Printer Friendly

Swinburne.

Last year was an exciting and exceptionally eventful year in Swinburne studies. 2009 marked the poet's centennial and inspired a successful conference, as well as a series of major publications. "Swinburne: A Centenary Conference," organized by Catherine Maxwell, Patricia Pulham, and Stefano Evangelista, took place at the University of London on July 10-11, 2009. Later in the year, both Victorian Poetry and Etudes Anglaises dedicated an issue to Swinburne, and my own edited collection of essays on Swinburne's mature writings was published by Ashgate. If there is one thing the reviewer of this year's work on Swinburne was happy to realize it is that given the opportunity, quite a few people have a great deal to say about Swinburne. One can only hope, then, that such opportunities keep presenting themselves in the future.

Edited by Rikky Rooksby and Terry L. Meyers, Victorian Poetry's special Swinburne issue (47, no. 4 [Winter 2009]) contained twelve articles by a wide variety of authors--from graduate students to some of the leading figures in contemporary Victorian studies. This was the first time since 1971 that Victorian Poetry dedicated an entire issue to Swinburne, and as such, Rooksby notes, it "necessarily reflects Swinburne studies in the light of the critical work produced since 1971" (p. 613). Reviewing almost four decades of Swinburne scholarship, Rooksby rightly concludes that the latest issue "reflects many of the changes which have occurred" in the field of Victorian studies (p. 614). Meyers shares Rooksby's positive spirit when he observes that the essays that constitute the issue "have little in common in their approaches, but they all take Swinburne seriously" (p. 614). At the same time, however, both Rooksby and Meyers deplore the fact that despite his obvious poetic achievements, many scholars still consider Swinburne to be a marginal poet. Meyers' observation is particularly interesting in this context: Swinburne's exile from the literary canon, he write, "has been for moral and ideological reasons, even in this age when the canon has been expanded in so many ways. Whether it has room for someone as consistently subversive as Swinburne is still to be seen" (p. 614). A century after his death, then, Swinburne is still too subversive for current scholarly standards. As such, Meyers' statement asks us to shift our focus from Swinburne to his current readers; how open-minded and liberal can we really claim to be if a poet whose latest poem was composed a hundred years ago still makes us uncomfortable? Or in other words, are we not just as conservative as Swinburne's contemporaries? Rooksby and Meyers have already reviewed the essays that make their special issue in the pages of this very journal, so I am not going to review them again. Instead I will encourage the readers of this survey to read them with the same joy that I have.

The French journal, Etudes Anglaises, also devoted a special issue to Swinburne (62, no. 2 [2009]), which brought together six of the leading Swinburne scholars in France. In his introduction to the volume, Denis Bonnecase presents Swinburne as a transitional poet who continuously wavered between Romanticism and modernity, and provides a brief panorama of the critical reception of the poet, focusing in particular on T. S. Eliot's response to Swinburne's verbal exploits. Marc Poree's "Swinburne par lui-meme ou la preuve par l'absurde" (pp. 134-145) offers a thoughtful analysis of the poet's manipulation and fascination with parody and self-parody in "Poeta Loquitur" and "Nephelidia." Next, Denis Bonnecase's "Harmonie et silence chez Swinburne" (pp. 146-159) reveals the poet's profound understanding of textuality by giving special attention to the interplay of signifiers, harmony, and silence in "A Match," "The Garden of Proserpine," and "A Nympholept." In the following article ("Swinburne et critique de la raison poietique" [pp. 160-173]), Sebastien Scarpa discusses the disappearance of God and the loss of all forms of transcendence in Swinburne's post-romantic poetry and the impact this loss had on the poet's growing doubt about the possibility of ever achieving any form of metaphysical meaning. Pascal Aquien's "Poetique de l'ecart, l'exemple de 'Cyril Tourneur'" (pp. 174-185) provides a detailed analysis of the sonnet "Cyril Tourneur," dedicated to the Elizabethan dramatist, and shows Swinburne's use of mimetic language as part of his attempt to bridge the gap between language and the objects it aims to represent. Following is Lacy Rumsey's "Swinburne et la variation rythmique" (pp. 186-204), which focuses on Swinburne's intricate rhythmical innovations as they appear in "Itylus" as well as other poems. Finally, Charlotte Ribeyrol's "Filiations saphiques: de Swinburne a Virginia Woolf et H.D" (pp. 205-221) associates Swinburne's subversive Hellenism with the modernist works of Virginia Woolf and H.D., and thus offers an alternative to the predominant view of ancient Greece as essentially Dorian--a view that was shared by most Victorian and Modernist writers including Ezra Pound. Together with their obvious contribution to Swinburne studies, the articles that appear in Etudes Anglaises' special issue also draw our attention to French readers' historical interest in Swinburne's life and works. When Swinburne was exiled from English and American anthologies during the twentieth century, French scholars still regarded him as one of the greatest English poets that ever lived. As such, Etudes Anglaises participates in a long French tradition, and provides an additional academic context in which to read Swinburne.

