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.”
The taste for inflicting or submitting to sensual pain is aroused at the most impressionable age. In the state schools boys are still caned (mostly on the hand in these decadent days). In the so-called public schools the barbarism of the past which a generation of intellectuals from the Twenties vehemently denounced has vanished, so we are told. Like Christian emerging from the valley of the shadow of death, a boy nowadays finds that the tyrants who used to inhabit the cave are powerless: the Pope of Dr. Keate and the Pagan of countless prefects sit biting their nails and kicking the broken pieces of cane which litter the ground at their feet. And indeed in the public schools in the late Sixties a spontaneous resentment among the senior boys themselves against inflicting beatings on their juniors enabled some headmasters to state that the beating of boys by boys had disappeared into limbo. One has heard such stories before: an enlightened generation of boys abolishes as a gross abuse their own delectable privilege only to see ten years later their successors reintroduce it from the highest possible motives. Meanwhile the symbols of public school executions, the flogging block at Eton, the apple twigs used for Winchester tundings, bum-shaving at Harrow, swishing, sniping, whopping, the ash-plant, the fives-bat, and, in Scotland, the tawse continue to titillate the male imagination.
Not only the male imagination. A motion to reintroduce corporal punishment for juvenile delinquents will send a tingling glow through a conference of massed Conservative ladies of such warmth that one might imagine that it had been produced by the bunch of twigs itself. Such a motion is nowadays, it must be said, invariably defeated, but the damage which the debate does to the image of the Conservative party is such that the rules committee kills it before it reaches the agenda. In the Isle of Man, a self-governing legal anomaly which lies in the sea midway between northwest England and northeast Ireland, magistrates still retain the power to order boys who break the law to be beaten. Recently a half-witted boy, despite protests in England, was flogged there to the evident satisfaction of the population.
We Englishmen pride ourselves on a certain expertise in such matters. In what other country could one find a bishop arguing in the House of Lords that the photograph of a boy’s bottom marked by the strokes of the cane must have been faked because the bruising was shown as equally severe on either side of the natal cleft whereas anyone with experience knows that a pliant cane will mark more severely on the right side as it whips round the right cheek? Where else but in England will one see a slogan painted on a wall by some fanatical supporter of corporal punishment, BRING BACK THE BIRCH—to which, hope springing eternal, a suppliant and willing victim has added the word PLEASE?
Swinburne’s favorite fantasy was that of the birched schoolboy, but Philip Henderson judiciously suggests that his many letters referring to fearful ordeals at Eton were mostly inspired by his imagination rather than literal recollections of his past. When he was thirty he began to visit a flagellation brothel in St. John’s Wood to which he was introduced by a boy whom he had heard reciting Paradise Lost in the kitchen of a lodging house where one of his friends lived: clearly someone who would make a sound recommendation.
Favorite among his correspondents were those to whom he could pour out pages of arch allusions and reminiscences about flogging, and the most curious, and perhaps the most important of them, was not a man but his cousin Mary Gordon. They had always been close to each other: she used to play Handel on the organ at her parents’ country house during the days when Swinburne was composing Atalanta. Suddenly she announced her engagement to a colonel twenty-one years older than herself, the hero of several engagements in India where he lost an arm. It had never crossed her mind that Swinburne was in love with her, and Philip Henderson points out that not only did Swinburne write “The Triumph of Time,” where he describes himself as a man “Whose whole life’s love goes down in a day,” but also the passage where Lesbia Brandon rejects Herbert with calculated cruelty: in the manuscript the pages “are unusually full of blots and wine-stains and were evidently written in a state of great agitation.”
Yet was he really in love with her and did she really represent for him his last hope of achieving a satisfactory relationship with a woman? That Swinburne convinced himself that this was so after Mary married there can be no doubt. But no normal girl—even one interested in whipping—would possibly have guessed that he had hopes of making her his wife. For not only would the idea have appeared grotesque to her, it is not very likely to have occurred to Swinburne until he realized that her engagement had made it impossible. Men who have hang-ups with women often have a tender relationship with a girl who is less a mother substitute than a confidante of the kind which Racine’s heroines always had to hand. They cannot bring themselves to mention marriage to her for fear of rejection but more often they keep the thought from entering their minds until the day comes when the girl is claimed by another—and then they convince themselves that if only they had spoken first, if the girl had not been so heartless or if fate had otherwise decreed, eternal happiness might have been theirs.
