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Faithful to the Greek?: Swinburnian Patterning (Hopkinsian Dapple).

Reference has been made to Swinburne's `pessimism in regard to language', and his failure to `suggest that language makes it possible for us to triumph [...] over [...] contradictions'. (1) A tendency, ruinous to `meaningful discourse', whereby he `dissociates words from things' is regularly censured. (2) Allusion is made to the `philosophical importance' invested by him in `the trope of doubling'. (3) I should like to argue that all these elements are not merely `subjective' or `Victorian', or wilfully adopted as a `trope', but are continually affirmed by him as his chief subject-matter, deriving from that loyalty to Greek patterns of language fiercely claimed in youth and (granted later weakening of grasp) never let go. (4)

Till the demise of traditional `classics' in recent years, those proficient in such study were saturated for life in ancient literature, not theoretically but directly; evolving their own English style by continual translation, and shaping their sense of language by pastiche of ancient masters in prose and verse. Such `classical' influence, just because it was imbibed in youth at the `superficial' level of linguistic imitation, ran too deep to be eliminated by mere wishing. Whereas Hopkins is all but eviscerated by his contention with it, Swinburne remains dedicated to its traditions.

Sharing a profound fascination with Greek literature and culture, Hopkins and Swinburne differ sharply in their response to a concept at the heart of the Greek sense of patterning, equally valid in aesthetic and metaphysical contexts: [Text not reproducible in ascii text.], or `the dappled'. Two examples from classical Greek literature illustrate the double significance of this concept: simultaneously an aesthetic celebration and an insight into the problem of cosmic meaning.

At the climax of Aeschylus's Agamemnon (ll. 923-24), the king hesitates to tread on the sumptuous fabrics his murderous wife has strewn on the palace steps for his ensnarement. A literal translation reveals a mimetic patterning familiar in the case of inflected languages such as Latin and Greek, though it reads awkwardly in English: `Among dappled, being mortal, beauties | To walk for me is nowise without fear'.

The `mortal' is literally flanked by `dappled [...] beauties': to the enhancement of a sense of contrasting enmeshedness; of a fearful progression through a series of treacherous enchantments.

The `dappled' connects with words of embroidery and of writing. (5) It is a means of arranging, as though for our pleasure, referents and images of a world we recognize, with mounting apprehension (approaching death's door with Agamemnon) not to be so arranged, after all. At first it tempts us as offering a `field of regularity for various positions of subjectivity'; but in the end reverts to being only a substitution for those inexorable `"things" anterior to discourse': providing no reliable system of truth, but merely serving to arrange a `regular formation of objects that emerge only in discourse.' (6) Our logos, in a word, has not helped to make a knowable world; it has merely pretended to arrange the unknowable world. For the Greeks, `beauty' and `the universe' are defined by the same word: kosmos, which implies `order'. It is of the essence of the `dappled' to confound our attempts to read that order. Epitomized in the coat of the leopard that runs with Dionysus, the `dappled' is a camouflage of light and dark that refuses to let us see which of the two is the ultimate ground. In Dante's Christianized reading of the pattern, it is light that the universe has at its heart. Ruskin, and Hopkins after him, clung to that principle. Swinburne, more pagan and antique, and more Nietzschean and modernist, clung to the ambiguity. In his battle between the angels of light and darkness, there is no third day; no Miltonic Messiah to vindicate a supremacy of righteousness.

A second example of the `dappled' in its classic usage may be found in Herodotus. In the second book of his Histories he produces, as a tickling and in the end reassuring entertainment, his own written construction of an awesome Egyptian temple, originally designed to house the relics of sacred crocodiles. Owing much to Egypt, the young Greek civilization is ambitious to acquire an attitude of amused superiority towards everything immemorial and unknown represented by the older culture. Herodotus's description is therefore funny only because it is fearful: like a labyrinth, the temple can be imaginatively perceived as offering entrance and exit; but the writer's evocation of the sweating reality of pacing its halls dismays us with the conviction that (outside his amusing narrative) the real temple is ineluctable.

Because the central concept--[Text not reproducible in ascii text.]--connotes with the `black and white' of writing, one may imagine the temple as a cunning piece of meaning: a willed hieroglyph on the otherwise faceless land of Egypt. But once we enter this text, we confront a bewildering configuration of contrasts of extreme light and shade, blinded alternately by gloom and dazzle. In making his own writing of a maze, Herodotus communicates a containable version of the ennui, anxiety and enclosure of his subject while (through the rival `dapple' that is Greek writing) remaining in charge of it. Again, a literal translation:

For the passages through the covered ways and the detours through the open ways, being most dappled, furnished a thousand-fold wonder to those threading their way from open courtyard into the enclosures and from the enclosures into the porticoes, into yet further covered ways from the porticoes, into further courtyards from more enclosures. (Euterpe, 148)

Reassurance is glimpsed in Herodotus's use of the past tense (`furnished'). It is all over now: you are listening to a tale that is told.

Nevertheless, we have felt the frisson of deceptive similarities and factitious contrasts; we have experienced, if only at second hand, a confusion arising from an oppositional symmetry so often expected to be a source of clarity and reassurance; we have felt the momentary panic of a confusion between alternatives and exclusions, presenting themselves as equivalents.

Often, a sense of gender opposition reassures of difference, and of resolution through difference. It seems only common sense to presume that male and female are truly different, since their difference is seen to be the source of new being. But to have taken an oath of loyalty (as Swinburne may be said to have done) to the Greek ambiguity in its helpless clarity is to have put paid to Victorian `common sense'.

