Swinburne: Portrait of a Poet
The Year of the Wombat: England, 1857
When Tennyson died, Queen Victoria said to her prime minister, who was to advise her who should be the next poet laureate: “I am told that Mr. Swinburne is the best poet in my dominions.” Horrified, Gladstone wrote to Lord Acton, “I have been making a careful examination of his case…. I fear he is absolutely impossible.” Since Hardy had not published and Hopkins was unknown, the Queen as usual was right; but despite the blameless life Swinburne had led for over ten years at The Pines, it would perhaps have been eccentric for the Queen to appoint a former would-be regicide and militant atheist as her bard.
Perhaps Gladstone remembered the story which Monckton Milnes told of the occasion at his country house when Swinburne read to the assembled company one of his poems which dwelt on the joy of necrophilia to the horror of the Archbishop of York and the giggles of Thackeray’s girls, and was in the middle of another which described a noble lady being thrown into the Loire to drown bound face to face with her peasant lover, able at last to feel in death the ecstasy denied to him in life, when the butler “like an avenging angel threw open the door and announced ‘Prayers, my Lord!’ ”
Among the liberators of youth no one has ever quite matched Swinburne. Not until Shaw and Wells had any writer remotely his power of making droves of undergraduates see the world with eyes from which the scales had fallen, of littering the market place with overthrown idols, and filling heads with incantations the very sound of which seemed to be all that was needed to throw the Old Guard into confusion. When a poet impregnates the imagination of the young, curious progeny are born. Swinburne inspired the insipid poetry of his lineal descendants the aesthetes. Yet in the verse of the anti-aesthetic party led by Belloc and Chesterton there are also echoes of his voice. Even in Kipling at times. And in Gilbert Murray’s translations of Greek drama.
Then suddenly, as is nearly always the case with liberators, the eclipse came. A few schoolboys in the 1920s may have shuddered at the thought of the pale Galilean making the world gray with his breath, but soon only their aging schoolmasters thought anything of a poet whose diction was so imprecise when precision of feeling had become obligatory, so figurative when ambiguity was the touchstone, and so bombastic when allusive shorthand was in vogue. It is harder to construe the “meaning” of Swinburne than that of Eliot. Just as the long line of Purcell’s music is lost to modern music, so Swinburne’s torrent of melody has vanished. Yet since Auden’s death what poet can match Swinburne’s mastery of meter?
Philip Henderson has not much space for these matters: and perhaps he is right in thinking that a biographer does not need to spend time apologizing for the creator of Atalanta in Calydon. What he does excellently is to relate the influence in Swinburne’s poetry of his life and chart its ebb and flow.
In few lives did the tide run stronger. Everyone knows the familiar story. The upper-class boy (whose family still live at Capheaton in Northumberland) grew up to be a tiny creature with an enormous mop of flaming red hair, entirely fearless and destined to be petted and cherished by his friends. But what friends! He emigrated to Bohemia where for years he drank far more than he could take. Denounced as the most insidious of the fleshly school of poets, he flourished in London like the ungodly and the green bay tree for twenty years until, broken by alcoholic dysentery, he was carried off by Watts-Dunton to Putney where he was weaned from the bottle, developed respectable views, devoted himself to scholarly pursuits and to chucking babies under the chin in their prams. Writing nothing further of value, he lived for a further thirty-three years.
What Philip Henderson has done is to rewrite this tuppence-colored version of wayward genius who was either—according to taste—saved to eke out his days humbled by fate or was incarcerated and gelded by an interfering pedagogue. More important, Mr. Henderson reminds us how immensely gifted Swinburne was. He not only knew classical literature virtually in its entirety, he was the equal of all but the best professional scholars. A visitor calling on Jowett caught a glimpse of Swinburne sitting in an inner room correcting the Master of Balliol’s translation of the Symposium. Every so often there was a cackle of laughter followed by a gleeful, “Another howler, Master.” “Thank you, dear Algernon, thank you,” Jowett replied, gently shutting the door.
French romantics, Brantôme, Florentine Old Masters, and Jacobean drama were all his specialties. His criticism of Webster and his contemporaries has to this day a period interest. He was a pioneer in his work on Blake and a good judge of mid-Victorian poetry, but it was as an expert in contemporary French literature that he excelled. No one knew Balzac better than he, no one in England recognized more clearly the achievement not only of Victor Hugo but of Baudelaire, and it was perhaps he, more than anyone else, who was responsible for the introduction into England of the ideas of the French aesthetic movement. When Gautier died he contributed to a memorial volume two poems in English, two in French, one in Latin, and five in Greek.
So far from wasting his talents in dissipation Swinburne made the very most of them. So far from wrecking his life and leading a miserable existence, he led a life of great happiness. Did he groan racked by remorse after one of his innumerable tumbles into the gutter as, hopelessly drunk, he reeled out of a cab cutting his head on the curb so badly that he lay in bed for days aching with fever? He did not. As soon as he could get on his feet again he was calling shrilly for madder music and stronger wine. He was manic without the faintest twinge of the depressive. Did he twitch with guilt for his insensate behavior and the damage he did to people and their belongings on his nights out? Not him. When finally the long-suffering Arts Club expelled him and another reveler for lining up on the floor the top hats and bowlers of the committee one evening and hopping from one to the other leaving behind them a trail of pancaked wreckage, he announced with dignity that it was inconceivable that he could have behaved as it was alleged he had done for no gentleman could behave in such a way.
His capacity for obliviousness was Skimpolean. And yet he was not a fraud like Dickens’s selfish, parasitical dilettante. Occasionally and discreditably he ran scared or turned his back on former friends. But even acquaintances accepted that he was a case of arrested development. His book-learning and his very capacity as a scholar reminded one of a precocious schoolboy. He was a child-don. No one needed stimulants less; he had only to smell a cork to become wildly intoxicated. Characteristically, nothing but the strongest of spirits would do. His fiendish glee and the scrapes he got into were no doubt unedifying. But everyone understood that he lived in a state of high excitement during his working hours and that it could not be otherwise.
The alarming truth about life in Bohemia is that it is exceedingly agreeable. Biographers and novelists chart the shipwrecks on its shores and mourn the geniuses who have foundered there. For every Verlaine who managed to salvage some of his baggage, the corpses of dozens of unfulfilled artists are scattered on the beach with nothing to show for their wasted lives. It is far nearer the truth to discern that even the most poverty-stricken, debt-ridden creatures who have talked away their intended chef d’oeuvre into the absinthe-laden air and ended their days in squalor, lies, deceit, and confusion have enjoyed themselves enormously.
There is a well-established fiction to the effect that if only a writer had not spent so many hours in idle talk, boozing in pubs, fucking in brothels, and dissipating his talents with worthless companions a torrent of master-pieces would have poured from him. If virtue was so neatly rewarded then indeed there would be an answerable case for no more cakes and ale. For every supremely dedicated and self-disciplined artist who perceives and avoids the excesses and debility of life in Bohemia there is another whose passion for disorder and ruthless egotism destroys the lives of others and defies the elevating maxim that great artists are good men.
Swinburne was in fact a hilarious companion. Noticing that the French whenever they wrote of English life always misspelled every proper noun and generally misunderstood every social nuance, he wrote while in his twenties dazzling spoof French novels. La Fille du policeman, in which the Bishop of London, Lord Whitestick, rapes the heroine and Prince Albert prevents the mob from sacking “Buckingham-Palace, le vieux palais gothique” by opening the cellars of a brewery, was much admired. But it is surpassed by the ingenuity of his play, La Soeur de la reine. When Queen Victoria, who has abandoned herself to shameless and nameless practices, is threatened by her former lover Lord John Russell swearing to reveal all, she declares that she will have him executed like the headmaster of Eton, who had been unwise enough to hint that she could be compared to Messalina. In one scene Victoria bewails to her mother the Duchess of Kent her fall from virtue. “Ce n’était pas un milord, ni même Sir R. Peel. C’était un misérable du peuple, en nomme [sic] Wordsworth, qui m’a récité des vers de son Excursion d’une sensualité si chaleureuse qu’ils m’ont ébranlée—et je suis tombée.”
Swinburne’s other notable ephemeral writings were more central to English life. Flagellation fantasies have for centuries been in the front of one compartment of Englishmen’s minds. What the French justly call le vice anglais had a sizable literature in the eighteenth century when Coleman wrote a long poem called “The Rodiad” in which he confessed himself to be:
One who enjoys better than any farce
The writhings of a flagellated arse.
The subject continues to excite the liveliest interest in English life today. When in the 1950s the government passed legislation to drive prostitutes off the streets, maiden ladies in London visiting their news agents to purchase a copy of Woman’s Own or to consult the ads for domestic help or the sale of furniture were disconcerted to be offered a strange service called Correction by a Miss Whippingham or a Miss Ducane. The ordinary call girl found herself in heavy competition with such specialists, some of whom ran elaborate establishments. Recently the police, whose memory of Swinburne is not as green as it should be, have turned their attention to such places. But as fast as they close down one torture chamber and burn the racks, the cat-o’-nine-tails, the rows of whips and straps, the monstrous dildoes, the tweezers and other bloodletting appliances, another springs phoenix-like from the ashes. Clearly such places satisfy what in the jargon of Leavis’s criticism is called “a felt need.”