Swinburne’s friends realized that something had to be done to break the ice. Their solution, natural to Bohemians, was in fact unlikely to succeed. Naturally it involved finding a woman who could help Swinburne through his difficulties. But they chose as a mate for the minute poet an American circus rider of the most generous proportions, who had been married five times, the last to the prize fighter Heenan, yet still only thirty, a poetess who hoped to obtain Swinburne’s commendation for her verses. Adah Menken never failed to charm men and was clearly a good sort—just as Skittles, the most famous courtesan of those times, was—not merely the lover but the good friend of those she knew on her journey through Bohemia, dying in the city of Rodolphe and Mimi after being photographed sitting on the knee of Dumas père. What happened is pretty clear. Swinburne wrote of “the deep division of prodigious breasts, the solemn slope of mighty limbs asleep,” and in a letter to Monckton Milnes of “the indulgences that are hourly laid at my feet” such as few husbands could boast. But it lasted six weeks and Rossetti swore that she returned her fee of ten pounds to him saying that “she did not know how it was, but she hadn’t been able to get him up to the scratch, and couldn’t make him understand that biting’s no use.” Swinburne was indifferent to the failure, if failure it can be said to be. He remained resiliently happy.
Happy for one good reason. He could always get out of Bohemia when he wished. Like other upper-class members he was really only a visitor. By middle age Bohemia is a prison; family life becomes more difficult as children grow up, debt and dirt become more wearisome, and for the immigrant of modest origins who has eventually discovered that he has in fact little talent as an artist, the way back is hard, the transition from genial disorder to impoverished gentility and a grinding job too daunting. But Swinburne could always fall back on Lady Pauline Trevelyan, a Northumberland family friend who was a second mother to him; and his father, the admiral, would appear at times to pay his debts, and to bear him away to the peace of his home in the Isle of Wight, where his doting mother so over-whelmed him with her attentions that as soon as he had recuperated he bounded back like a jack-in-the-box to live with the artists. In the early days he was part of the circle of the Rossettis, William Morris, and Burne-Jones (whose blameless anemic painting does not reflect the flow of obscenity in the letters which he and Swinburne exchanged).
Later he got to know Richard Burton, who introduced him to the Cannibal Club (a Bohemian extension of the Anthropological Society), the progenitor of a lot of tiresome, hearty clubs some of which flourish to this day, such as the Savage Club or Ye Sette of Odde Volumes (in which the members address each other as Your Oddship). The Cannibals specialized in blasphemous graces and catechisms, and Swinburne was invariably carried home from their meetings insensible. There he met Thomas Bendyshe, who is referred to in this book by the reassuring title of Senior Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge. Bendyshe was in fact a considerable anthropologist in his own right but he was an unscrupulous ruffian of a barrister, who thwarted successfully the efforts of the reformers in his college at that time trying to throw the college open to non-Etonians.
Seeing that his income as a nonresident Fellow would be diminished, he appealed to the Visitor, the Bishop of Lincoln, who delivered such an absurd ruling that every Fellow, except Bendyshe, forbore to take advantage of it. All Bendyshe had to do to establish his claim to his income as Senior Fellow, which, so far from being diminished, had been increased by the Visitor’s ruling, was to inhabit a set of rooms in the college: and this he did by placing a pair of old boots in the center of the living room which he hardly ever occupied. Whether his translation of the Mahabharata justified his conduct is a delicate point of morality.
But Swinburne kept even shadier company. One of his pornographic correspondents was Simeon Solomon, who eventually was picked up by the police for soliciting outside a public lavatory. Swinburne beat a dishonorable retreat, protesting to Watts-Dunton that he could hardly be accused of “lukewarmness in friendship or personal timidity in the face of public opinion…or deserting my friends when out of favor with the world,” but a man must consider his reputation, etc. So he accordingly deserted Solomon, who ended his days in the gutter and supported himself by selling letters Swinburne had written to him in days gone by. Another man, George Powell, was an Icelandic scholar whom, as an Etonian and son of a Welsh squire, Swinburne was able to invite to his parents’ home. The admiral might have been less ready to receive him had he known on what terms Powell was with his father. Enraged by his son’s contempt for blood sports, his father had put a gun in his hands and ordered him not to return until he had shot something; Powell returned with the corpse of one of his father’s prize bullocks.
