A.C. Swinburne: A Poet's Life.
Rikky Rooksby opens this biography with a nice surprise: a fictional account 'in the spirit of one of Swinburne's own hoaxes' of Swinburne's sensational death in 1869 at the hands of an assassin determined to remove a man whose writings were a danger 'to the moral health of the nation' (p. ). This lively beginning preludes an affectionate, but unfortunately problematic, account of one of the strangest of Victorian poets. Rooksby, who, apart from his opening gesture, retells the peculiar frenzy of Swinburne's life with an earnest plainness and unSwinburnian sobriety, adds only modest information to the previously known biography, answering, for instance, a minor question about the circumstances of Swinburne's leaving Oxford, finding some new facts about Swinburne's family, and dutifully discussing some unpublished flagellation poems. There is no major factual discovery here; no new information to change substantially our knowledge of the poet. Perhaps as a consequence of this, some of the (minor) new discoveries are grievously over-exploited. Revealing the hitherto unnoticed fact that the 6-year-old Swinburne lost a 6-month-old brother, Rooksby speculates that the death, to which Swinburne never referred in any surviving writing, possibly 'has some connection with the many poems about babies he wrote in middle and old age, and with the part of him that, in discussing The Winter's Tale, was more moved by the death of Mamilius than anything else in the play' (p. 21).
Interpretatively, Rooksby sets out to show that Swinburne's poetry is closely entangled with the particularities of his own life and memories. This is a more important issue. Swinburne's relationship with Mary Gordon, and the apparent emotional consequences of her marriage to Colonel Robert Disney Leith, are explored, developing lines F. A. C. Wilson suggested in the late 1960s and early 1970s; resonances of the death of Swinburne's favourite sister Edith are amplified. There is no doubt that Swinburne's writing is enriched by some of this biographical commentary; some of the suggested links between life and art serve interestingly to complicate and deepen the poetry's engagement with experience, to make it more solidly real. But literary analysis is, like so much else in this biography, subject to the same recurrent problem. For this is not, I suspect, the book that Rooksby wanted to write, and he has cut and pasted what may be the drafts of an intended much longer, more esoteric, volume, leaving us with a text marked in various ways by haste and incompletion. It is not that the technical production is sloppy (far from it, in fact), but that the arguments are at times unfinished, undeveloped, or over-compressed, and the prose itself unchecked. For instance, Rooksby never allows himself time to defend his many bold evaluative statements; he dismisses major criticisms of Swinburne's character and his treatment of his friends at high speed; he only touches on the implications of the intriguing Jowett-Swinburne relationship; he tells us little about Swinburne's financial situation; he is extremely brisk in some of his considerations of the poetry, and he does not often explain why he accepts some of Swinburne's statements about himself at face value but is suspicious of others.
Unnoticed oddities add to the sense that the book, which Rooksby himself has described in a published interview as 'not intended to be a "definitive", monumental life', has come out before its time. Only undue haste could have left us with the incomprehensible 'Buchanan's attack was more personalized than Morley's; too juvenile to be immoral, Swinburne's verse was immoral' (p. 136) or a noting system which does not take into account authors who have published more than one item in a single year. Is Swinburne talking about the Saturday Review or the Athenaeum at the bottom of p. 136? Why does Rooksby tell us twice in two pages that Hotten took an injunction against Swinburne in June 1870, and what is the 'private code' referred to on p. 1837 A more careful check would have likewise removed such things as this on Erechtheus: 'The reviews were generally good, there being nothing in the way of subject-matter to which they could object' (p. 223) which, as it stands, could be a Wottonesque truism of l'art pour l'art. Rooksby finds Swinburne's poetry some of the greatest in the Victorian period, but his biography of this extraordinary man, for all its sympathy and commitment, has unfortunately, I think, emerged before it had any major fact to disclose, before all its arguments could be fully developed, and before it could be properly tidied up.
FRANCIS O'GORMAN Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education
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|Publication:||The Review of English Studies|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1998|
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