Printer Friendly


This essay overviews the principal Swinburne scholarship between 2016 and 2018. Generally, these studies continue the long-standing focus on Swinburne's early poetry--mainly Poems and Ballads (1866) and "Anactoria," as well as Songs before Sunrise (1871) and Atalanta in Calydon (1865)--a focus further encouraged by Poems and Ballads turning 150 in 2016, which was commemorated by a special issue of the Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies edited by Laura McCormick Kilbride and Orla Polten (26 [Fall 2017]). The recent scholarship also clusters around three main topics. While attention continues to be paid to Swinburne's sadomasochism, the most significant areas of analysis in current Swinburne studies are first and foremost his prosody, followed by Swinburne's relationship to Modernism, and lastly Swinburne's interaction with liberalism. These trends and exceptional works are outlined below.

In the past decade, analysis of Swinburne's prosody has been reinvigorated by the historical prosody of Yopie Prins and Meredith Martin and the verse thinking of Simon Jarvis, a trend rewardingly perpetuated by the following studies. Emily Harrington's "Time's Intervals, Swinburne's Triumph" (SEL 57, no. 4 [2017]: 799-821) reads Swinburne's "The Triumph of Time" (1866) to cogently show how poetry and specifically prosody represent time. Often considered a love poem, "The Triumph of Time" is set by Harrington alongside nineteenth-century prosody to reveal that Swinburne's poem also figures antagonistic experiences of time: mechanical and objective clock time, which is progressive, uniform, and divisive and associated with meter; and the organic and subjective pulse, which is eternal, variable, and unifying and associated with rhythm. While Swinburne scorns the uniformity of clock time and values the variability of the pulse, ultimately he shows that each type of time requires the other to exist.

How prosody contributed to Victorian-era democratic politics is a prominent consideration of Julia Saville's Victorian Soul'Talk: Poetry, Democracy, and the Body Politic (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), which contains a chapter on Swinburne. In it, Saville shows how the sound patterns of Swinburne's poetry contributed to an understudied discourse in Victorian poetry of "civic soul," a term related to civic virtue and moral character, the wellbeing of which republican poets such as Swinburne sought to maintain. Applying Simon Jarvis's theory of "verse thinking" to Swinburne's Songs before Sunrise, Studies in Song (1880), and Tristram of Lyonesse (1882), Saville argues that Swinburne's sound patterns express "a counterintuitive form of thinking" that unsettles habituated thought, leads to unexpected meanings, and expresses the counterintuitive, "nonrational knowledge" of the soul (p. 222), which Swinburne associated with vitality, civic ideals, and imaginative freedom.

Two essays consider how Swinburne manipulated prosody to evoke Hellenic meters. Beth Newman's "Swinburne among the Hexametrists" (VP 54, no. 2 [2016]: 221-242) reads Poems and Ballads' and Songs before Sunrise's hexameter poems in the context of contemporary experiments with hexameter that tested whether it could best approximate quantitative Greek meters in accentual English. She does so to elucidate Swinburne's cryptic distinction between poetic "law" and poetic "rule": while Swinburne does not explain their difference, Newman suggests that the former enables a poem to seem natural, while the latter makes the poem mechanical. For Swinburne, the rigidity of poetic rule was exemplified by Matthew Arnold's avowal that the English dactylic hexameter best approximated Homeric meter. To evoke Greek meters in a way that follows not poetic rules but poetic law, Swinburne adroitly manipulated accentual hexameter to produce an effect of quantity, while in "Hesperia" Swinburne suggested that quantitative meter could only be intimated, not imitated. Newman argues in her conclusion that Swinburne's metrical Hellenism is rooted in his republican politics and masochist erotics.

How Swinburne's prosody intimates a Greek ideal is also explored by Orla Polten's "Swinburne's Atalanta in Calydon: Prosody as Sublimation in Victorian 'Greek' Tragedy" (Classical Receptions Journal 9, no. 3 [2016]: 331-349), which analyzes the prosody of Atalanta to theorize how it seems Greek. Polten applies her expert knowledge of classical literary form to show how Swinburne manipulates the prosody of Atalanta--adding and subtracting metrical beats to play with readers' expectations and produce paralinguistic effects--to evoke a lost ideal of Greekness and to cope with that loss.

The prosody of Atalanta is also analyzed by Laura McCormick Kilbride's '"A Renouveau of English Prosody': Rereading Swinburne's Atalanta in Calydon" (Essays in Criticism 68, no. 1 [2018]: 25-53) in order to show how Swinburne's tragedy achieves its power. For Kilbride, Atalanta's energy is generated by a tension between competing meters: the four-beat, triple meter of the chorus and the blank verse of the dialogue. As each promotes a type of attention, Swinburne mixes them at specific moments to play with his readers' expectations and to further express the themes of the tragedy. By tracing the affective capacities of meter, Kilbride interestingly shows a further way that prosody can signify.

Beyond prosody, a number of recent studies consider Swinburne's work with form more broadly. Herbert Tucker's "Terminal Swinburne" in the Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies special issue (pp. 10-28) offers a fascinating study of poetic closure in Poems and Ballads. It compellingly shows that Swinburne's formal "performances of ending," from his metrically shortened final lines to his frequent periods, are key to understanding Swinburne's poetics. Swinburne's interest in ends leads Tucker to theorize his poetics as "entropy": his poetry "tends towards that exhaustion of change, that sameness of form and force, which he names death or peace or merely the end" and which is catalyzed, paradoxically, by its "ostensible opposites: life, or desire, or creation" (p. 12). Thus, Swinburne's endings, Tucker shows, are often ambivalent: ends double as means, stops and starts are often bound together, and neither really finish or initiate.

Irina Yamboliev's "Swinburne's Sea-Prose and the Anti-Novel" (Victorian Literature and Culture 45, no. 2 [2017]: 275-291) rigorously analyzes the style of Swinburne's prose in Lesbia Brandon (1859-1867). Yamboliev terms this idiosyncratic and inventive style "sea prose"--prose that is modeled on the sea and characterized by enacting in prose what Jerome McGann theorizes is true of Swinburne's poetic style: the shifting of language from making meaning to making patterns, here composed mainly of adjectives, whose repetition forestalls narrative progress. Thus, Yamboliev shows how Swinburne's prose style in Lesbia Brandon undoes traditional aspects of the novel, such as the movement of plot and the development of personality.

Just as Swinburne's form continues to be a central area of inquiry, so too does Swinburne's manipulation of genres. Elizabeth Helsinger's "Taking Back the Ballad: Swinburne in the 1860s," a contribution to Victorian Poetry's special issue on ballads edited by Letitia Henville (54, no. 4 [2016]: 477-496), examines Swinburne's editing of Scottish and northern English ballads and his compositions in the style of those ballads. Swinburne's ballads, Helsinger shows, opposed the civilizing and softening ballad practices of editors and poets in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ballad revival by returning the ballad to the harsh themes and rough versification that characterized the genre prior to its lyricizing. Swinburne did so to maintain the sense of historical difference between past and present in order to produce historical self-consciousness and unsettle contemporary readers, who sought the comforting sense of transhistorical continuity proffered by most ballad revivers. This insightful argument contributes to the special issue's broader project: advancing Meredith Martin's groundbreaking scholarship on the genre by showing that the nineteenthcentury ballad is a far more fluid and diverse form than twentieth-century scholars, with their narrow definition of the genre, understood it as being.

Swinburne's dramatic monologues are explored via Judith Butler's theorizing of performative subjectivity in Jason Boulet's '"Who Doth Thee Wrong': Performance, Performativity, and Doing the Self 'Wrong' in Swinburne's Dramatic Monologues," from the Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies special issue (pp. 45-60). For Boulet, what differentiates Swinburne's dramatic monologues from others' is not formal innovation but their depiction of selfhood: Swinburne's dramatic monologues portray the self as being done "wrong." What Boulet means is that Swinburne's speakers often struggle to cope with being jilted: they can neither revert to a self prior to the trauma nor move on from it; rather, they can only repeat the past self problematically and thus suffer crises of identity.

Another continuously rich site of inquiry is Swinburne's relationship to Modernism. Oliver Goldstein's "A Muse in Tatters': Hardy's Poems and Ballads" in the special issue of the Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies (pp. 29-44) considers how Swinburne's Poems and Ballads was received by and influenced Thomas Hardy. While Hardy supposedly moved on from Swinburne's influence, Goldstein argues not only that Hardy in fact continued to engage with Swinburne's verse but also that Hardy's connection to Swinburne occurs, paradoxically, around leaving. Rather than simply echo Swinburne's style, Hardy's verse alludes to Swinburne's poetics by suggesting that it can no longer be reproduced. In sum, Hardy's verse shows how styles might connect even after being abdicated.

