The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

V. The Rossettis, William Morris, Swinburne, and Others

§ 10. Tristram of Lyonesse

Most lovers of Swinburne will agree that the Tristram of Lyonesse volume, published in 1882, is the crown of his mature work. The long romance in couplets which is the title-piece challenges comparison with the romantic narratives of William Morris. In the art of story-telling, Swinburne was Morris’s inferior; but in the structure of his verse and the value which he gave to musical effects and the technique of vowel sounds, elisions and alliteration, Swinburne was as careful an artist as Morris was negligent. The theme of Tristram is the glorification of lovers’ passion. With Morris, such passion is apt to be a pining sickness which clouds mortal joy with an anticipation of its end: the love of Medea and Jason brings very little present enjoyment to the lovers. Swinburne’s lovers are conscious of the disadvantages their passion involves and the pain inevitably mixed with it; but their apprehensions are drowned in the buoyancy of the moment, and they rush upon their doom with a resolution born of the conviction that the strife and suffering inherent in their abandonment to passion are no cause for wavering or regret. If disloyal in their human relations, they are the loyal votaries of a love in which they have found delight without weariness. The coming of fate finds them united:

  • from love and strife
  • The stroke of love’s own hand felt last and best
  • Gave them deliverance to perpetual rest.
  • Tristram of Lyonesse, the highest achievement of English couplet verse since Lamia, is the English epic of passionate love, which, recognizing nothing in the world but itself, goes through fire and water for its own sake: it realises in dramatic narrative the theme of “the Music” which forms the chorus to Morris’s Love is Enough. But Tristram was not all that the book contained. In Athens, an ode Swinburne worked out the comparison between the victors of Salamis and the those who conquered the Armada, and poured forth his gratitude to the dramatists of the Athenian stage. His love of the great English dramatists was expressed in a series of sonnets, many of whose phrases remain in the memory side by side with those of Lamb’s no less lyric prose criticisms. The sequence of lyrics A Dark Month, with which the volume concluded, was prompted by a child’s death, and belongs to the class of exquisite and tender poems in which Swinburne, turning form his habitual tone of exalted and exhausting passion, followed the example of the author of L’Art d’être Grandpère. Such poems, in the year after the appearance of Tristram, stood in company with the Guernsey sequence and other spontaneous variations of an artificial form in A Century of Roundels.

    In 1881, Swinburne had concluded with Mary Stuart the trilogy which Chastelard had begun. His devotion to this subject was expressed in the lyric Adieux a Marie Stuart, which, in one of its stanzas, sums up with sane precision the estimate of the queen expressed at length in his dramas. After this period the hues of autumn begin to tinge his verse. Ready as ever to assume graceful or majestic forms at will, his genius, though impelled to speak, had little left to say that was new. After A Midsummer Holiday, in 1884, he returned to drama in Marino Faliero, a subject which he felt had been handled unworthily by Byron. This drama followed the lines of the early plays in combining historic with poetic treatment without regard to suitability for the stage; but, as in Bothwell, powerful dramatic situations are achieved. Swinburne put into the part of the doge who conspired against the oligarchy of Venice his own passion for freedom and love of the sea and wind, the symbols of unchained liberty; and the contrast between his hero’s monologue and the Latin hymn of the penitents, whose verses form intervals in it, is the contrast most congenial to him—that between the freed will of man and the will in bondage to custom and tradition. Locrine, his next drama, in 1887, was an original experiment in which each scene was presented in rimes of a recurring stanza-form: the design, beautiful from a lyric point of view, was, however, unfavourable to the presentation of character and retarded dramatic action. Two years later came the third series of Poems and Ballads. In its lighter pieces and especially in such ballads as The Jacobite’s Lament, in which the calm melancholy of an exile like him, who “pined by Arno for his lovelier Tees” is touched with the passion of romantic sorrow, there is much of the accustomed freshness of spirit; but the chief effort of the volume, the poem written to commemorate the tercentenary of the Armada, shows fatigue, and the force which drives its galloping and thundering rhythms is more mechanical than that which, at a touch, set in motion the ardent measures of the choruses of Erechtheus and the ode to Athens. At the same time, the falling off noticeable in the later volumes, Astrophel and A Channel Passage, and his two last plays, The Sisters, a drama of modern life more ingenious in design than satisfactory in execution, and Rosamund Queen of the Lombards, is only the decline incidental to growing age. Loyal to his old enthusiasms, he was lover of freedom and patriot to the end; and the last poems of his life, though their insular tone may have astonished some of his old friends, gave utterance to his conviction that England, like Athens of old, was the safeguard of the world’s liberty.