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Algernon Charles Swinburne

Algernon Charles Swinburne

The English poet, dramatist, and critic Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) was famous in Victorian England for the innovative versification of his poetry and infamous for his violent attacks on Victorian morality.

Algernon Charles Swinburne was born in London on April 5, 1837. He was nervous and frail from birth, but he was also fired with nervous energy and fearlessness to the point of being reckless. Much of his childhood was spent on the Isle of Wight, a circumstance that fostered his deep love of the sea. He also made frequent visits to his grandfather's estate in Northumberland, where he was fascinated by the medieval border ballads that the servants sang to him. Swinburne attended Eton from 1849 to 1853. At school he became an avid reader and won first prizes in French and Italian. The corporal punishment that was traditional at Eton may have developed the abnormal pleasure in the experience of pain that characterized his adult behavior.

Years at Oxford

Swinburne entered Balliol College, Oxford, in January 1856, and he studied there intermittently for almost 4 years. Though he continued to read widely, he chafed at academic discipline and neglected his studies. His appearance was strikingly unusual. He was abnormally short with narrow, sloping shoulders and tiny hands and feet. His eyes were green, and his disproportionately large head was topped by a great aureole of bright red hair. His appearance, plus his habit of fluttering his hands and hopping about as he excitedly talked, provoked Henry Adams to compare him to "a crimson macaw." Swinburne supplemented his astounding physique with equally bizarre behavior. He became known for his violent attacks on Christianity and on conventional morality as well as for his late hours and heavy drinking. Swinburne replaced the religious faith of his youth with political fervor, declaiming verses to a portrait of the Italian patriot Giuseppe Mazzini that he hung in his room at Oxford.

At the university Swinburne formed lasting friendships with two of Oxford's most famous scholars, Walter Pater and Benjamin Jowett. In 1857 Swinburne became intimate with the Pre-Raphaelites Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, and Edward Burne-Jones. By 1860 Swinburne's Balliol colleagues considered him "dangerous, " but his decision to leave Oxford without a degree was apparently his own. His father, greatly disturbed by his son's withdrawal, nevertheless provided him with a permanent allowance. Swinburne moved to London and devoted his life to writing.

His Works

In 1861 Swinburne began his long association with Rossetti, who exerted a steadying influence and thus enabled him to write some of his finest lyric poetry. Swinburne published two plays in 1860, The Queen Mother and Rosamond, but they received no critical notice. However, in 1865, his powerful imitation of Greek tragedy, Atlanta in Calydon, was an instant success. Most critics were entranced by the metrical virtuosity displayed in the constantly shifting rhythms of the play's choruses, and few noticed its darkly amoral theme. But Poems and Ballads, First Series, published in April 1866, made Swinburne's sensuality and anti-Christianity unmistakable. This volume contains his finest poetry—beautiful in supple and unusual rhythms, in melodious sound combinations, and in intricately extended images. The most notable poems in it were clearly intended to shock the Victorian public. The "Hymn to Proserpine" denounces Christ as the "pale Galilean, " and "Faustine, " "Laus Veneris, " "Anactoria, " and "Dolores" boldly flaunt Swinburne's sadomasochistic sexuality. The book was savagely attacked by the press, and a controversy raged. Swinburne answered in "Notes on Poems and Reviews."

In 1867 Swinburne met Mazzini, who told him to turn from "love frenzy" to the utilization of his poetic gift in the "service of the republic." The result was Songs before Sunrise (1871), a volume of poems dedicated to the cause of freedom and democracy and championing the Italian struggle for independence. In 1878 Swinburne published Poems and Ballads, Second Series, but this volume contained few poems as beautiful and none so shocking as those of the First Series. It marked the end of Swinburne's greatest poetic achievement.

Throughout this period of literary activity, Swinburne had also been living a dissolute life of heavy drinking and masochistic sexual practices. His dissipation had brought on a number of attacks similar to epileptic fits, but his amazing energy had enabled him to return each time to his frenzied style of life.

In September 1879, however, Swinburne collapsed so completely that a friend, Walter Theodore Watts-Dunton, took him to his home in Putney, a suburb of London. There Watts-Dunton imposed a regimen that probably saved Swinburne's life. The poet spent the remaining 30 years of his life with Watts-Dunton in a manner as subdued as his youth had been wild. The sober discipline imposed on him enabled Swinburne to write and to publish 23 volumes of poetry, prose, and drama during these years. But A Century of Roundels (1883) clearly showed that Swinburne's rhythmic virtuosity had degenerated into excessive fluency of meter and that the fiery radical of Oxford was no more. In spite of continued avid reading and writing, Swinburne did not develop intellectually or artistically beyond his university days. He died of pneumonia on April 10, 1909, at Putney.