Where life can be replicated, but never truly renewed, we are confronted with absolute enigma: an enigma that is the product and inciter of the human pursuit of pattern. The resolution of the enigma is glimpsed in what lies behind the pattern: death, which (being alive) we can have no knowledge of, Socrates and Jesus notwithstanding.

The `dappled' is most intimately associated with Dionysus, who provokes the confusion, grants the vision, and (because he has shared it) provides the death. Addressing his victim-counterpart Pentheus in Euripides's Bacchae (ll. 918-24), Dionysus informs him that, by resolution into his own opposite, Pentheus has joined a series of aesthetically pleasing female variants. `You have the charming outline of one of the daughters of Cadmus [the inventor of letters]', opines Dionysus, that feline connoisseur of the feminine series, with malicious indifference. `Yet I seem to see two suns in the sky; | A double Thebes, each with its seven entrances', bizarrely but appositely answers Pentheus, who has `disguised' himself as a girl in order to spy on the `immoral' festivities of the god. `You see just what you need to see', Dionysus replies, allowing the audience to glimpse the terms of his own dappled being, with its richly desolating ambiguity that sets into the same pattern psychical and sexual aspiration and (futile) nemesis. Pentheus has learned, at some level, that there are always `two' versions of the Logos that is Apollo-Paian: male and female; included, excluded. There are also always two inadequate cities of letters, the neologistic and the obsolete: the Greek (shall we say?) Thebes, with its new Cadmean alphabet and its (let us say, Egyptian) rival, of the same `name', with its `redundant' hieroglyphs. (7) He will nevertheless be decapitated, by the mother who bore him. And his destruction will change nothing.

During the Byzantine period, verses from the Bacchae survived as part of a play now known as Christus Patiens: the typology of unredemption redistributed as redemption, only to be relocated by humanists in the mosaic of paganism. (8) Insofar as later Victorians read their world on pagan Greek lines rather than on those suggested by Christian appropriations of the Dionysian cult, so far they were in tune with Swinburne. Hopkins, as passionate a classicist as Swinburne, chose to follow a different path. Translating Dionysus (back) into Christ, in `Pied Beauty', he is able to offer the duplications and exclusions of the dappled as a series of `things' ordered (beyond the veil of the world) by Him from whose anterior discourse (or Logos) the series is held to emerge: `Glory be to God for dappled things':
 Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
 With swift, slow; sweet, sour, adazzle, dim;
 He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
 Praise him. (9)

The pagan Dionysian series, however, is indifferent: the male god becomes each or any or all of the female variants, his maenad worshippers. In the Greek universe, which has neither beginning nor end, stability is immanent in fluctuation itself: there is no such thing as progressive change; no divine pancrator `whose beauty is past change'; no reconciliation between human and divine idea. At the moment of anagnorisis, or tragic recognition, in the Bacchae, Cadmus (grandfather of Pentheus and inventor of letters) is crisply informed by Dionysus that he has learned too late. Unlike Pentheus, Cadmus and his daughters have striven to honour the god. They are nevertheless confounded in arbitrary punishment. Hierarchy (including any figuring of moral hierarchy) is dissolved in the tragic insistence on the ineluctable difference between life and death, human and divine. Cadmus is offered (beyond his punishment) an eternity among the blest: no comfort to the old man, for whom such a future is bizarrely irrelevant. (10) For Hopkins, to embrace the hierarchy and moral code of the Roman church is to incur responsibility for dissolving just those tragic differences that Cadmus's lettering cannot bridge. Both human and divine, Christ makes an ethical and spiritual challenge that demands to be met, and bears the comforting promise of an eternity that must (however) be initiated within the lifetime of the believer. At the political level, Hopkins's faith requires a different view of human affairs from Swinburnian republicanism. In claiming `Apollo-Paian [...] not the Galilean' as the true `Logos', Swinburne gives supremacy, not to any absolute jurisdiction, but to habits of discernment among ambiguities. (11) Both poets, at the zenith of empire, require to be omni-referent. Hopkins reclaims a Roman spiritual universality that (on some centuries of evidence) seems self-condemned to Swinburne.

From within his chosen milieu, the Jesuit Hopkins deploys an aesthetic Ruskin had proclaimed (as a possibility of Protestantism) in his The Seven Lamps of Architecture, mostly compiled during 1848. It is one that strives to reconcile Dionysian intensity with a Platonic moral hierarchy. Broadly Christian dogmatic assumptions (a cult of Dionysus moralise) are essential postulates of this aesthetic. No mean political agitator himself in later years, and already (as his letters show) a compassionate student of social unrest, Ruskin nevertheless spends the late summer and autumn of the `year of revolutions' in and around Rouen, creating the Hopkinsian dapple. (12)

Ruskin's `Lamp of Beauty' expounds a vivid contradiction between architectural form and surface decoration: no `mingling of death with life' (his definition of `vulgarity' (Works, VII, 360-62)) in the shape of trompe-l'oeuil pseudo-naturalisms, but celebratory abstractions exultant of natural form; exultant, ultimately, of the Christian triumph of life over death and of the recognition of this by the mind of man. The second volume of The Stones of Venice (1853) would develop and clarify the idea. St Mark's, sepulchre of the evangelist, is foiled by a glittering encrustation of `language and of life', a dapple that must however be read as a series of `mystical signs, all beginning and ending in the Cross'. What is heightened and obscured here is the series of feminine victims that validate the pagan Dionysus: they have not entirely departed, but have been finessed into a single reference to the `bluest veins' of Shakespeare's Cleopatra (Works, x, 83, n.).

Envisaging, in `The Lamp of Beauty', an architecture of the future, Ruskin postulates a noble and simple structure, defied and celebrated by `zones as in the rainbow, and zebra; cloudings and flamings as in marble shells and plumage [...] flushed and melting spaces of colour; close groups of fiery fragments' (Works, VIII, 180). Seduced by such language, a reader might well acquire a taste for robust and reliable architectonic structures; but also for something other and more: a convulsive interplay between (for instance) the measurable grid of the sonnet's poetic wall and the vivid camouflage of Hopkinsian dapple dashed painstakingly across it. Indeed, as in `Pied Beauty', we want not the whole of the old form and not exactly a new form, but an old form broken: a curtal sonnet; not merely a veil, and a temple, but the veil of the temple rent.

Borrowing Rossetti's phrase, one might describe Hopkins's sonnet as the convulsive celebration of a `moment's monument', the moment (every moment) being that of the redemptive death of Christ. (13) For Hopkins, the temple's veil was devised from all eternity only to be rent at that precise moment, and lacking that moment cannot properly be said to exist. For its sake, he has libelled and damned the mother who bore him by attesting to papal supremacy. But what if the status of that moment has been displaced? What if, moreover, we cannot treat the void temple of our parental culture as a tourist theme park, as Herodotus could (almost) treat the dappled, labyrinthine shrine of the old crocodile gods of Egypt? What if we feel, not like Aeschylus creating Agamemnon or Euripides creating Pentheus, but more like Agamemnon or like Pentheus, with no synopsis of the plot on our ungodlike laps? What if we feel like Swinburne, for whom there is no temple any more, but the Schopenhauerean veil is all there is?

A third Balliol classicist and poet, Arthur Hugh Clough, provides the necessary disenchantment, with some prompting, no doubt, from the `"undomiciled (touristischen) dilettantes"' of Young Germany, with their envious dependence on French. (14) In his Amours de Voyage, the ambiguous city (this time, it is `Rome') appears in its apparent nature as intellectually exhausting and emotionally threatening, yet also in its deja-vu aspect as something that cannot really matter as much as Claude, the tourist antihero, tries and tries not to feel it matters. As Clough would be well aware, such a context closes in from the denial of the premise with which Herodotus opens his Histories: the desire to preserve the memory of past achievements, one's enemy's as well as one's own. In this world, whether the mood is metaphysical or aesthetic, it is the horrible mereness of juxtaposition, a mode of relation that is neither congruence nor contrast nor antithesis, neither assonance, dissonance, nor rhyme, that is presented as the ov, (actualite) of nineteenth-century experience, compared with which, to most Victorians, Hopkins's rediscoveries (had they known about them) would have appeared as to [Text not reproducible in ascii text.] ov, autres choses. (15)

Aided by Ruskin, and impelled by his own conversion, Hopkins, in occasionally triumphant isolation, rediscovers a Christianized version of the dappled. But Swinburne belongs to the broader generality of nineteenth-century aesthetes and metaphysicians. From his viewpoint, Hopkinsian Jesuitry is as vicious as anything Hopkins might attribute to him. The dappled does not work for Swinburne, either as triumphalist Christian oxymoron or as dithyrambic pagan paradox. Extreme subtlety in the use of `inner music' in his verse (below any impression of flamboyance), provides a continuo, in `pathetic' mode, that structures an intensity exciting to numbness. As with Ruskin's prose, his words of violence affect the inner consciousness when softly read:
 That shade accursed and worshipped, which hath made
 The soul of man that brought it forth a shade
 Black as the womb of darkness, void and vain,
 A throne for fear, a pasturage for pain,
 Impotent, abject, clothed upon with lies,
 A foul blind fume of words and prayers that rise,
 Aghast and harsh, abhorrent and abhorred,
 Fierce as its God, blood-saturate as its Lord;
 With loves and mercies on its lips that hiss
 Comfort, and kill compassion with a kiss. (16)

Swinburne is obsessed with the moment when Christianity made the old dappled unusable. If Hopkins's pivotal moment is the death of Christ, Swinburne's is the death of the emperor Julian, the last secular power to attempt a restoration of the old paganism, with all that remained of the pattern of dapple that had pervaded the incomparable poetry of Greece. (17) Just because `No worst, there is none' (Hopkins, Poetical Works, p. 182) is a donne of the Greek cosmology to which Swinburne assents, he can convey, in the above passage, the Victorian Anglican horror of the murderous grind of contemporary Roman prayer as it first shocked and dismayed many a sensitive convert. (18)

For Hopkins, once within the security of Rome, such minor discernments might lacerate, but must not deter. Christ's death and descent into hell renew and validate all creation and provide meaning for a world that at last must burn under the light of judgement. But for Swinburne, sacrifice is local, its effects temporary. There can be no final judgement, only a series of discernments. Thus in Erechtheus, the sacrifice of the princess Chthonia secures for a time the culture of Athens, enabling everything that city has meant for humanity; that is to say, permitting the perfect expression, for a time, of the ambiguity to which her death contributes. In Atalanta, Meleager's honouring of the eponymous heroine is a noble gesture that leads to his own death: it enables, not the perception of any Pauline `grace' that is personally and eternally availing, beyond the veil of the world (as for Hopkins) because of the bodily resurrection of Christ; but the writing of a Dionysian `grace' that essentially is the record of a mode of perception: not the Christlike body verily restored to walk in the garden of his own creation, but a recording human eye that (at the moment it leaves earth for ever) recognizes the ineluctable continuity and impersonality of all life:

 Not the life of men's veins,
 Not of flesh that conceives;
 But the grace that remains,
 The fair beauty that cleaves
 To the life of the rain in the grasses, the life of the
 dews on the leaves (Poems, IV, 328)

The tone of Swinburnian patterning is partly a lament for the infeasibility of the dappled. One might speak of it in terms of `replication': the action of folding, of repeating, of reproducing (`cloning') by folding. We are here in the very kindergarten of daedal art; not with Ruskin the fashionable propagandist of something other than revolution of 1848-49, but with the wise and tired Ruskin of 1884, publishing the alphabet drawings of a child of six to exemplify the Cadmean `instincts of clever children for the [...] invention of picture writing' and that `delight in enigma' which is at the root of `the most beautiful decorative arrangements' (Works, XXIX, 508).

Supposing we set our hand to cutting a stencil: a simple version of a favourite decorative tool of the period. Let it be a flower of eight petals or a star of eight points, symmetrically disposed. Beginning with any petal, or point, pointing upwards, move the figure successively through a series of forty-five-degree turns: once, to make a slight variant of the original figure; twice; three times. At the fourth turn one has another slight variant that is also the original handmade figure upside down, or reversed. It is just this confusion between slight variant and polar opposition that is everywhere encountered in Swinburne: as a mannerism; as a distraught emotion; as a map of the world. This is his perpetual subject. He is not trying to improve on it.

Moving from `higher' to `lower' culture, from Ruskin's Fors Clavigera to Angela Brazil's The Nicest Girl in the School (London, 1910), we encounter, as a hobby of `clever children', the compilation of a female series through a method of enigmatic doubling:

`You have a special autograph book for ["Ghost signatures"],' explained Enid. `You double a page in half, and write your name inside exactly on the crease of the paper; then you fold the two halves together again without blotting it and press hard. It smudges your signature into such a queer shape. Everybody's comes out differently. One looks like a caterpillar, and another like a butterfly, or perhaps a fish's backbone.' (p. 92)

Let us develop Enid's hobby of `Ghost signatures'. Make an ink drawing of half a symmetrical, circular shape--daisy, star, or similar--near the centre of a sheet of paper which (since it is the universe) may be as large as you like. If one were to fold the paper carefully, and the ink (like the mysterious stain in a gothic story) were self-replenishing (for is it not the lifeblood of the world?) one might achieve by this means one complete printing of a circular pattern whose two halves mirrored each other. To see your kosmos from the other side, turn over the paper. There is in Swinburne this childlike persistency, this intentness towards an opposite, and this evenly maintained tapping of a sinister, but familiar, source; this, to the onlooker, all-but-heartbreaking pursuit of the remorselessly magical and effortlessly patient replications of an aristocratically perceived nature whose patterns (like the taint of the D'Urbervilles, and Tess's murderous ace of hearts) are finite, and recognized (though never comprehended). He is not pretending not to need the touch of love, though love is coterminous with mortal counting, and not set beyond the stars in Dante's eternal rose: `Therefore so many as these roses be, | Kiss me so may times' (Poems, I, 3; my italics).

Fold the paper again, and the magic coloured ink makes two roses, each a slight variant and absolute reverse of the other. Fold the paper the other way. There are four magic roses. Again in the same direction, again in the other: we have a sheet daedal to its edge with variants and oppositions; and one model of Swinburne's obsessive patternmaking, in rhythm, rhyme, assonance, alliteration, and idea; and of his persistent working out of figures of blotting, cleaving, printing. All these are from that testament of sexual ambiguity, Fragoletta:
 Ah sweet, the maiden's mouth is cold,
 Her breast-blossoms are simply red,
 Her hair mere brown or gold,
 Fold over simple fold
 Binding her head.

 Thy mouth is made of fire and wine,
 Thy barren bosom takes my kiss
 And turns my soul to thine
 And turns my lip to thine,
 And mine it is.

The doubleness of Fragoletta is both a negation and an intensification; the erasure and the imprinting of a uniquely glimpsed `sole' object of desire:
 Being sexless, wilt thou be
 Maiden or boy? [...]
 O double rose of Love's [...]
 O sole desire of my delight!
 O sole delight of my desire! [...]
 Cleave to me, love me, kiss mine eyes,
 Satiate thy lips with loving me (Poems, 1, 82-84)

There is value in Swinburne's persistent patterning. There is something in its simplicity and vividness, in its very extensiveness, that confesses the impossibility of reducing Dionysian contradictions and affirmations to `things' to be safely contemplated and assessed by one who has an answer (by the nature of the question, always the same answer) for every imprint of experience: `the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!' (my italics). Eliot said something when he denied to Hopkins the true status of a religious poet. (19) For one like Eliot, aspiring to the same Anglican tradition from which Swinburne devolves, it is the wrestling with God in the conscience that constitutes the religious experience: to pretend to an objective, or to claim a partial, resolution is both suicide and blasphemy. The point, beyond the analytical versification of received patterns, where Dante's language breaks down, at the end of his Comedy, in his personal vision of God (and without personal vision, there is no vision) is the point of initiation for the Protestant consciousness. `Let me not love Thee if I love Thee not', says Hopkins's admired Herbert to God, at the end of his first `Affliction'.

In defence of Hopkins's Hellenism, one might argue that, despite efforts at propaganda, he follows Herbert in achieving only a prayerful initiative that is also poetry: a locus standi of Hopkins's inherited Anglicanism tenable, under Rome, only for the retrospectively canonized. (20) Thus, quoting in abschied final words from Herbert's Temple in his penultimate line, the neologist Jesuit may seem to get scot-free of the obsolete `Temple' of former existence, in comfortable contrast to the real `dauphin' of the Terror, who, after damning his mother to the guillotine by attesting to a sexual libel against her, was brutalized to death within the Temple prison. But because of Hopkins's Aeschylean grasp of naturalist reality, the most urgent activity of his windhover at end of May, the serial decapitation of young sparrows to feed his own needy brood (`off-stage' in the poem, as in Greek tragedy), remains for all but the antiHellenist sentimentalist an inescapable aspect of his subtext (not an embarrassing gobbet of `natural history' Hopkins has overlooked in his role as whimsical zealot); and so the piece breaks off as a sectarian homily, to be revealed as a liturgy of the universal, with tragedy at its heart. Only by permitting Christ, that is, the entire series of Dionysian victims, in nature and history, to mark our reading (the poem consecrates the day of Joan's burning at Rouen, thereby discerning them as female victims) can we discard Empson's charge of illogicality. Hopkins is aware that illogicality smears the Logos. Hence the coming of the Word to `buckle' thrice (in the Catholic Stations) under the imponderable Cross. This is the true dithyramb (literally, `divine-three-step') to which the kosmos dances. The intractable windhover refuses, after all, to be misappropriated as a pseudo-objective `thing!' or as the partisan validator of that faux-dauphin, Charles Edward Stuart, (apostate) Catholic `chevalier!' (beware the exclamatory). The real bird may now `sheer' to take its place by the ordinand's `plod' in the mystical pattern the `I' can discern only by joining his activity: Christ's blood, that streams in the firmament, `caught [...] gold-vermilion' in the chalice of the Mass for the redemption of the whole world. (21)

Eliot also said something when he claimed that in Swinburne, `the meaning is merely the hallucination of meaning'. (22) This is not only a permissible remark about Swinburne but also a recognition of what `meaning' is, in any case. In this deeper context of disquiet, Swinburne, too, is a religious poet, pursuing that delight in `enigma' that is at the root of all decorative arrangements. However exotic its products, Swinburne's sensibility (like that of Ruskin, Christina Rossetti, and indeed their pupil Hopkins) is steeped in Anglicanism. But whereas Ruskin continues to use `expression' with Evangelical connotations of sincerity and identity, and Rossetti wrestles with her creed to express her own identity, Swinburnian `expression' is a matter of imprinting a pattern with the typology available: an upper-class English male species of intensely-realized anonymity, at the zenith of its prestige, disallowed to Christina by her foreignness, femaleness, middle-classness, and genius.

Yet Swinburne is peculiar: his peculiarity pervades all he wrote. His refusal to provide mottoes for our safety is telling us (and told his swooning female replicants) something that much discourse avoids. He will not judge between Victorian oppositions such as `saint' and `sinner'; yet his anarchy is purely aristocratic, and not for the consumption of sentimental liberals. A Russian pogrom against Jews leaves him no shred of tolerance for the habit of deifying Christ that lies under so much nineteenth-century writing like a gold reserve. Yet, hero-worshipping the garrison of the Alamo, he does not care that they perished for the right to enslave. The quality of the `action' (in the Aristotelian sense) that concerns his `poetic' is a matter of Aristotelian `magnanimity', not Platonic `virtue' or Christian `belief'.

Burton, the explorer, and tough-guy transgressive, nobly threw aside inherited strictures. Nobler yet, Rossetti the woman-poet (triumphant paradox) achieved new beauties by wrestling (beyond any male) with inherited strictures. `My tribute to Richard Burton was not more genuine in its expression than my tribute to Christina Rossetti', Swinburne addressed his minder and factotum Watts-Dunton in the `Dedicatory Epistle' to his Poems. `Two noble human creatures more utterly unlike each other it would be unspeakably impossible to conceive' (Poems, I, xxiv). For Swinburne, the whole of the second sentence follows from the whole of the first; and the first is about Swinburnian `expression', not moral feeling or judgement.

As we read the first pair of poems: `A Ballad of Life'; `A Ballad of Death' (a juxtaposition that surely amounts to a manifesto), we might find ourselves reaching for a definition made for something else, during the 1970s, by Genet. He is describing a dance troupe of South American Indians: `Haughty, sad, adorned, without parading their virility, the men may be more visible but all their show is in honour of woman, the frail ghost and adored pretext, the nearly invisible centre of gravitation, pulling these sombre and serious stars.' (23)

Swinburne stands with Genet, observing and `expressing' what Genet expresses here: symmetrical forms disposed in a pattern that momentarily claims comprehensiveness and superficially offers itself as an exercise in release from the necessarily problematic nature of all being; while, because of the very nature of its own habits of form, it actually raises, to a pitch of yet greater anxiety, that sense of the problematic from which its mazed participants might have been seeking remission. In ritual agony, Swinburne's star-patterning, flower-patterning, snow-flake-patterning, neither judges nor betrays any particular emotion; but rather expresses tribute to those feared things that lie, revealed in hiding, at its margins and its heart: in all her forms, Artemis, the divine huntress through the dappled shades of ambiguity who (as in the legend of Actaeon) punishes any attempt to see her true nature unveiled:
 Maiden, and mistress of the months and stars
 Now folded in the flowerless fields of heaven,
 Goddess whom all gods love with threefold heart,
 Being treble in thy divided deity,
 A light for dead men and dark hours, a foot
 Swift on the hills as morning, and a hand
 To all things fierce and fleet that roar and range
 Mortal, with gentler shafts than snow or sleep;
 Hear now and help and lift no violent hand,
 But favourable and fair as thine eye's beam
 Hidden and shown in heaven; for I all night
 Amid the king's hounds and the hunting men
 Have wrought and worshipped towards thee (Poems, iv, 247)

As the old distinctions and contradictions appeared to be running into each other and foreclosing for the night, Swinburne was in the van of a rearguard action to continue signalling with what Plato (whose aesthetic perceptions he took very seriously) had distinguished as the non-transferable informations, the non-informative or merely misinformative `colours' of poetry in its essence. Unlike Dante, he has no `noble lie', Platonic or otherwise, with which to amuse us. From the viewpoint of Swinburnian `expression', Plato's refusal of dialectic to poetry disposes also of most other poets, insofar as any lie of `sense' they offer, any pretence that `meaning' can ever be more than `hallucination', is less noble than Dante's. In the Divine Comedy there is a discrepancy between the pattern we see and the mind that wove it. To read the poem, we postulate for it some invisible reverse side. The `lust' that stains mortality must somehow be transposed for us here and now into the `love' only heaven truly knows, otherwise we remain forever in the first canto, where the dappled leopard of Dionysus and (its ultimate explanation) `divine love' co-exist merely as enigmatically juxtaposed signifiers, and fail to account for each other. (24)

Dante eventually passes from lust to love, from his past to Beatrice, through the wall of the fire, negotiating a resolution and pursuing a transcendent narrative. (25) But in the `Ballad of Life' Swinburne makes Lust say, `I am Love' (Poems, 1, 2). Dante's noble prospect moves us because it can never be true to human experience. Swinburne's childish equation disturbs us because it taunts us with the hallucination of meaning, the unresolved velleity, which is our daily experience.

The confusion Dante's whole vision depends on, between life and death, Swinburne refuses to allow. This is a considerable refusal. `Thin like brook-water', as Pound's Selwyn-Mauberley opines, the `abused' Swinburnian optic was never quite terminally infected by its proximity to that undiverted, undiverting little stream `calomnie la mort'. It never quite gave way to what Ruskin defined as vulgarity: `death mingled with life'. Refusing (as dead) Hopkins's Catholic pattern, it needs must reaffirm vitality through the nature of patterning itself. To take an example from something Swinburne's deployment of serial patterning anticipates, the inference drawn from the experience of Tralala and her sorority by the narrator of Last Exit to Brooklyn (`They might get killed so whats the difference') could have no aesthetic propriety (could not be written) where there really was no difference. Not any ideological notion of the ulterior function of pattern but the enigma essential to all actual patterning excludes any resolution between continuity and the finite (say, Darwin's `extinction of species') that lies beyond its own process. Under such terms, life is read as dapple, as `chequers', to quote Ruskin in colloquy with Darwin (Works, XIX, 359), and nothing else appears. (26)

Ruskin, however, only ventures to offer an `aesthetic' counterpoise to Darwinism. The aesthetic is not for him, as for Swinburne, an absolute. In his Christianized reading of the myths of Athene, goddess of weavers, Ruskin makes a general statement that might appeal to Swinburne, along with other Victorians, to the effect that, `the right reading of myths, is the understanding of the nature of all true vision by noble persons'; but he illustrates his point with an image alien to Swinburne: `You will understand Homer better by seeing his reflection in Dante, as you may trace new forms and softer colours in a hillside, redoubled in a lake' (Works, XIX, 310). I am here exemplifying a pattern in Ruskin's thinking, rather than quarrelling with a particular instance of his thought. Almost as the condition for writing anything, many Victorians and their legatees thus persisted in meliorism by stealth: prioritizing spiritual delicacy, the finesse that seems not merely aesthetic but also somehow moral. Typically, the Catholic Alice Meynell could hope one day to read a daisy from `God's side', that is to say from the finer side. `I [...] from a poet's side shall read his book', she writes, paraphrasing the final canto of the Divine Comedy. (27) Refusing the dismay of contemporaneity for a hope locked in ancient faith, she envisages a doubleness that is not the dilemma of Pentheus and his two unreadable cities of Thebes, but an ideological option that becomes a narrative of velleity.

Swinburne's patterning is more `childish'. When Stanley returned from the Congo to describe his experiences at a Royal Geographical Society banquet, there was inevitably no map available. The children of Edwin Arnold painted an outline of `Africa' on four bed-sheets sewn together and at Stanley's direction picked out (in paint-box colours) rivers, lakes, mountains, and forests of the `Dark Continent' never before discernible by the outer world. (28) This provides an analogy for Swinburne's patterning: not absorbed into the history-conscious meliorism of progressive grown-ups (a `clerisy'), but stretched in blithe childishness across contemporary, primeval irresolvability; the locus not of ideology and transformation, but of alienation and dilemma:
 Wide as the stretch of life's time-wandering wings,
 Wide as the naked world and shadowless,
 And long-lived as the world's own weariness (Poems, IV, 11)

Such is the persistent human event Swinburne continually depicts: history (as in the above) from a viewpoint that approximates to that of a driven bird of prey and a geography that presents the dilemma of each Agamemnon, flanked (wherever he is) by excluding similarities. Childish, it is also the pattern of contemporary realpolitik. `Your map of Africa is very fine', said Bismarck dismissively to a colonial enthusiast, `but my map of Africa is here [...]. Here is Russia and here is France and here we are in the middle. That is my map of Africa.' (29) Like Bismarck a member of Europe's hereditary ruling class, Swinburne is not truly at home with the irresponsible Aristophanic-Platonic vision of innumerable pre-paired hemispheres seeking to cohere as stable models of a mystical universe that evolves, beyond the veil, to dissipate tragedy. (30) His is rather the bleaker, sophistic, vision recognized by people with the world on their hands (one that came home to Genet as German troops entered Paris): that of a finite yet extended series, in which variants may be confused with polar oppositions and vice versa; and whose explanation is blank. It is the riddle, not of an extinct civilization, but of one's own. Curiously, beyond the extinction of the European empires, its assumption of centrality comes home as democratic responsibility. It is also a vision that commends a dissolution of received gender positions.

