Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837–1909) was a Victorian poet and literary reviewer who, in 1892, was considered for the Poet Laureateship when Alfred, Lord Tennyson died. As well as pioneering the aesthetic movement, Swinburne also preceded Oscar Wilde in attracting literary controversy. One of his books, Poems and Ballads (1866), caused one of the biggest outrages in English poetic history. Later that year Swinburne published Notes on Poems and Reviews (1866), a proud defence of his work.
What are the poems like?
‘Anactoria’ is one example of Swinburne using the rhythms of his verse to bring out the vividness of his imagery:
I feel thy blood against my blood: my pain
Pains thee, and lips bruise lips, and vein stings vein.
Let fruit be crushed on fruit, let flower on flower,
Breast kindle breast, and either burn one hour.
What was the response like?
A slip was inserted into this edition, rather like the more recent technique of putting positive reviews on a book jacket, but even that is on the defensive: ‘He is a young poet with sterling qualities, and the outcry that has been made over this volume is not very creditable to his critics'.
According to the critic Clyde Hyder, the collection had been ‘attacked with a bitterness rarely equalled in the annals of literary history’, but ‘[c]harges of sensuality and immorality, sometimes of paganism and blasphemy’ were far more common than any criticism of structure or technique.
Observing in Notes on Poems and Reviews that ‘Anactoria’ was picked up as ‘especially horrible’ by reviewers, Swinburne explained that the poem ‘simply expressed, or tried to express, that violence of affection which hardens into rage and deepens into despair’, and did so on the basis of the works of Sappho, an Ancient Greek female poet with a reputation for bisexuality. Swinburne points out that he is merely translating her ‘Ode to Anactoria’, which English schoolboys had to learn by heart: ‘I have striven to cast my spirit into the mould of hers, to express and represent not the poem but the poet’.
What relationship did he have to Oscar Wilde?
Wilde admired the dramatic quality of Swinburne’s poetry, the poetic quality of his drama, and the fact that the two overlapped so closely. He called Swinburne ‘the first lyric poet who has tried to make an absolute surrender of his personality, and he has succeeded. We have the song, but never the singer ...’. This complex play of art and biography would be one of the particular themes of the Preface to Dorian Gray
(1891). According to his biographer Richard Ellmann, Swinburne’s Essays and Studies
(1875) ‘gave Wilde the idea of uniting “personality” and “perfection” that he made much of later’.
Wilde also thought Swinburne’s Atalanta in Calydon was, with Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Cenci, one of the two great English plays of the 19th century, though he admitted they were both unactable. Accordingly, he would send Swinburne his own poetic drama Salomé.
Wilde told stories of lounging in bed with Swinburne’s poetry in his student days, and he sent the older poet a copy of his own Poems
(1881) – perhaps in recognition of his obvious influence upon the volume. Swinburne wrote back to thank Wilde for such an ‘exquisitely pretty book’.
Swinburne also knew Wilde’s mother and, in 1890, was friendly enough with the family to be among the people who supported her application to be given a Civil List pension – financial support from the Queen.