(First published in 1910)
The publication, in 1866, of the late Mr Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads may fairly be called the most conspicuous event in the literary history of the reign of Queen Victoria. We now see that it was not so important an event as it once appeared: its results were not permanent, nor even of long duration; but it was the most moving novelty that the world of letters had seen for many a day or is likely to see for many another. At a time when Victorian verse was at its very tamest, when the two most widely read of recent poems were Enoch Arden and Hiawatha, this trumpet of insurrection excited in young and ardent minds an emotion comparable to what Wordsworth and Coleridge had felt when they witnessed the beginning of the French Revolution. Mr Thomas Hardy has told me that in those days, when he was a young man of six-and-twenty living in London, there was a whole army of young men like himself, not mutually acquainted, who nevertheless, as they met in the streets, could recognise one another as spiritual brethren by a certain outward sign. This sign was an oblong projection at the breast-pocket of the coat. To the gross world of London, enslaved by commerce, respectability, and middle-age, it might have been anything; but the sons of fire who had similar oblongs protruding from their own breast-pockets knew what it was: it was Moxton’s first edition of Poems and Ballads, worn where it should be worn, just over the heart.
When Mr Swinburne died, April 1909, at the age of 72, he might as well have been dead for a quarter of a century. For a quarter of a century and more he had written nothing that mattered. There were not many to buy his books, and fewer still to read them; the poetasters, except the very poorest, had ceased to try to imitate him; the literary world was much interested in other things, good, bad and indifferent, but little interested in the poetry of Mr Swinburne. He still commanded the lip-service of the journalists, who would describe him as our only great living poet; but this they said, not because they believed it was true, but because they hoped, by so saying, to inflict mental anguish on Mr William Watson or Mr Stephen Phillips.
Swinburne in fact was one of those not very numerous poets whom their contemporaries have treated with justice. The different attention which he received at different periods very fairly corresponded to differences, at those periods, in the quality of his writing. He was neither steadily overrated, like Byron, nor steadily underrated, like Shelley, nor, like Wordsworth, derided while he wrote well and celebrated when he wrote well no longer: he received the day’s wages for the day’s work. His first book fell dead, as it deserved; his first good book, Atalanta in Calydon, earned him celebrity; his best book, Poems and Ballads, was his most famous and influential book; and the decline of his powers, slow in Songs before Sunrise and Bothwell and Erectheus, accelerated in his later writings, was followed, not immediately, but after an interval sufficient to give him the chance of recovery, by a corresponding decline, first slow and then rapid, in public interest and esteem.
There can be no doubt that the enthusiasm provoked by Poems and Ballads, like the loud and transient outcry which frightened its first publisher into withdrawing it from circulation, was due in great measure to adventitious circumstances and to a feature of the book which is now seen to be merely accidental. The poems were largely and even chiefly concerned with a thing which one set of people call love, and another set of people call immorality, each set declaring that the other name is quite wrong, so that people belonging to neither set do not exactly know what to call it; but perhaps one may avoid extremes by calling it Aphrodite. Now in the general life of mankind Aphrodite is quite able to take care of herself; but in literature, at any rate in the literature of that Anglo-Saxon race to which we have the high privilege and heavy responsibility of belonging, she wages an unequal contest with another great divinity, who is called purity by her friends and hypocrisy by her enemies, and whom, again to avoid extremes, one may perhaps call Mrs Grundy. In the year 1866 the vicissitudes of their secular conflict had brought Mrs Grundy to the top: she appeared to be sitting on Aphrodite as firmly as the Babylonian woman on her seven mountains in the Book of Revelations; and Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads were a powerful and timely demonstration in favour of the under dog – if indeed I may apply such a term to either of the fair antagonists. Here was a subject which most poets had ceased to talk about, and here was a poet talking about it at the very top of a very sonorous voice: the stone which the builders rejected was become the head of the corner. And although the enthusiasm which this intervention evoked in one camp, like the scandal which it occasioned in the other, was excessive – for Aphrodite has the knack of causing both her friends and her enemies to lose their heads and to make more fuss about her than she is worth – still the stroke was both effective and salutary, and entitles Swinburne to a secure though modest place among the liberators of mankind. The reasonable licence which English literature enjoys, and which it so seldom abuses, is the result of a gradual emancipation which began with Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads.
