The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 8. Atalanta in Calydon
Atalanta in Calydon and Chastelard in 1865 and Poems and Ballads in 1866 won Swinburne celebrity and notoriety. Chastelard, the first of his three plays upon the life of Mary queen of Scots, is a romantic drama in the style of his two earlier works. Atalanta, classical in subject, was an attempt to reproduce the characteristic forms of Greek drama in a corresponding English dress. The dialogue, closely following the conventional order of Greek tragedy, is in the involved blank verse, copious and pregnant in its content and artfully varied in its music, for which he had already shown his capacity. In his choruses, he adopted rimed stanzaic forms, in which he gave proof of an unparalleled range of musical compass. While his subsequent poetry showed that his metrical agility was incapable of exhaustion, he never excelled the ringing melody of the famous hymn to Artemis, afire with the new-born passion of spring, the firm and rapid tread with which “Before the beginning of years” proceeds to the melancholy assurance of its climax and the wavelike measures of the [char], weighted with the certainty of tragic doom, near the end of the poem. Atalanta is no mere archaic experiment: its structure is superficially Greek, and the old classical themes of controlling fate and divine intervention pervade its story; but the spirit in which it is written is the modern spirit of revolt against the religious acquiescence in the will of Heaven accepted by Greek tragedy. The cause which it pleads is that of “the holy spirit of man” against the tyranny of “the gods who divide and devour.” Its sympathy is with the beauty and strength of life and nature, and its burden is a complaint against “the supreme evil” whose weapons are decay and death. It needs no reading between the lines to see that Swinburne’s eloquence, in rhythms and periods which taxed all the resources of modern romantic poetry, arraigned the subservience of man, not only to the gods of ancient Greece, but to the religious ideals of his own day. Following Shelley’s audacious reversal of the principles of good and evil, typified in The Revolt of Islam by the conflict between the eagle of tyranny and the serpent of freedom, he denounced the binding spell of creeds with a free appropriation of the august language of the charms with which that spell had been woven round the heart of the nations.