of Alien vs. Predator (Penguin, 2012) and The Second Sex (Penguin, 2014). His poems have appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, Harper's, Boston Review, and elsewhere; his critical work in Harper's, London Review of Books, The New York Observer, the Chicago Tribune, Spin, and several other publications. He is currently at work on a critical book, Equipment for Living (forthcoming from Simon & . . .

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