Those to whom this work appealed by its subject and contents, as distinct from its form, were of two classes: there were the simple adherents of Aphrodite, and there were those grave men, correct in behaviour and earnest in thought, who regard the relations of the sexes as the most serious and important element in human life. It was the irony of the situation that Swinburne himself belonged to neither class. He was not a libertine, and he was not an earnest thinker about life; he was merely a writer in search of a subject, and a tinder-box that any spark would set on fire. When he had written his book upon this subject, he had done with it, and it hardly appears again in the twenty volumes of his later verse: he was ready for a new subject. In Songs before Sunrise, his next volume, his attitude towards Aphrodite was austere, and the finest poem in the book is the Prelude in which he takes his leave of her. Poems and Ballads were the effervescence with which a quick and shallow nature responded to a certain influence arising partly from the Greek and Latin classics, partly from medieval legend, partly from the French literature of the nineteenth century. That effervescence subsided, and around a new subject, Liberty, a new influence, chiefly Mazzini’s, provoked a new effervescence, not nearly so sparkling. The fact is that, whatever may be the comparative merits of the two deities, Liberty is by no means so interesting as Aphrodite, and by no means so good a subject for poetry. There is a lack of detail about Liberty, and she has indeed no positive quality at all. Liberty consists in the absence of obstructions; it is merely a preliminary to activities whose character it does not determine; and to write poems about Liberty is very much as if one should write an Ode to Elbow-room or a panegyric on space of three dimensions. And in truth poets never do write poems about Liberty, they only pretend to do so: they substitute images.
Thy face is as a sword smiting in sunder
Shadows and chains and dreams and iron things;
The sea is dumb before thy face, the thunder
Silent, the skies are narrower than thy wings.
Then, when they feel that the reader is starving for something more tangible, they generally begin to talk of Athens, which, as it happens, was a slave-state; and in the last resort they fall back on denunciation of tyranny, an abominable institution, no doubt, but at any rate less featureless than Liberty, and a godsend to people who have to pretend to write about her.
But even tyranny is an exhaustible subject, and seven thousand verses exhaust it; and Swinburne, since he could not be still, was forced to be eloquent about other things. He appointed himself to laureateship of the sea; he cultivated a devotion to babies and young children; finally, under stress of famine and in desperation at the dearth of themes, he fled to what Johnson calls the last refuge of a scoundrel, and wrote patriotic poems in imitation of Campbell. And, in addition to all this, he composed a great number of verses about the verses of other poets.
Not one of these subjects was well chosen. The sea is a natural object; and Swinburne had no eye for nature and no talent for describing it. Children and babies are not appropriately celebrated in verse so ornate and so verbose as Swinburne’s. As for his patriotic poetry, it may be unfair to call it insincere, but certainly it has no air of sincerity: it is the sort of patriotic poetry one would expect from a man who had written volumes in honour of other nations before he wrote a line in honour of his own.
In truth there was only one theme which Swinburne thoroughly loved and understood; and that was literature. Here was the true centre of his interests, and the source of his genuine and spontaneous emotions. But literature, unfortunately, is neither a fruitful nor even an appropriate subject for poetry. Swinburne himself was uneasily aware of this; and consequently, when he heard it said that his work was grounded not upon life but upon books, it made him angry, and he began to splutter as follows: ‘The half-brained creature to whom books are other than living things may see with the eyes of a bat and draw with the fingers of a mole his dullard’s distinction between books and life: those who live the fuller life of a higher animal than he, know that books are to poets as much a part of that life as pictures are to painters or as music is to musicians, dead matter though they may be to the spiritually still-born children of dirt and dullness who find it possible and natural to live while dead in heart and brain.’ Well, of course, it is a sad thing to be a spiritually still-born child of dirt and dullness, and it is peculiarly depressing to be dead in heart and brain when one has only half a brain to be dead in; but it is no use bemoaning one’s condition, and we must pass on to consider the parallel which Swinburne draws.
Books, he says, are to poets as much part of life as pictures are to painters. Just so: they are to poets that part of life which is not fitted to become the subject of their art. Painters do not paint pictures of paintings, and similarly poets had better not write poems on poems. And Swinburne did worse than take books for his subject: he dragged this subject into the midst of all other subjects, and covered earth and sky and man with the dust of the library. He cannot watch a sunset at sea without beginning to think of Beaumont and Fletcher. He walks along a country road at Midsummer, and it sets him talking about Chaucer, because Chaucer may possibly have done the same thing. He writes an ode for the four hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his own school, Eton, in which he contrives to drag in Shakespeare (who was educated at Harrow) but mentions only one Etonian. And who do you think that one Etonian is? Shelley, whom Eton did not quite succeed in tormenting out of his mind: Shelley, who except for his father’s influence and intervention, would twice have been expelled: Shelley, whose atheism was traced, by an Eton headmaster, to the difficulty which he had in reconciling the existence of God with the existence of Eton. In short, Swinburne was perpetually talking shop: the bookish spirit in which he looked on nature and mankind, with his head full of his own trade, is essentially the same as the spirit in which The Tailor and Cutter annually criticises the portraits in the Royal Academy, interested, not in the artist, nor in the subject, but in the cut of the subject’s clothes.
I have been speaking of the themes of his lyrical poetry, because it is only as a lyrist that Swinburne is important. The themes of his dramatic and narrative works were not ill chosen, and the unsatisfactoriness of those poems was not due to their subject but to Swinburne’s lack of talent for narrative and the drama. His plays have a certain empty dignity, but he was not a dramatist nor even, like Browning, a psychologist: his characters are talking masks. In his only considerable narrative poem, Tristram of Lyonesse, the prologue, which in essence is lyric, is worth all the rest of the book put together; just as Atalanta in Calydon is raised far above his other dramas by the brilliant beauty of its very undramatic lyrics. It is of his lyrical poetry I am speaking when I say that after the first series of Poems and Ballads he was chiefly occupied with bad subjects or with subjects not suited to his genius.
But it has long been a commonplace that the strong side of Swinburne’s poetry was not its matter but its manner; and though the matter of Poems and Ballads had much to do with the celebrity of the book, it is to its diction and versification that it will mainly owe its place in literature. Of these it is very difficult to speak adequately and justly; to keep the balance between admiration for their extraordinary merit and originality, and due recognition of the fact that they belong essentially to the second order, not the first.
If a man does not hear the melody of Swinburne’s verse, he must be deaf; he would not hear the melody of any verse. But if, as many do, he thinks its melody is the best, he must have a gross ear. The man who now calls Swinburne the most musical of poets would, if he had been born one hundred and fifty years earlier, have said the same of Pope. To the ears of his contemporaries Pope’s verse was perfection: the inferiority of Milton’s and Shakespeare’s was not a thing to be disputed about but to be explained and excused. The melody of Pope and Swinburne have this in common, and owed their acceptation to this, that they address themselves frankly and almost exclusively to what may be called the external ear. This, in different ways and by different methods, they fill and delight: it is a pleasure to hear them, a pleasure to read them aloud. But there, in that very fact, you can tell that their music is only of the second order. To read aloud poets whose music is of the first, poets so much unlike one another as Milton and Blake, is not a pleasure but an embarrassment, because no reader can hope to do them justice. Their melody is addressed to the inner chambers of the sense of hearing, to the junction between the ear and the brain; and you should either hire an angel from heaven to read them to you, or let them read themselves in silence. None understood their superiority better than Swinburne himself, the finest of whose critical qualities was his capacity to recognise excellence unlike his own. His devotees might call him the most melodious of English poets, but he thought that the most melodious lines in English were the first five lines of Lycidas; he acknowledged in the Border Ballads a strain of music which no later poetry could reproduce; and he recognised that the best versification of modern times is to be found in the irregular and simple-seeming measures of the Ancient Mariner.
Among Swinburne’s technical achievements the most conspicuous, if not the greatest, was his development of anapaestic verse. It was he who first made the anapaest fit for serious poetry. Before his time it had been used with some success for the lightest purposes, but when used for purposes other than the lightest it had seldom been managed with skill. At its best it had a simple and rather shallow music.
The blackbird has fled to another retreat
Where the hazels afford him a screen from the heat,
And the scene where his melody charmed me before
Resounds with his sweet-sounding ditty no more.
But it was notably unsure of foot, and seldom went without stumbling for much more than four lines at a time: it was for ever collapsing into such meanness as this:
There is mercy in every place,
And mercy, encouraging thought!
Gives even affliction a grace
And reconciles man to his lot.
Yet this is almost the very stanza which Swinburne dignified and strengthened till it yielded a combination of speed and magnificence which nothing in English had possessed before.
Out of Dindymus heavily laden
Her lions draw bound and unfed
A mother, a mortal, a maiden,
A queen over death and the dead.
She is cold, and her habit is lowly,
Her temple of branches and sods;
Most fruitful and virginal, holy,
A mother of gods.
She hath wasted with fire thine high places
She hath hidden and marred and made sad
The fair limbs of the Loves, the fair faces
Of gods that were goodly and glad.
She slays, and her hands are not bloody;
She moves as a moon in the wane,
White-robed, and thy raiment is ruddy,
Our Lady of Pain.
Other stanzas he invented for it, to display its capacities.
In the darkening and whitening
With dayspring and lightning
For lamp and for sword,
God thunders in heaven, and his angels are red with the wrath of the Lord.
There lived a singer in France of old
By the tideless dolorous midland sea.
In a land of sand and ruin and gold
There shone one woman, and none but she.
And finding life for her love’s sake fail,
Being fain to see her, he bade set sail,
Touched land, and saw her as life grew cold,
And praised God, seeing; and so died he.
True, the anapaestic rhythm, even when invested by a master with these alluring splendours, is not, in English, the best vehicle for poetry. Better poetry has been written in iambics and trochaics than will ever be written in anapaests; but still it is an unparalleled achievement, at so late a period of the literature, to have added this new and resonant string to the lyre.
In the second place, not only did he create new metres but he recreated old; and in particular he resuscitated the heroic couplet. It might have been thought, after all the practitioners through whose hands this measure had passed, that nothing remained for it but decent burial. The valley was full of bones; and behold, there were very many in the open valley; and lo, they were very dry. The form which the couplet had taken in the seventeenth century it retained to the nineteenth, and the innovations or reactions of Leigh Hunt and Keats were not improvements. Upon these dry bones Swinburne brought up new flesh and breathed into them a new spirit. In the hands of the last considerable poet who had used it, the metre still went to the tune of Pope and Dryden:
Night wanes – the vapours round the mountains curl’d,
Melt into morn, and Light awakes the world.
Man has another day to swell the past,
And lead him near to little, but his last;
But mighty Nature bounds as from her birth,
The sun is in the heavens, and life on earth;
Flowers in the valley, splendour in the beam,
Health on the gale, and freshness in the stream.
Immortal man! behold her glories shine,
And cry, exulting inly, “They are thine!”
Gaze on, while yet thy gladden’d eye may see,
A morrow comes when they are not for thee;
And grieve what may above thy senseless bier,
Nor earth nor sky will yield a single tear;
Nor cloud shall gather more, nor leaf shall fall,
Nor gale breathe forth one sigh for thee, for all;
But creeping things shall revel in their spoil,
And fit thy clay to fertilise the soil.
These lines are much above Byron’s average; they say something worth saying, and they say it capably and with emotion; but their structure is still formal, and their vocabulary a trifle poor. Now take Swinburne:
Thee too the years shall cover; thou shalt be
As the rose born of one same blood with thee,
As a song sung, as a word said, and fall
Flower-wise, and be not any more at all,
Nor any memory of thee anywhere;
For never Muse has bound above thine hair
The high Pierian flower whose graft outgrows
All summer kinship of the mortal rose
And colour of deciduous days, nor shed
Reflex and flush of heaven about thine head,
Nor reddened brows made pale by floral grief
With splendid shadow from that lordlier leaf.
It is hardly recognisable as the same metre. You are free to like it less: it is less brisk and forthright, but its fulness and richness and variety are qualities of which one would never have supposed the couplet to be capable.
In the third place he possessed an altogether unexampled command of rhyme, the chief enrichment of modern verse. The English language is comparatively poor in rhymes, and most English poets, when they have to rhyme more than two or three words together, betray their embarrassment. They betray it, for instance, when they write sonnets after the strict Petrarchian rule: the poetical inferiority of most English sonnets, if compared with what their own authors have achieved in other forms of verse, is largely though not entirely the result of this difficulty. Milton is embarrassed by it; Wordsworth, though probably the best of our sonneteers, is pitiably embarrassed, and driven to end the noblest of his sonnets with a wretched tag about ‘titles manifold’; Rossetti, our most determined workman in this line, dissimulates his embarrassment by inventing, for the purpose of sonnet-writing, a jargon in which every word is so unnatural that the words which form the rhymes are no more unnatural than the rest and so give rise to no special wonder. To Swinburne the sonnet was child’s play: the task of providing four rhymes was not hard enough, and he wrote long poems in which each stanza required eight or ten rhymes, and wrote them so that he never seemed to be saying anything for the rhyme’s sake. His pre-eminence was most remarkable in the mastery of feminine rhymes, as we call them, rhymes of two syllables. Before Swinburne, few English poets had used them much, few without doing themselves an injury. They would start swimmingly enough:
How delicious is the winning
Of a kiss at love’s beginning,
When two mutual hearts are sighing
For the knots there’s no untying.
But unless they make up their mind to desert the scheme it would generally entice them to use words they would rather not have used:
Yet remember, ’midst your wooing,
Love has bliss, but love has ruing,
Other smiles may make you fickle,
Tears for other charms may trickle.
The word trickle, in that verse, is not preferred to the word flow because of its intrinsic merit, but for quite another reason. Swinburne’s language, no doubt, is often wanting in clearness and aptness, but that defect is never caused by any difficulty in finding feminine rhymes: they come at call as readily as any other. I will mention one significant detail. The ordinary versifier, if he employs feminine rhymes, makes great use of words ending with ing: they are the largest class of these rhymes, and they form his mainstay. Swinburne, so plentiful and ready to hand were his stores, almost disdains this expedient: in all the four hundred and forty lines of Dolores, for example, he only twice resorts to it.
The ornament of verse especially associated with the name of Swinburne is alliteration. This of course was no invention of his. Not to speak of the old poetry extinguished by Chaucer and his rhymes, whose very base was alliteration, this artifice had been used, and even used to excess, by many earlier poets than Swinburne. The greatest of our poets did not largely avail themselves of its aid: in Milton, for instance, its appearance is sporadic and sometimes even, one would say, unintentional: we are arrested and surprised at encountering now and then such lines as these:
Fairer than feigned of old or fabled since
Of fairy damsels met in forest wide
By Knights of Logres or of Lyones,
Lancelot, or Pelleas, or Pellenore.
The first English poet to employ alliteration methodically and scientifically was Gray, and after Gray it was most systematically practised by Tennyson: in Gray it is perhaps less effective than one might expect, and in Tennyson, though effective, it is rather too prominent and ubiquitous. Swinburne, in much of his writing, employed the artifice so profusely, so wastefully, and indeed so ignorantly, that in the end he brought it into disrepute and sent it out of fashion. The proper function of alliteration is to add speed and force to the motion of verse. How it should be applied, if it is to compass these ends, is a matter on which I might say a good deal; but that belongs rather to a paper on the artifice of versification than to a paper on Swinburne. From Swinburne I will take one example, and I might take hundreds, of how it should not be applied.
Many a long blithe wave
Buoyed their blithe bark between the bare bald rocks
Deep, steep, and still, save for the swift free flocks…
but that is enough. Those verses make on the ear and mind two immediate impressions: they are cumbrous and they are artificial; and if they are analysed it will be found that their unskilful artifice is the chief cause of their cumbrousness. They are the work of a craftsman who has forgotten his trade; who has lost sight of the end proposed, and who actually defeats the end by mechanically hammering away at the means. This is mere bungling; but in the celebrated stanzas about the lilies and languors of virtue and the raptures and roses of vice, though the artifice is rather crude and obvious, the effect is nevertheless attained: the verse, though it pays a price for them, does gain force and rapidity. In his best time he used alliteration, never indeed with perfect art, but still with some rectitude of instinct: this he lost in his later years, as he lost almost everything else. He had deafened himself with his own noise, till his verse became downright unpleasant to ears which were still open. His growing obtuseness of perception showed itself most clearly in his employment of trochaic rhythms. This metre he had never written so skilfully as iambics or anapaests, and in the end he may be said to have written it worse than anyone had ever written it before. The parody of Laura Matilda in the Rejected Addresses is not exactly good verse; but it is better verse than Swinburne’s poem on Grace Darling.
If you turn from his versification to his diction, the case is much the same, though it cannot be examined in the same detail. The first impression produced by his style, as it was in 1866, is one of great and even overpowering richness. He seemed to have ransacked all the treasuries of the language and melted down the whole plunder into a new and gorgeous amalgam. In the poems of his later life his style was threadbare. It had not become austere: it was as voluble and diffuse as ever, but it had ceased to be rich and various. The torrent streamed on, but it streamed from an impoverished vocabulary, and consisted of a dwindled stock of words repeated again and again. A few favourite epithets were conferred on all manner of different things, instead of different and truly descriptive epithets. If he admired something very much he would not wait to find a word indicative of its quality, but he would call it ‘god-like’; upon which one of his critics observed that, in view of Mr Swinburne’s theological opinions, to call a thing god-like must be very much the same as calling it devilish good. If an epithet struck him as pretty in itself he would work it to death by associating it with objects to which it had no special appropriateness; and it would be interesting to draw up a list of the various unlike things which he has called ‘sun-bright’ or ‘flower-soft’ or ‘deep as the sea’. This is a fashion of speaking which attains its legitimate culmination in the conversational style of the British workman, who thinks that no noun should be without its adjective, and that one adjective is suitable to every noun.
But even in the days of its early freshness and abundance his diction has the fault that amidst all its magnificence it did not ring quite true: it would not sustain comparison even with the best contemporary poetry, the best of Tennyson’s and Matthew Arnold’s, no, nor the best of Coventry Patmore’s and Christina Rossetti’s. Speaking broadly, it was a diction of the same cast as Pope’s. The differences between the two are evident and striking; but their differences are less essential than their resemblance in this point – that they both run in a groove. They impose upon all thought and feeling a set mode of speech: they are mannerisms, and consequently they are imitable. Pope’s diction was long imitated successfully; Swinburne’s was imitated successfully, but not long, because those who were clever enough to imitate it were also clever enough to see it was not well worth imitating.
In fact, what Swinburne wrote, and what Pope and Dryden wrote, was not, in the strictest sense of the word, poetry. It was often capital stuff, and to the taste of their contemporaries it was better than the best poetry. But time went on, and the power of its spell was found to wane; its appeal was not to the core of the human mind and the unalterable element in its constitution. I suppose that most people, while admitting that Swinburne’s poetry is less poetical than Milton’s or even than Tennyson’s, would maintain that on the other hand it is much more poetical than Pope’s or even Dryden’s. Well, I think so too; but I cannot feel sure that I am right in thinking so. The atmosphere of taste in which Swinburne’s poetry grew up is not yet altogether dispersed: we ourselves grew up in it, and we have not all grown out of it. But if permanency is any test of merit, then we must remark that the poetry inaugurated by Dryden was supreme for a century and a half, while the influence of Swinburne spent itself within five and twenty years. It began in 1865, it reached its height before 1880, by 1890 there was not much left of it. Here of course it must be borne in mind that Pope and Dryden had two strings to their bow and Swinburne had only one. If Pope’s and Dryden’s verse were not poetry at all, they still would be very great men of letters and representatives of their age. Their sense, their wit, their knowledge of life and men, and their eminence in those merits which poetry shares with prose, would still preserve for their verse a high place in literature. But if Swinburne’s verse had not poetical merit, it would have no merit at all.
Poetry, which in itself is simply a tone of the voice, a particular way of saying things, is mainly concerned with three great provinces. First, with human affection, and those emotions which we assign to the heart: no one could say that Swinburne succeeded or excelled in this province. The next province is the world of thought; the contemplation of life and the universe: in this province Swinburne’s ideas and reflections are not indeed identical with those of Mrs Hemans, but they belong to the same intellectual order as hers: unwound from their cocoon of words they are either superficial or second-hand. Last, there is the province of external nature as perceived by our senses; and on this I must dwell for a little, because there is one department of external nature which Swinburne is supposed to have made his own: the sea.
The sea, to be sure, is a large department; and that is how it succeeded in attracting Swinburne’s attention; for he seldom noticed any object of external nature unless it was very large, very brilliant, or very violently coloured. But the sea as an object of poetry is somewhat barren. Those poets who have a true eye for nature and a sure pen for describing it, spend few words describing the sea; and their few words describe it better than Swinburne’s thousands. It is historically certain that he had seen the sea, but if it were not, it could not with certainty have been inferred from his descriptions: they might have been written by a man who had never been outside Warwickshire. Descriptions of nature equally accurate, though not equally eloquent, have actually been composed by persons blind from their birth, merely by combining anew the words and phrases which they have had read to them from books. When Swinburne writes thus –
And the night was alive and anhungered of life as a tiger from toils cast free:
And a rapture of rage made joyous the spirit and strength of the soul of the sea.
All the weight of the wind bore down on it, freighted with death for fraught:
And the keen waves kindled and quickened as things transfigured or things distraught.
And madness fell on them laughing and leaping; and madness came on the wind:
And the might and the light and the darkness of storm were as storm in the heart of Ind.
Such glory, such terror, such passion, as lighten and harrow the far fierce East,
Rang, shone, spake, shuddered around us: the night was an altar with death for priest –
it would be cruel to set against such a passage a single line of Tennyson’s or a single epithet of Shakespeare’s: I take instead a snatch of verse whose author few of you know and most of you never heard of:
Hurry me, Nymphs, O, hurry me
Far above the grovelling sea,
Which, with blind weakness and bass roar
Casting his white age on the shore,
Wallows along that slimy floor;
With his wide-spread webbèd hands
Seeking to climb the level sands,
But rejected still to rave
Alive in his uncovered grave.
[From George Darley’s “Nepenthe”.]
Admirers of the sea may call that a lampoon or a caricature, but they cannot deny that it is life-like: the man who wrote it had seen the sea, and the man who reads it sees the sea again.
If even so bare and simple an object as the sea was too elusive and delicate for Swinburne’s observation and description, you would not expect him to have much success with anything so various and manifold as the surface of the earth. And I am downright aghast at the dullness of perception and lack of self-knowledge and self-criticism which permitted him to deposit his prodigious quantity of descriptive writing in the field of English literature. That field is rich beyond example in descriptions of nature from the hands of unequalled masters, for in the rendering of nature English poetry has outdone all poetry: and here, after five centuries, comes Swinburne covering the grass with his cartload of words and filling the air with the noise of the shooting of rubbish. It is a clear morning towards the end of winter: snow has fallen in the night, and still lies on the branches of the trees under brilliant sunshine. Tennyson would have surveyed the scene with his trained eye, made search among his treasury of choice words, sorted and sifted and condensed them, till he had framed three lines of verse, to be introduced one day in a narrative or a simile, and there to flash upon the reader’s eye the very picture of a snowy and sunshiny morning. Keats or Shakespeare would have walked between the trees thinking of whatever came uppermost and letting their senses commune with their souls; and there the morning would have transmuted itself into half a line or so which, occurring in some chance passage of their poetry, would have set the reader walking between the same trees again. Swinburne picks up the sausage-machine into which he crammed anything and everything; round goes the handle, and out at the other end comes this noise:
Ere frost-flower and snow-blossom faded and fell, and the splendour of winter had passed out of sight,
The ways of the woodlands were fairer and stranger than dreams that fulfil us in sleep with delight;
The breath of the mouths of the winds had hardened on tree-tops and branches that glittered and swayed
Such wonders and glories of blossomlike snow or of frost that outlightens all flowers till it fade
That the sea was not lovelier than here was the land, nor the night than the day, nor the day than the night,
Nor the winter sublimer with storm than the spring: such mirth had the madness and might in thee made,
March, master of winds, bright minstrel and marshal of storms that enkindle the season they smite.
That is not all, it clatters on for fifty lines or so; but that is enough and too much. It shows what nature was to Swinburne: just something to write verse about, a material for making a particular kind of sausage.
This inattention or insensibility betrays itself very plainly in his imagery, which is at once profuse and meagre. It is profuse, for he constantly uses metaphors and similes where they are not wanted and do not help the thought; and yet it is meagre, for the same metaphors and similes are constantly repeated. They are derived from the few natural objects which he had noticed: the sea, the stars, sunset, fire, and flowers, generally of a red colour, such as the rose and the poppy. However, the worse that can be said of them is that they are monotonous, perfunctory, and ineffective. But much worse can be said of another kind of simile, which grows common in his later writings. When a poet says that hatred is hot as fire or chastity white as snow, we can only object that we have often heard this before and that, considered as ornament, it is rather trite and cheap. But when he inverts his comparison and says that fire is hot as hatred and snow white as chastity, he is a fool for his pains. The heat of fire and the whiteness of snow are so much more sharply perceived than those qualities of hatred and chastity which have heat and whiteness for courtesy titles, that these similes actually blurr [sic] the image and dilute the force of what is said. But with such similes Swinburne’s later works abound: similes to him were part of the convention of poetry, and he mechanically used them when they no longer served, and even when they frustrated, the only purpose which can justify their introduction. In fact he came to write like an automaton, without so much as knowing the meaning of what he said. Here are four lines from the Tale of Balen:
A table of clear gold thereby
Stood stately, fair as morning’s eye,
– the beauty of a table is not more clearly apprehended when compared to the beauty of morning’s eye: that is the perfunctory simile, poor and useless; but let that pass, and proceed –
With four strong silver pillars, high
And firm as faith and hope may be.
These four pillars are the four legs of the table: they were possibly five feet in height, probably less, certainly not much more; and they were high as hope may be. Now therefore we know the maximum height of hope: five feet and few odd inches.
It is not then for mastery nor even for competent handling of any of the three great provinces of poetry that Swinburne will be known to posterity. And not only so, but he was deficient in some of the qualities which go to constitute excellence on the formal side of poetry: he had little power of construction and little power of condensation. His nearest approach to a good short poem is the Garden of Proserpina, and that contains 96 lines, though it is true that they are short ones: Ilicet has about 150, The Triumph of Time nearly 400, Dolores more than 400. Of course in this defect Swinburne does not stand alone among eminent poets: he stands with Chaucer and Spencer, whose shorter pieces give hardly a hint of their true powers and excellences. But the defect was a worse misfortune to him than to them, because in the main they were narrative poets, and he was a lyrist. Gray writing to Mason on January 13, 1758, has these words: ‘Extreme conciseness of expression, yet pure, perspicuous and musical, is one of the grand beauties of lyric poetry. This I have always aimed at, and never could attain.’ Much less did Swinburne ever attain, what he never even recognised as a mark to aim at, this grand beauty of lyric poetry. Again, the virtue of construction and orderly evolution is almost absent from his lyrics. To take three of his most impressive and characteristic poems, the three which I have mentioned last, Dolores, and Ilicet, and The Triumph of Time: there is no reason why they should begin where they do or end where they do; there is no reason why the middle should be in the middle; there is hardly a reason why, having once begun, they should ever end at all; and it would be possible to rearrange the stanzas which compose them in different orders without lessening their coherency or impairing their effect. Almost the only piece which satisfies in this respect is the last good poem he ever wrote, the elegy on the death of Baudelaire, which indeed, if it has not all the fresh and luxuriant beauty of his earlier writing, may yet be reckoned his very best poem, in virtue of its dignity, and its unusual and uncharacteristic merit of structure and design.
It is therefore by two things mainly, his verse and his language, in the vigour and magnificence which at his best period they possessed, that Swinburne must stand or fall; and by those two things he will not fall but stand. I have said that neither is of the first order; but there is no need that they should be: to things so novel and original it suffices that they should be good; you cannot demand that they should be the best. Henry the Seventh’s chapel is not the most beautiful part of Westminster Abbey; but it is beautiful, and the fabric is more enriched by the addition of that purer style of the choir and transepts. Who is the greatest poet of the nineteenth century it is difficult, gloriously difficult, to say; assuredly not Swinburne; but its two most original poets are Wordsworth, who began the age, and Swinburne, who ended it. And when Swinburne died last year, thirty years later than he would have died if the gods had loved him, and my memory took me back to the heart of that movement in literature which he created and survived, I thought that Wordsworth had pronounced his finest epitaph in the sonnet on the extinction of the Venetian Republic:
And what if she had seen those glories fade,
Those titles vanish, and strength decay;
Yet shall some tribute of regret be paid
When her long life hath reached its final day:
Men are we, and must grieve when even the shade
Of that which once was great is passed away.