My own edited volume, Swinburne and the Singing Word: New Perspectives on the Mature Work (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), consists of eight chapters that explore Swinburne's later writings. The choice to focus on the second half of Swinburne's career resulted from my wish to expose readers to the less familiar regions of Swinburne's body of work. But just as importantly, the volume also shows how Swinburne's later work requires us to adopt a new mode of reading: one that employs a careful examination of formal and rhetorical constructs as a means of revealing biographical and historical truths. Thus the book not only expands the Swinburnean corpus, but also offers a new way of approaching it. In "Knowledge and Sense Experience in Swinburne's Late Poetry" (pp. 11-29), Stephanie Kuduk-Weiner discusses Swinburne's experimentation in the larger context of nineteenth-century debates about empiricist and transcendental epistemologies. Examining the mediating role language plays between sensation and knowledge in Swinburne's mature work, Kuduk-Weiner re-situates his later poetry within his own corpus, as well as within nineteenth-century intellectual history. John A. Walsh's "'Quivering Web of Living Thought': Conceptual Networks in Swinburne's Songs of the Springtides" (pp. 29-54) applies recent digital humanities tools to explore the hidden architectural structure of the poems in Swinburne's volume and to reveal the hidden thematic and formal patterns found in Swinburne's body of work. Looking at both biographical and structural features of the text, Walsh highlights the transitional nature of Songs of the Springtides and its role in connecting the earlier and later periods of Swinburne's career. My own "Solar Erotica: Swinburne's Myth of Creation" (pp. 55-72) discusses Swinburne's attempt to form a non-Christian creation myth. As I show, Swinburne replaces the biblical myth of creation with a natural myth in which different elemental forces engage in an erotic and procreative relationship, which enables Swinburne to form what is essentially a material concept of spirituality. In "Swinburne and the North" (pp. 73-90), Brian Burton explores the poet's relationship with northern England and shows how his fond memories of the Northumbrian landscape, people, and folklore of his childhood found their way into Swinburne's later poetry. By looking to the north, as Burton shows, Swinburne was not only able to expose himself to new literary and cultural influences but also challenge southern hegemonic conceptions of Englishness. Nick Freeman investigates Swinburne's place within mainstream English culture by discussing his participation in nineteenth-century debates about Shakespeare in "Swinburne's Shakespeare: The Verbal Whirlwind?" (pp. 91-106). Even though Swinburne's unique approach to the bard kept him in a rather marginal position in the context of Victorian Shakespeare scholarship, Freeman argues, Swinburne's contribution to Shakespeare studies is undeniable and must be acknowledged by both readers of Shakespeare and Swinburne. Swinburne's relationship with French culture functions as the focus of Charlotte Ribeyrol's "A Channel Passage: Swinburne and France" (pp. 107-126). As Ribeyrol shows, while Swinburne sought inspiration in France, his poetic and critical works were also read and admired in France. As such, Ribeyrol's essay questions the common view which regards Swinburne as merely an importer of French influences into England, arguing that his relationship with French literature was far from one-sided. Catherine Maxwell's "Swinburne's Friendships with Female Writers" (pp. 127-148) refutes the common perception of the mature Swinburne as an isolated man who lived a solitary life in Putney. Throughout the final decades of his life, Maxwell notes, Swinburne corresponded with dozens of both established and young female authors, providing them with advice and establishing strong friendships. Maxwell's essay provides, therefore, an appraisal of Swinburne's response to women writers and discusses Swinburne's impact on the work of late-Victorian women writers. Finally, Rikky Rooksby's "Selecting Swinburne" (pp. 149-166) provides the first complete review of selected volumes of Swinburne's poetry. Starting with the 1887 Selections, Rooksby mentions and discusses over two dozen selections published thereafter. Rooksby's essay explores the role these selections have played in shaping Swinburne's reputation and the manner in which they expressed prevailing literary fashions. The volume ends with an Afterward by David G. Riede, who discusses the state of Swinburne scholarship and reflects on the possible direction it might take in the future.