Swinburne's `Relics', unlike those of the defunct crocodile-gods in Herodotus, are the baffling material evidence of his own existence. They take the form of two love-flowers, a winter-flowering laurestine from England, and a May-blooming acacia from Italy. Unlike Meynell's daisy and its variants, neither of Swinburne's flowers has `another side.' There is no transcendent viewpoint in terms of which either may be negated or completed. They are doubles; yet do not constitute a resolved pair. They stand for a life, and may represent a series of comparable encounters; together they make the warp and weft of a transparent fabric through which, if anything appears, it is the pain, not of something, but of nothing. Just as, in order to resolve his `dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon', Hopkins, postulating an availing sacrifice, strains to dedicate and postpone himself, so, at the end of `Relics', with an indifference of quite another kind, the childish replicator Swinburne throws himself away:
 The fair brave trees with all their flowers at play,
 How king-like they stood up into the day!
 How sweet the day was with them, and the night!
 Such words of message have dead flowers to say.

 This that the winter and the wind made bright,
 And this that lived upon Italian light,
 Before I throw them and these words away,
 Who knows but I what memories too take flight?

 (Poems, III, 28)

The opening lines of his admired Baudelaire's `Le Voyage' seem to summarize, if not also to cover, Swinburne's stylistic project:
 Pour l'enfant, amoureux de cartes et d'estampes,
 L'univers est egal a` son vaste appetit

 Aux yeux de souvenir que le monde est petit!

 Plonger au fond du gouffre, Enfer ou Ciel, qu'importe?
 Au fond de l'Inconnu pour trouver du nouveau! (31)

We cannot leave Swinburne in the nineteenth century. To define `vulgarity' as the sordid preference for death in the midst of life, as Ruskin did, is eventually to refuse the snobbery of `tradition' in favour of `Art that gives pleasure to any one has a right to exist' (Works, XXXIV, 642). As Europe's `real' capitals yield to their plaster replicants under Hollywood sun, we find Swinburne, under a shrieking cover, selected, in a journalistic `dithyramb' of 1922, as image for a noticeable example of the hitherto undernoticed female series: `Natacha Rambova, now also known to the public as Mrs Rudolf Valentino'. With reference to her designs for a movie-play of Salome likely to `take the taste right out of [anybody's] mouth', it is Swinburne who is the alternative to those polar hemispheres of the English legacy, Darwin and the Anglican catechism: `She is a copy of Swinburne bound in scarlet [or] she is the outward and visible sign of Rudolph Valentino's spiritual evolution.' There is a perennial postmodern sensibility thus requiring, what Swinburnian patterning frames and Hopkinsian dapple exemplifies, `experiences of novelty and shock'. (32) It is set at large, not liberated, by sheer numbers. Such a print-out produces, never yet significance, but only statistical variants for prurient speculation: a map of love that began to be drawn again about the time of the Wilde trial and has not yet fully accounted even for that event. It may be argued that Swinburne has not only contributed to such modish dilemmas, but also offers a deeper insight within and beyond them.

An immature obsession with serial replication, as noted above by Baudelaire, connotes with a career such as that of J. Edgar (`Edna') Hoover, labouring to document his universe as fingerprints on file to cover every US citizen. In the psychiatric jargon of the 1990s, he is adjudged `a bisexual, with a failed heterosexuality, because of [...] the sharp division between lust and love in his history' (my italics). (33) Taking this (with Swinburne as our grain of salt), we may complete the circular kosmos adumbrated by Swinburne's equation between `lust' and `love' by concluding that it was just because he could not help experiencing variants as incompatible polarities (`because of [...] the sharp division between lust and love in his history') that he was able to write them as equivalents: `And Lust said: I am Love.' This stretch for wholeness may perhaps be read as a postmodernist `moral' (as well as an underlying pathetique) of his patterning. But, as Baudelaire remarked on a parallel occasion, `C'est l'affaire du lecteur.' (34)

(1) M. K. Louis, `Wise Words and Wild Words: The Problem of Language in Swinburne's Atalanta', Victorian Poetry, 25 (1987), 45-56 (p. 55).

(2) William Wilson, `Behind the Veil, Forbidden: Truth, Beauty, and Swinburne's Aesthetic Strain', Victorian Poetry, 22 (1984), 427-37 (p. 436).

(3) Joseph E. Riehl, `Swinburne's Doublings: "Tristram of Lyonesse", "The Sisters", and "The Tale of Balen"', Victorian Poetry, 28 (1990), 1-17 (p. 3).

(4) Rikky Rooksby, `Swinburne Without Tears: A Guide to the Later Poetry', Victorian Poetry, 26 (1988), 413-30.

(5) Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), pp. 1429-30.

(6) Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. by A. M. Sheridan Smith (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 47, 55.

(7) Euripides Bacchae, ed. by E. R. Dodds, 2nd edn (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960), pp. 38, 191-93. See also Richard Parkinson, Cracking Codes: The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment (London: British Museum Press, 1999).

(8) Euripides Bacchae, pp. lv-lvi.

(9) The Poetical Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. by Norman H. Mackenzie (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), p. 144.

(10) Euripides Bacchae, pp. 55-56, 237-39.

(11) The Swinburne Letters, ed. by Cecil Y. Lang, 6 vols (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1959-62), III, pp. 141-42.

(12) The Works of John Ruskin, ed. by E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, 39 vols (London: George Allen, 1903-12), VIII, xxxiii. Further references to Ruskin's Works in the text are to this edition.

(13) The Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ed. by William M. Rossetti (London: Ellis, 1911), p. 74. Compare Matthew 27.51.

(14) Gustav Freytags Briefe an Albrecht von Stosch (Leipzig, 1913), 24 September 1868, quoted in Gordon A. Craig, Germany 1866-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), pp. 59-60. Freytag calls Bismarck the `greatest late fruit' of the literary period 1830-48.

(15) The Poems of Arthur Hugh Clough, ed. by A. L. P. Norrington (London: Oxford University Press, 1968), pp. 202-03.

(16) The Poems of Algernon Charles Swinburne, 6 vols (London: Chatto & Windus, 1904), iv, 136. Further references to Swinburne's Poems in the text are to this edition.

(17) L. M. Findlay, `The Art of Apostasy: Swinburne and the Emperor Julian', Victorian Poetry, 28 (1990), 69-78.

(18) Norman White, Hopkins: A Literary Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), pp. 172-73.

(19) T. S. Eliot, After Strange Gods (London: Faber, 1934), pp. 47-48.

(20) `Providence' gives the `Windhover' moral: `tall without height, | A servile hawk: low without losse, a spade', The Works of George Herbert, ed. by F. E. Hutchinson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), pp. 48, 120, 189.

(21) Scenario: Hopkins has crept close to a known kestrel perch, and is at first rewarded by seeing it in imperious flight! (sestet). As it in fact does so, he silently `orders' it (like a schoolboy watching his sporting hero) to fasten in on the perch with an apocalyptic flurry of its billion markings: O my! (first tercet). In repose, though, it looks small, ordinary, earth-coloured. The man plods on, as the bird sheers to try again (second tercet): its terrible function, however, has throughout been hinted at, together with many historical connotations: in deeper awe, Hopkins recognizes his mature priestly function will be the consecration of a tragic world. See George Riddle, The Kestrel (Princes Risborough: Shire, 1990); Empson in Hopkins's Poetical Works, p. 378; `dithyramb' in Euripides Bacchae, p. 143. Replacing schoolboy `wonder' with `walking' is the initiation-point of Aristotle's Metaphysics (983a). The landscape of the second tercet is organic and precise: Victorian farmers burned scrub and ploughed in May to plant root-crops to feed sheep in September (when Hopkins will be ordained). This destroyed the habitat of small birds, to the kestrel's benefit. For `sparrow' passages, see Matthew 10.29 (an imponderable theological crux); Agamemnon, l. 145 (an imponderable philological crux). Hopkins's `Buckle!' is also an imponderable crux: like all such, an emblem of the imponderable Cross, `unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness' (1 Corinthians 1. 23). Hopkins can only `order' his thrill because the king of the universe continually assents: a realization so profoundly sobering that in mature humility he records it in the words of his old master: `ah my dear'.

(22) T. S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood (London: Methuen, 1932), p. 149.

(23) Edmund White, Genet (London: Chatto & Windus, 1993), p. 660.

(24) Republic, 601 a.4-b.8, 414 b.8-c.2. Inferno, I. 39-42.

(25) Purgatorio, xxvii. 36.

(26) Ezra Pound, Selected Poems, ed. by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber, 1964), p. 176; Stephane Mallarme, Poesie (Paris: Flammarion, 1983), p. 442; Hubert Selby, Jr, Last Exit to Brooklyn (London: Calder & Boyars, 1974), p. 109. The serial Selby's `pattern' is the starker as his referents are occluded.

(27) The Poems of Alice Meynell (London: Burns Oates, 1927), p. 29.

(28) John Bierman, Dark Safari: The Life behind the Legend of Henry Morton Stanley (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1990), p. 220.

(29) Craig, pp. 116-17.

(30) The Dialogues of Plato, trans. by B. Jowett, 5 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1875), II, 41: `primeval man was round'; 74: `Socrates [insists] the genius of comedy was the same as that of tragedy.'

(31) Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal (Paris: Bibliotheque-Charpentier, 1926), pp. 252, 259.

(32) Michael Morris, Madam Valentino: The Many Lives of Natacha Rambova (New York: Abbeville Press, 1991), pp. 83, 123. Compare Paul Crowther, Critical Aesthetics and Postmodernism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), p. xii.

(33) Harold Lief, Professor of Psychiatry, quoted in Anthony Summers, Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover (London: Corgi, 1994), p. 126.

(34) Swinburne as Critic, ed. by Clyde K. Hyder (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972), pp. 27-36 (p. 27): `"Charles Baudelaire: Les Fleurs du Mal", which appeared in the Spectator for 6 September 1862 [pleased Baudelaire, but he] suggested that Swinburne had overstated the moral grounds of his defence'. Swinburne emphasized `Une Martyre', suggesting `a likeness between the Muse' and the `figure of a beautiful body with the head severed' (p. 32). For Baudelaire's response, see Swinburne Letters, 1, 87-88.
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Author:Hardman, Malcolm
Publication:Yearbook of English Studies
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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