It was with Powell that Swinburne set up house on the coast of Normandy in a farmhouse in which everything was dedicated to de Sade and the good-looking boy servants from London scandalized the fishermen. Swinburne won them over for a time, when, having been swept out to sea and being rescued by a fishing boat, he spouted Hugo’s poetry all the way back to port. The adolescent de Maupassant met him there and was the source later of a number of hair-raising stories about him. Swinburne was always described in Paris as a homosexual; and soon splendid fantasies were bandied about by the Goncourts (a certain reason for believing them to be false), such as the one where Swinburne made advances to a young man and so excited the poet’s pet monkey that it flew at its rival and clawed him, for which misdemeanor the monkey was served up as a succulent luncheon dish to the young man by way of making amends. Another story, which on the other hand rings true, came from Turgenev, who asked him what unrealistic desire he would most like to experience. “I’ll tell you,” Swinburne replied. “To ravish Sainte Geneviève during her most ardent ecstasy of prayer—but in addition, with her secret consent.”
It is the answer of the eternal schoolboy. But if he adored to shock and was always bubbling with revolt, he also in view of his sexual tastes adored to submit. He was a master of the abusive letter, he chattered with rage when the critics attacked him or some clergyman turned at last like a worm. Indeed his prose style in controversy reminds one of a schoolboy’s in its plethora of adjectives and adverbs and the piling of insult upon insult. But he was keen to exculpate himself when he got into hot water with those friends of his own clan who belonged to his mother’s generation; and the long sojourn at Putney was an act of submission, almost of atonement, for his previous life. The images that he employed to describe the sea—the Atlantic in its tempestuous grandeur, not the fickle Mediterranean of classical legend—were inspired by the buffeting and beating by the waves which he enjoyed when he went swimming. In the true tradition of the Romantic Agony, love was associated for him with torture, cruelty, and death.
How far in his poetry were his emotions genuine realizations of feeling and how far were they literary evocations? Philip Henderson quotes Pound: “To the careful reader [the Triumph of Time] shows quite clearly that Swinburne was actually broken by a real and not a feigned emotional catastrophe early in life.” Pound went on to mark the defects and the bathos as well as the splendor of his rhythms, the facile and the inaccurate writing. But of one of his stanzas he remarked, “The splendid lines mount up in one’s memory and overwhelm any minute restrictions of one’s praise.”
Philip Henderson wisely makes use of practically the only important (and excellent) reassessment of Swinburne’s poetry which has appeared in recent years. In rescuing Swinburne from critical oblivion Professor John D. Rosenberg1 argued that so far from being lush and polysyllabic, he chose short and even austere words in some of his most famous passages. So far from being diffuse he employed antithesis with cunning effect, and so far from conjuring up a miasma of words he often used common words incisively as a device to produce a tone through a poem. He would associate with one word another word subtly different from the one with which it was habitually associated. The rhythm of his poetry produced a sound unlike anything that had been heard before.
But Rosenberg admits to a kind of unease. Writing of a particular poem he admits that it “is inspired not by the emotion of love but by the emotion of poetry itself.” This is an acute and disturbing comment. Swinburne identified an emotion and then played a cadenza upon it. Did he feel that emotion himself? He convinces you that men and women have experienced the most bizarre sensations: he creates a tropical isle where love is always cruel and physical pain is desirable, and fate is pitiless. But does this vision spring from his own experience? Does his tropical isle exist other than as a fancy?—as it does not in Keats, who transports you into his world of lovers and casements and stained glass windows throwing warm gules on Madeline’s fair breast. Swinburne is unpredictable. Sometimes his poetry springs directly from emotion, sometimes it seems to be a splendid literary exercise.