In addition to the three major publications I mentioned, the past year has also seen the publication of a number of interesting items to which I would like to draw my readers' attention. In "'Frater, Ave'? Tennyson and Swinburne" (Tennyson among the Poets, ed. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst and Seamus Perry [Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009], pp. 296-314), Linda K. Hughes revisits what has becomes an old Victorian cliche: the rivalry between Swinburne and Tennyson. Swinburne and Tennyson's personal, ideological, and political disagreement was a known fact for their contemporaries as it is to us now: "Tennyson's insistence on personal immortality versus Swinburne's atheism, Tennyson's Burkean politics of gradual change versus Swinburne's republicanism" resulted in what appeared to be a rather vexed relationship. However, as Hughes shows throughout her article, from 1865 when Swinburne's Atalanta was published, and until Tennyson's death in 1892, the two poets "demonstrated keen awareness of each other and, while wing for pre-eminence, continued to recognize each other's claim to poetic excellence." Thus, as Hughes argues, in order to fully understand Swinburne and Tennyson's relationship, one has to adopt a model of influence that "entails competition and bonding" (p. 297). In the following pages, Hughes employs careful close-reading to demonstrate the thematic, figurative, and formal resemblance found in Swinburne and Tennyson's poetic work. As she concludes, "though committed to such different politics, theology, and standards of poetic decorum, the two poets' regard for each other's craft meant that they could never entirely bid farewell to each other's language, rhythms, or poetic ideas during their shared lifetimes" (p. 314). As such, apart from introducing a subtler view on the poets' relationship, Hughes's article contributes to Swinburne studies in two additional significant ways: first, she draws our attention to what appears to be a rather common phenomenon among Victorian poets and critics who disagreed with Swinburne's political and ideological views but still maintained a deep appreciation to his skills as a poet. In this respect, Tennyson can be associated with Ruskin and Christina Rossetti, who regarded Swinburne's poetic works highly despite their discomfort with Swinburne's choice of subject matter. Second, and like Catherine Maxwell in "Swinburne's Friendship with Women Writers," Hughes shows that, as opposed to the common view, Swinburne was in fact an active participant in the late-Victorian poetic scene even after his move to Putney and what many critics perceive as the end of his public life.

Swinburne also appears in Jason R. Rudy's Electric Meters: Victorian Physiological Poetics (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 2009), which examines the shift toward a material understanding of prosody during the second half of the nineteenth century. Rudy's notion of"physiological poetics" draws on the Victorian growing emphasis on the physical nature of the poetic experience, which Rudy shows to have been the result of recent discoveries in the fields of electricity and biology. Swinburne fits Rudy's model perfectly since "Swinburne's idea of poetry relies on its kinship with the human body," and "offers [its] readers a physical experience" (p. 140). However, the material qualities of Swinburne's poetry go beyond the individual reader or poet: "through rhythm, rhyme, assonance, alliteration, and other sonic effects, Swinburne believes poetry engages with nature" (p. 150). Or in other words, the physicality of Swinburne's poetry connects those who read it with the physical world. This connection reveals what Rudy perceives as Swinburne's material transcendence: "Swinburne ... bestows transcendent value on what at first seemed only material forms and sounds; the press and release of language suggests for the poet a sympathetic place for humankind in the natural world" (p. 151). Rudy's focus on "By the North Sea" and "The Lake of Gaube" is refreshing, as he draws attention to two poems that have traditionally received very little critical attention. But perhaps most important is the statement Rudy makes toward the end of his discussion: for Swinburne, he writes, "it is primarily through the feeling body (rhythm and sound), not the thinking mind (words and meaning), that the individual engages with the universe" (p. 153). In arguing so, Rudy provides a valid alternative to what is still a common critical view that considers the musicality of Swinburne's poetry as superficial and meaningless. Swinburne, Rudy asserts, is a profound thinker, but his intellectualization takes place in his rhythms instead of his words. If Rudy's insights have one lesson for Swinburneans, then, it is that the time has arrived for a comprehensive study of Swinburne's prosody.

