The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 9. Poems and Ballads
The atheism of Atalanta might pass unchallenged, so long as it was partly veiled by its antique setting; but Poems and Ballads not unnaturally shocked austere critics by its negation of conventional reticence. Not all the beauty of its verse can palliate Swinburne’s waywardness in his choice of themes, and his attempt to acclimatize his fleurs du mal to English soil in defiance of prudery and philistinism created a prejudice against him in a society which had responded heartily to Tennyson’s noble celebration of duty and virtue and welcomed the bracing quality of Browning’s optimism. The subjects of Laus Veneris, Anactoria, Faustine and The Leper were sensual obsessions, marring and wasting life: their end, satiety and hopeless weariness of spirit, was the burden of Dolores, Ilicet and The Triumph of Time. No one could have felt more amusement than Swinburne himself at the plea occasionally made by his defenders that Dolores is a moral sermon, because it is full of the pain and bitterness of sensual indulgence. The spirit of Poems and Ballads is frankly pagan: the goddess, hominum divumque voluptas, to whose cult it is dedicated, is, also, our Lady of Pain: the inevitable escape from the barren pleasures of her worship and the revulsions of feeling which they entail is “the end of all, the poppied sleep.” There are, naturally, two opinions upon the desirability of asserting such views publicly without suggesting a tonic remedy; but there can be no question as to the beauty of form in which the assertion was clothed. Swinburne’s work, as a whole, suffers from the paucity of its contents; his rapid genius was too easily satisfied with returning to the same themes over and over again and reaffirming them with increased emphasis but little variety. But, in metrical skill and in the volume of his highly decorated language, he had no rival among English poets. The first of these qualities he preserved to the end; the second was somewhat affected, as time went on, by the monotony, already noticed, of his favourite subjects, which became unequal to the strain put upon them by their constant changes of elaborate dress. In Poems and Ballads, however, as in Atalanta, his verse had lost none of its freshness, and his metre and rhythm adapted themselves freely to change of subject. The “profuse strains of unpremeditated art” of the earlier romantic poets were not his; but the constraint of form was a positive pleasure to him, under which he moved with unequalled freedom. The slow movement of Laus Veneris, and the sorrow-laden spondees of Ilicet, the impetuous haste with which the lover in The Triumph of Time flings away regretfully but unhesitatingly his past happiness with both hands, the forced lightness of Faustine, the swift anapaests of Dolores, full of reckless glorying in forbidden pleasure, the solemn affirmations and cowed responses of A Litany, the bird-notes of Itylus, mingling with magic skill the sweetness and sorrow of the nightingale’s song, the careless innocence of A Match, are striking instances of his power of adapting sound to meaning. Characteristic features of all these poems are the use of alliteration and of words which, by community of sound and form, echo and are complementary to one another. The accusation of sound without sense has been brought by unsympathetic critics against poetry in which the charm of sound is remarkable. If Swinburne’s wealth of language sometimes obscured his meaning with allusiveness and periphrases, his rhythm is an unfailing guide to the spirit of his words.
Poems and Ballads contained tributes of admiration to Landor and Victor Hugo, while A Christmas Carol and The Masque of Queen Bersabe, to say nothing of the constant use of imagery and phrase in Laus Veneris and other poems, were evidence of close kinship with the medieval romance beloved of Rossetti and his circle. There were signs, also, in this volume of the special enthusiasm which filled Swinburne’s next books of verse. The spirit of liberty was aborad upon the winds. In 1867, the poet whose hymns of lust and satiety had dazzled the lovers of poetry with their youthful vigour sang the praise of Mazzini and Garibaldi in A Song of Italy. Songs before Sunrise in 1871 was a collection of poems written during the final struggle for Italian freedom. To analyse its characteristics would be to repeat what has been said already of Poems and Ballads. It includes much of Swinburne’s best work, the majestic Hertha, the lament for captive Italy in Super Flumina Babylonis and the apostrophe to France in Quia Multum Amavit, whose strains sway and fluctuate at will between fierce scorn for the oppressor and tenderness for his victims, hope and comfort for Italy in her slavery, compassion for prostituted France. Where Victor Hugo’s war music had led the way, Swinburne’s clarion was bound to follow. It was difficult to enter a field so fully occupied by the author of Les Chatiments. and it must be owned that, when the clarion sounded a charge against Napoleon III, it made up for want of originality by an excess of shrillness. Nevertheless, the sonnets written at intervals during this period and collected under the title Dirae sound and individual note of abuse and add their quota to the imagery even of such poems as L’Égout de Rome.
After the achievement of Italian hope in 1870 and the fall of Napoleon III, which he hailed with savage delight in 1871, Swinburne had leisure to return to more purely artistic work. In the length and rhetoric of Bothwell, sequel to Chastelard and precursor of Mary Stuart, he followed the example of Hugo’s Cromwell. This play, published in 1874, is a dramatic poem in which he pursued with close attention to historical fact his conception of Mary’s character, defending her against the sympathisers who, in their anxiety to clear her of knavery, only succeeded in convicting her of senseless folly. Unfitted by its extreme length for the stage, Bothwell is yet a work of great dramatic power; its sustained speeches, chief among them the great speech of Knox, are written in music which is susceptible to every change of tone, and tragic terror could go no further than in the scene at Kirk of Field where, before Darnley’s murder, Mary is heard singing snatches of Lord Love went maying, the lyric sung by Rizzio to the queen and her ladies on the night of his death. As Bothwell followed Chastelard, so Erechtheus, in 1876, followed Atalanta with equal eloquence and with a somewhat closer relation to the inner spirit of Greek tragic form than its predecessor. The lyric choruses of Erechtheus, while they give less immediate delight than the enchanting music of those in Atalanta, have a more constant loftiness and majesty, and no passage of Swinburne’s lyric work is more spontaneous and splendid than the apostrophe to Athens, the
A second series of Poems and Ballads showed no falling off in melody, with a more chastened tone than that of the first volume. There is equal ease in Swinburne’s handling of the music of enchantment in A Forsaken Garden and of the dignified choral harmonies of Ave atque Vale, his beautiful tribute to the memory of Baudelaire. In his translations of some of Villon’s ballades, he acknowledged, with his usual generosity, his inferiority to Rossetti in this field: if, in choice of material, he was too often guided by the example of others in whose wake it was dangerous to follow, it was, at any rate, with an admiration totally distinct from a desire to rival them. Studies in Song and Songs of the Springtides, in 1880, were full of love of the sea, the prevailing passion of his later verse. By the North Sea, a lyric symphony in seven movements echoing the rushing of the east wind and the chiming of sun-lit breakers beating upon a crumbling coast, was his highest tribute to the resistless power and eternity of ocean, the sense of which plays an animate part in the later Tristram of Lyonesse and Marino Faliero. A rather excessive ingenuity obscures the Song for the Centenary of Walter Savage Landor and the Birthday Ode to Victor Hugo: allusions to the works of these authors are woven into the substance of both poems with a skill that suggests an acrostic, and the short explanatory key which Swinburne found it necessary to add to them is an indication of his own uneasiness on this head. His own humour was quick to detect possible weaknesses in the fiery enthusiasm of his verse, and in the same year he parodied himself mercilessly and perfectly in the last piece of the anonymous Heptalogia.