Never far beneath the surface was Swinburne’s delight in shocking the Great British Public. He chortled with glee at the thought of the effect his description of languorous lovers stretched on the rack by their masterful mistresses was causing. Swinburne’s verse was inspired by that neo-Veblenian concept—Conspicuous Outrage. To goose God was the summit of his ambition but he would settle for the pleasure of groping a staid Victorian matron. Part of the reason why his poetry no longer dazzles us is that for the next fifty years the poets of the aesthetic movement cooed and moaned in imitation of one who had forty times their vitality and verbal originality. To read Swinburne is to be reminded of their silly inanities.
There is another reason why his reputation as a poet suffers. The Victorians (Tennyson first among them) regarded poetry as incantation. Melody was magical and poetry was therefore intoned rather than spoken. You have only to listen to recordings of Tennyson or of some of the great Victorian givers of recitations reading poetry on early gramaphone cylinders or wax discs to realize how greatly our notion of poetry has changed. Yet as with much poetry of the second, or perhaps third, rank Swinburne’s marvelous verse flows on and we recognize that even if the mind which directs the flow is not of the first rank and the moral order of the world which the poet puts before us is grotesque, he has put words into metrical form and related meter to rhythms in a way that had never been done before. Anyone who recognizes the unevenness, the inequality, and the haphazardness of poetic achievement should admit that Swinburne exists as a poet who, even if temporarily eclipsed, will emerge as Rochester has emerged from the ruck of Restoration wits as a force to be reckoned with.
Edmund Wilson found more interest in Swinburne’s novels than in his poetry.2 He particularly admired Love’s Crosscurrents, a novel in the form of letters like those of Richardson or Laclos, which Swinburne published under a pseudonym as the characters resembled himself and his family. That novel centers upon a Madame de Merteuil character who sees to it that the goings-on of the younger generation shall not bring disgrace upon the family. The intrigues are Byzantine in complexity and incest is never far distant. It came considerably closer in Lesbia Brandon, which Swinburne never put finally in order and which bursts at the seams with all his obsessions.
The less sensational parts of that novel do not seem to me all that superior to many excellent third-rate Victorian novels such as Henry Kingsley’s Ravenshoe (which was issued in paperback a few years ago with a good introduction by William Scheuerle). When you assess the reason given by Wilson for the high claims he makes for these novels it turns out to be the light which they throw on Swinburne’s character and the way in which the peculiarities of that character express themselves through the novels, rather than for the intrinsic merits of the novels themselves.
What peculiarities does Wilson latch on to? The first is Swinburne’s love for his cousin Mary Gordon, which in these novels is transmuted into the incestuous feelings of brother for sister. Then he sees how Swinburne works out in the novels his notion of the masterful woman who engages her lovers as she does her enemies with both passion and ruthlessness. Coming up against Swinburne’s obsession with flagellation, which permeates both his novels, Wilson shies away with fine American distaste for the system—the English public school system—which implanted in Swinburne the seeds of his obsession by the ferocity of its punishments.
I am afraid that Wilson was taken in by Swinburne’s gleeful inventiveness. It is exceedingly unlikely that he was, as he claimed, flogged at Eton for presenting a copy of galliambics (an obscure meter once used by Catullus) as his Latin verses: more likely he would have been “sent up for good.” Nor should Wilson have believed that Swinburne’s tutor deliberately added to the sensual experience of being birched by soaking a handkerchief in eau de cologne and giving it to the boy to smell: at Eton only the headmaster and master over the lower school can flog.
Not that Wilson was wrong to recoil from the system where years after Swinburne had left school the headmaster of Shrewsbury could give a boy eighty-eight cuts and prefects at Winchester inflict thirty upon a resolute youth known thereafter as the “Tunded Maupherson.” This led to a public outcry and a deluge of letters to the Times from parents complaining about the savage thrashings endured by their sons, though one of the letters came from the headmaster, who is defending the head prefect described him as “a good and gentle boy,” a description which caused some surprise. Nor was Wilson wrong to identify Swinburne’s obsession with a desire to bear pain, prove himself fearless in climbing cliffs, swimming in tempestuous seas, or confronting bullies three times his size. Where he was wrong was to imply that the obsession was pure loss, a blockage which inhibited him from finding his true vocation as a novelist, a disablement which not only made him incapable of a “normal” relationship with a woman but was a crippling impediment to his development as an artist.
Wilson was wrong because tiresome as it is to see Swinburne turn all his heroines into Our Lady of Pain and to be reminded by the poet that love is a synonym for physical torment, Swinburne would not exist as a poet or novelist if it were not for his vices. The texture of the verse, the metaphors, the vision of Nature are impregnated by his own courageous masochism. If he had not indulged his vices, which hurt practically no one else, and possibly not even himself, he would not have written better poetry. Indeed, he might not have written at all. Victorian agnostics used to pose the question: if we are all purified at the Resurrection how will we recognize each other since the very attributes, good and evil, which gave us our personality will have disappeared? F.H. Bradley in a characteristic footnote on personal immortality spoke of the argument for it which is based on the desire to meet again those we have loved and concluded that such desires are inconsistent with themselves:
There are partings made by death, and, perhaps, worse partings made by life; and there are partings which both life and death unite in veiling from our eyes. And friends that have burried their quarrel in a woman’s grave, would they at the Resurrection be friends?… One feels that a personal immortality would not be very personal, if it implied mutilation of our affections. There are those who would not sit down with angels, till they had recovered their dog.
Similarly, if we wish that a purified Swinburne had existed purged of all his mad sins and self-defeating desires, we shall find that we have created a being who could not possibly have written his poetry. The truth is that Swinburne turned his masochism to account triumphantly. He had talents: they were not of the greatest, but he did not hide them in the earth.
As will be seen from many of the quotations above, Philip Henderson’s account relies on the material which Edmund Wilson used to such effect in his essay on Swinburne’s letters and novels—the material gathered together over many years by the Yale scholar Cecil Y. Lang. But he has also brought together much material which had not been assembled before, and he writes almost invariably with good sense about Swinburne’s obsessions. I rather doubt whether he is right to take Burton to task for “teaching” Swinburne to drink spirits, or Swinburne for being responsible for the wretched Solomon’s “degeneration.” Men certainly exist who corrupt—who take pleasure in discovering an acquaintance’s weakness and, by deliberately lighting upon it like a blowfly, make it swell and so poison his existence. But they are not all that many, and neither Swinburne nor Burton was one of them. People take to drink or go to what Mr. Mantilini called the deminition bow-wows for a multitude of reasons, and it is unduly severe to pin responsibility on those who happen to be having a good time at the party and are well able to look after themselves. But this is trivial: the book is excellent reading.
The Year of the Wombat is an account of the year 1857, and Francis Watson chooses Rossetti’s pet as a symbol of all that was newsy and swinging. I didn’t know such books were still written. It is history written by Cholly Knickerbocker. To read it is like sitting in the opera and, as the noble score unfolds, a little-known acquaintance on your left nudges you, whispers, sniggers, pulls you by the arm, and points to a box where the proximity of one of the occupants to another might cause eyebrows to rise. It is as full of oeillades and most speaking looks as ever Goneril gave to Edmund. When Hans Andersen visits Dickens, London journals “call up the faery reserves.” When Dickens indulges in a trope upon Maria Ternan’s acting, “So intimate a disclosure could not be made—or at all events not yet—to Angela Burdett-Coutts.”
Is it possible to describe George Eliot’s relationship with G. H. Lewes in more inappropriate terms than the following:
But while the angel with the fiery sword still hovered uncertainly, it was perhaps just as well for England that this unhallowed pair should keep their little distance. It would have taxed an impartial angel to estimate how much sin had in fact been erased from the book of doom when Miss Evans, having been eliminated from the game of musical beds in George Chapman’s promiscuous household in the Strand, and having failed to capture the timid Herbert Spencer on the way, had extricated Mr. Lewes from the consequences of an otherwise successful journalistic partnership with Thornton Hunt. These consequences can only be summarized: alienation of the affections of Mrs. Lewes, and a communal production-line which added to the ten children of Mr. and Mrs. Thornton Hunt and the three of Mr. and Mrs. Lewes another three begotten by Mr. Hunt upon Mrs. Lewes, with a fourth now on the way.
This sort of thing was far better done forty years ago. Philip Guedalla was then the acknowledged Walter Winchell of the historical world. Guedalla was an Oxford Union wit, whose mind, at once clever, vulgar, amusing, and undeniably trivial, had a certain vigor which I search for in vain in Francis Watson. Guedalla certainly consulted documents—in order to embroider history with the snippets he picked up. The labors of scholars did not impress him. “The layman,” he wrote, “who staggers back from the learned publications of the Grotius Society with a stiffled exclamation of ‘Good Grotius’ has a fair excuse for his irreverence.” He relied for his popularity on a national trait which he diagnosed in a phrase, “The English (it is one of their most engaging features) dearly love an amateur.” His unquenchable desire was at all costs to amuse his exhausted readers. A typical Guedalla essay opens: “One would have said at the first blush (and the student of history—especially of continental history—should always have a blush ready) that the artist who sets out to draw scenes from Swiss history is apt to draw blank.” It was obligatory for historical gossips at that time to be able to coin an epigram: “George IV was on his last lap: it was the lap of Lady Conyngham.” Compare the following passage of Guedalla with Francis Watson’s titivating prose.
But these uproarious standards were scarcely maintained by 1821. A slight exhaustion settled on the delirious scene. Yet decorum seemed to tarry, and a vociferous playgoer at Drury Lane could still address the royal box with the stentorian enquiry, “Where’s your wife, George?” The War Department pursued its sober path, and Lord Palmerston continued his cautious wooing of economy, pressing in private for reductions at Heligoland and the Isle of Man. But in the House of Commons he insisted bravely upon the inadequacy of pre-war establishments, and turned a deaf ear to Mr. Creevey, when that angry veteran, shocked by a salary of £1,400 a year, enquired at what hour the War Office clerks attended and whether they arrived in curricles or tilburies…. That year, encouraged by the bright gaze of Lady Conyngham, his sovereign was crowned in an ecstasy of tailoring. The town nodded with plumes, muffled itself in ermine, and trailed unaccustomed robes; even the ornamental water in St. James’s Park wore Chinese bridges for the occasion. A grateful public stared and was rewarded by the unusual spectacle of an angry Queen alighting at the Abbey and tramping from door to door without a ticket. The unhappy lady had her cheers but missed the Coronation. Inside, the organ peeled, the bishops prayed, and George received the sacred oil. But in the summer streets his indefatigable mate trailed her eternal sorrows before a thinning crowd. In three weeks a voice behind her bed-curtains exclaimed, faintly apologetic, “I am going to die, Mr. Brougham; but it does not signify.”
History is still—despite the pronouncements to the contrary of that superb research group the sixième section of the Collège de France—in part about people; there is even a filing cabinet in the archives for gossip. But somehow Rossetti’s wombat or Swinburne’s visits to Verbena Lodge in St. John’s Wood have to be related to some sound more reverberating than a giggle, if they are to have historical significance—and there is significance in the emergence of an English Bohemia which has claims to be the only group to present an overt counterculture in mid-Victorian times. Compared with the Continental revolutionaries who were standing morality, politics, and manners on their heads, the English dissidents were a mild and unimportant lot. Where are the analogues to Treitschke, Nietzsche, or Tolstoy, where are the socialists who seemed to be shaking the foundations of society such as Marx or Production, where are we to find in England a Baudelaire?
The intensity of the religious revival and the decorum and cohesion of English society tamed romanticism, and it is a genuine problem in the history of ideas why the menacing and distorted face of revolution and romanticism on the Continent failed to materialize in England; and why the most notorious âme maudite among the artists turned out to be not the abandoned diabolic figure of de Maupassant’s imagination but a tiny red-headed poet whose eccentricities, geniality, and highly developed sense of the comicality and the absurdities of life dissuaded him from cutting the umbilical cord which attached him to his gentle birth and to a regime where to submit after cocking a snook and cutting a caper was the most satisfying of pleasures. As a counterculture the movement, if it can be so called, in which he was so prominent was dim, secondhand, and negligible. But today, a century later, it has tens of thousands of disciples and is hailed as a protest against capitalism, the machine age, and bureaucratic social democracy. Unfortunately it now has no poet.
November 28, 1974