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Swinburne, Algernon Charles

Category: Poet

Charles Algernon Swinburne 1861 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Algernon Charles Swinburne (5 April 1837 – 10 April 1909) was an English poet, playwright, novelist, and critic. He wrote several novels, and contributed to the famous Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in every year from 1903 to 1907 and again in 1909.

Swinburne’s poetic works include: Atalanta in Calydon (1865), Poems and Ballads (1866), Songs before Sunrise (1871), Poems and Ballads Second Series, (1878) Tristram of Lyonesse (1882), Poems and Ballads Third Series (1889), and the novel Lesbia Brandon (published posthumously in 1952).

Poems and Ballads caused a sensation when it was first published, especially the poems written in homage of Sappho of Lesbos such as "Anactoria" and "Sapphics".  Other poems in this volume such as "The Leper," "Laus Veneris," and "St Dorothy" evoke a Victorian fascination with the Middle Ages, and are explicitly mediaeval in style, tone and construction. Also featured in this volume are "Hymn to Proserpine", "The Triumph of Time" and "Dolores (Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs)".  After the first Poems and Ballads, Swinburne's later poetry is devoted more to philosophy and politics. He did not stop writing love poetry entirely (including his great epic-length poem, Tristram of Lyonesse), but the content is ‘much less shocking’.

Swinburne devised the poetic form called the roundel, a variation of the French Rondeau form, and some were included in A Century of Roundels dedicated to Christina Rossetti. Swinburne wrote to Edward Burne-Jones in 1883:
 "I have got a tiny new book of songs or songlets, in one form and all manner of metres ... just coming out, of which Miss Rossetti has accepted the dedication. I hope you and Georgie will find something to like among a hundred poems of nine lines each, twenty-four of which are about babies or small children".
One of them, A Baby's Death, was set to music by the English composer Sir Edward Elgar as the song Roundel: The little eyes that never knew Light.

George Frederic Watts
Algernon Charles Swinburne

Swinburne was the eldest of six children born to Captain (later Admiral) Charles Henry Swinburne and Lady Jane Henrietta, daughter of the 3rd Earl of Ashburnham. He grew up at East Dene in Bonchurch on the Isle of Wight and attended Eton College 1849–53, where he first started writing poetry, and then Balliol College, Oxford 1856–60, though he never received a degree.

So as we can see he had a privileged upbringing, knowing nothing of the deprivation and hardship of many poets.

He was able to immerse himself in the works of other writers and poets.  He spent summer holidays at Capheaton Hall in Northumberland, the house of his grandfather, Sir John Swinburne, 6th Baronet (1762–1860) who had a famous library and was President of the Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle upon Tyne.  At Oxford, Swinburne met several Pre-Raphaelites, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He also met William Morris.

But despite, or maybe because of, this privileged upbringing, Swinburne became an alcoholic.  Small and thin at only five foot four, he was also a nervous highly strung soul.  By 1861, aged only 24, he had become addicted enough to need drying out.  He visited Menton on the French Riviera to recover from his excessive use of alcohol, staying at the Villa Laurenti.  According to Wikipedia he was also an ‘algolagniac’.  An  Algolagniac (from Greek: άλγος, algos, "pain", and λαγνεία, lagnia, "lust") is “a sexual tendency which is defined by deriving sexual pleasure and stimulation from physical pain, often involving an erogenous zone.

William Rothenstein
Algernon Charles Swinburne, when he got older.

Oscar Wilde stated that Swinburne was "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 bestialiser."

Whatever he did or was, his health suffered as a result, and in 1879 at the age of 42 he was taken into care by his friend Theodore Watts, who looked after him for the rest of his life at The Pines, 11 Putney Hill, Putney SW15. Thereafter he lost his youthful rebelliousness and developed into a figure of social respectability. It was said of Watts that he saved the man and killed the poet. Swinburne died at the Pines, on 10 April 1909 at the age of 72 and was buried at St. Boniface Church, Bonchurch on the Isle of Wight.

But here lies the fascination.  Born as he was into a life of luxury and ease, Swinburne was clearly a man aching to be a poet, but without the emotional drive to help him to be one.  So he created his own life of pain.  Rimbaud did the same thing, abused his body and mind in the hope the muse would flow.  In general, the muse does not flow in self-imposed torture, but in Rimbaud’s case and in Swinburne’s it did.


He is not without his critics.  So the muse was not entirely gracious.  His style has been described as ‘florid’ on occasions and his word choices have been criticised for being chosen to fit the rhyme scheme rather than contributing to the meaning of the piece.  But he had his admirers too.  A. E. Housman said:

“ [Swinburne] possessed an altogether unexampled command of rhyme, the chief enrichment of modern verse. The English language is comparatively poor in rhymes, and most English poets, when they have to rhyme more than two or three words together, betray their embarrassment. …. To Swinburne the sonnet was child’s play: the task of providing four rhymes was not hard enough, and he wrote long poems in which each stanza required eight or ten rhymes, and wrote them so that he never seemed to be saying anything for the rhyme’s sake.”

T. S. Eliot on the other hand, disliked Swinburne's prose, about which he wrote "the tumultuous outcry of adjectives, the headstrong rush of undisciplined sentences, are the index to the impatience and perhaps laziness of a disorderly mind."  But then it probably is quite difficult to order your mind if you are “deriving sexual pleasure and stimulation from physical pain, involving an erogenous zone” .

I personally really like his poetry, but it may have just a little to do with my wondering what he was doing to himself at the time he wrote it.


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