Lene Ostermark-Johansen's "Between the Medusan and the Pygmalian: Swinburne and Sculpture" (Victorian Literature and Culture 38, no. 1 [2010]: 21-37) discusses the relationship between poetry and sculpture in Swinburne by focusing on two poems "Hermaphroditus" (1866), which was inspired by the famous Roman sculpture found in the Louvre, and "In San Lorenzo" (1871), which alludes to Michelangelo's Le Notte found in the Medici Chapel, Florence. By the second half of the nineteenth century both French and English critics declared sculpture to be dead art whose ancient origins did not suit modern life, and whose overwhelming materiality failed to accord with new Aesthetic and Symbolist ideals. For Swinburne, however, sculpture was still very much alive. As Qstermark-Johansen writes, "although sexually sterile, the Hermaphrodite begets new works of art, in the minds of the beholders, in the poems and prose of the writers who engage with it, and it thus becomes symptomatic of the whole generation of writers who, in the late nineteenth century, with Walter Pater, were declaring 'all literature as a fine art'" (pp. 25-26). Even though sculpture might have ceased to be a relevant form of art in the nineteenth century, it did nonetheless inspire nineteenth-century minds to produce beautiful objects. "The Hermaphrodite thus becomes a visual symbol of the metamorphosis of one art form into another," Qstermark-Johansen notes, "and hence [functions as] an emblem of aesthetic poetry and criticism" (p. 24). But in the Swinburnean context, Qstermark-Johansen adds, the Hermaphrodite figure represents political as well aesthetic significance. "In San Lorenzo," published in Songs before Sunrise, in which Swinburne declares his commitment to a republican Italy, the "blending of male and female ... becomes a complex image of the Italian nation, of unity and unification, of the resurrection of the dead into the world of the living" (p. 35). As such, Swinburne's poetic musing on sculpture demonstrates how Swinburne "was, in fact, in very close dialogue with both French and English writers" of his time (p. 22), and presents him as an informed and insightful art critic.

Finally, in the past year Swinburne was also the center of a play and special exhibition. John Goodwin's Swinburne is a quick overview of Swinburne's life in a series of vignettes. It was presented on two dates in the spring of 2010 in East Dene, Isle of Wight, where Swinburne spent a great portion of his childhood. The Georgetown University library also celebrated Swinburne's centenary with "A Swinburne Gallimaufry," an exhibition based on the papers of John S. Mayfield, one of the greatest twentieth-century collectors of Swinburneiana (October 5, 2009-January 8, 2010). To quote the exhibition catalogue: "Arranged thematically, the exhibition highlights some of Swinburne's major inspirations, works, and relationships. Selections of rare and limited editions of Swinburne's works are included from Mayfield's library."

I would like to thank Charlotte Ribeyrol for reviewing and translating the articles in Etudes Anglaises, and Terry L. Meyers for drawing my attention to items I would have otherwise missed.
COPYRIGHT 2010 West Virginia University Press, University of West Virginia
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Guide to the Year's Work
Author:Levin, Yisrael
Publication:Victorian Poetry
Date:Sep 22, 2010
Words:2795
Previous Article:The Pre-Raphaelites.
Next Article:Tennyson.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters