Bring Back the Birch!

Swinburne: Portrait of a Poet

by Philip Henderson
Macmillan, 305 pp., $10.95

The Year of the Wombat: England, 1857

by Francis Watson
Harper & Row, 185 pp., $7.95

Algernon Swinburne
Algernon Swinburne; drawing by David Levine

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…

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