Further Reading

Swinburne's essays in defense of his work were collected by Clyde Kenneth Hyder in Swinburne Replies (1966). A wealth of fascinating detail is in Cecil Y. Lang's edition of The Swinburne Letters (6 vols., 1959-1962). The best biography is Georges Lafourcade, Swinburne: A Literary Biography (1932). The best critical appraisal is T.S. Eliot, "Swinburne as Poet, " in The Sacred Wood (1920). Major studies include Thomas Earle Welby, A Study of Swinburne (1926), and Samuel C. Chew, Swinburne (1929).

Additional Sources

Henderson, Philip, Swinburne; portrait of a poet, New York: Macmillan, 1974.

Kernahan, Coulson, Swinburne as I knew him: with some unpublished letters from the poet to his cousin the Hon. Lady Henniker Heaton, Philadelphia: R. West, 1978.

Mayfield, John S., Swinburneiana: a gallimaufry of bits and pieces about Algernon Charles Swinburne, s.l.: s.n., 1974 (Gaithersburg, Md.: Waring Press).

Thomas, Donald Serrell, Swinburne, the poet in his world, New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. □

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Swinburne, Algernon Charles

Algernon Charles Swinburne, 1837–1909, English poet and critic. His poetry is noted for its vitality and for the music of its language. After attending Eton (1849–53) and Oxford (1856–60) he settled in London on an allowance from his father. His first published volume, containing two blank verse plays entitled The Queen Mother and Rosamond (1860), attracted little attention, but Atalanta in Calydon (1865), a poetic drama modeled on Greek tragedy, brought him fame. In 1866 he published Poems and Ballads. The poems in this volume were savagely attacked for their sensuality and anti-Christian sentiments, but almost as excessively praised in other quarters for their technical facility and infusion of new energy into Victorian poetry. The poet's enthusiasm for the dreams for Italian unification of Giuseppe Mazzini (whom he met in 1867) found expression in A Song of Italy (1867) and Songs before Sunrise (1871). Swinburne had certain masochistic tendencies that, combined with his chronic epilepsy and his alcoholism, seriously undermined his health. By 1878 he was near death. He was restored to health under the supervision of Theodore Watts-Dunton, with whom he lived after 1879. For the final 30 years of his life he lived a closely supervised and highly ordered existence. Swinburne is equally famous as a poet and as a critic. Although many of his lyrics are weakened by verbosity and excessive use of stylistic devices, these flaws do not obscure the vigor and music in such pieces as the choruses from Atalanta, "The Garden of Proserpine," "The Triumph of Time," "A Forsaken Garden," "Ave atque vale" (an elegy on Baudelaire), and "Hertha." Swinburne also wrote three closet dramas on Mary Queen of Scots—Chastelard (1865), Bothwell (1874), and Mary Stuart (1881). His long poem Tristram of Lyonesse (1882) presents an intensely passionate vision of the medieval legend. Swinburne's critical work is marred by exaggerated vituperation and praise, digressiveness, and a flamboyant style, but he performed useful services in stimulating just appreciation of older English dramatists and of William Blake.

See his complete works (ed. by E. Gosse and T. J. Wise, 20 vol., 1925–27, repr. 1968); his letters (ed. by C. Y. Lang, 6 vol., 1959–62); biographies by G. Lafourcade (1932, repr. 1967), J. O. Fuller (1971), M. Panter-Downes (1971), and P. Henderson (1974); studies by S. C. Chew (1929, repr. 1966), E. Thomas (1912, repr. 1970), and C. K. Hyder, ed. (1970).

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"Swinburne, Algernon Charles." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Swinburne, Algernon Charles." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/swinburne-algernon-charles

"Swinburne, Algernon Charles." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/swinburne-algernon-charles

Swinburne, Algernon Charles

Swinburne, Algernon Charles (1837–1909) English poet and critic. A play, Atalanta in Calydon (1865), brought him fame, and his Poems and Ballads (1866) also won praise. Some of the poems in the collection, including “The Garden of Proserpine”, are among his finest. Two further series of Poems and Ballads appeared in 1876 and 1889.

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"Swinburne, Algernon Charles." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/swinburne-algernon-charles