While Goldstein considers Swinburne's reception by modernist poetry, Peter Nicholls's "Swinburne and the Modern Poem," also in the Journal of PreRaphaelite Studies special issue (pp. 81-101), rethinks traditional periodization by arguing that Swinburne is a modern poet because the "modern" poem preceded the Modernist one. For Nicholls, the modern poem originated in the nineteenth century via Giacomo Leopardi and Charles Baudelaire, whose differing styles of poetic invention appear in the poetry of Swinburne as well as other European poets and thus constitute a period style. From Baudelaire, as is well known, Swinburne inherited his opposition to didacticism and interest in intensity, while Leopardi and Swinburne share impersonality, vagueness, generality, and what Nicholls calls an "ontological monotone," a style that eventually gave way to the precision of Modernism.

As Nicholls reviews, Ezra Pound was supposedly skeptical of Swinburne, but Marion Thain considers how Swinburne influenced Pound's early treatment of lyric subjectivity in the final chapter of The Lyric Poem and Aestheticism: Forms of Modernity (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press, 2016). Pound, Thain argues, followed Swinburne by also turning to medieval poetry for models of lyric subjectivity to renew the relevance of the genre threatened by modernity. These medieval models of lyric figured lyric voice as at once individual and multivocal and lyric subjectivity as at once personal and communal, enabling Swinburne and Pound to advance the lyric beyond Romanticism's outmoded individual and universal lyric subject. Swinburne's influential modifications to lyric subjectivity are discussed by Thain in her prior chapter, which was originally published as "Desire Lines: Swinburne and Lyric Crisis" in Algernon Charles Swinburne: Unofficial Laureate (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 2013), edited by Catherine Maxwell and Stefano Evangelista, and overviewed in the 2013 "Guide to the Year's Work: Swinburne."

Victorian liberalism has once again become a prominent topic following a number of recent and influential studies, which has recently led scholars to explore Swinburne's poetry in this context. Anna Barton's Nineteenth-Century Poetry and Liberal Thought: Forms of Freedom (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) shows how nineteenth-century British poets, including Swinburne, contributed to liberalism by theorizing the right ratio of liberty and law, individual rights and social responsibility. Swinburne, along with Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Arthur Hugh Clough, feature in Barton's section on the nation, which considers how these poets engaged classical republicanism, responded to the Italian Risorgimento, and negotiated liberalism's struggle to square individual freedom and civic responsibility. Here, Barton argues that Swinburne's Songs before Sunrise was more influenced by Mill's On Liberty (1859) and EBB's Casa Guidi Windows (1851) and Poems before Congress (1860) than was heretofore thought. While EBB's Risorgimento poetry is characterized by tensions between self and state, Swinburne worked through Mill and EBB to reconcile self and state in Songs before Sunrise. Songs before Sunrise also interrogates ways of imagining history and time. In it, Swinburne negotiates the tension between his republican atemporal symbolism and Mill's and EBB's liberal progressive history by asserting the former while hinting at the appeal of the latter.

Nathan K. Hensley's chapter on Swinburne in Forms of Empire: The Poetics of Victorian Sovereignty (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2016) juxtaposes the 1866 publication of Swinburne's Poems and Ballads with the contemporaneous but seemingly unrelated imposition of martial law by Governor Edward Eyre to suppress the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica. So doing, according to Hensley, shows that both events expose a fundamental contradiction of the Victorian politics of empire. While Victorian liberalism understood violence and law as antonyms, the British government frequently employed extrajudicial violence to maintain law and order, particularly in the colonies, hinting that, in empire, war and peace are not opposed but intimately conjoined: force guarantees law. For Hensley, Poems and Ballads' balancing of excessively violent content in meticulously ordered form enacts liberal empire's intertwining of violence and law and thus conceives what liberal theorists, such as John Stuart Mill and John Morley, could not: that the seeming antonyms war and peace, violence and law, are in fact dialectically unified. Hensley therefore concludes that Poems and Ballads is not mere apolitical aestheticism, as some critics might assert, but "political thought enacted in form" (p. 139). This chapter supports Hensley's broader study of how Victorian writers manipulated literary form to make sense of liberal empire's paradoxical intertwining of extrajudicial violence and law and order.

In 2017, Swinburne's major works received a new scholarly edition, eponymously titled and edited by Francis O'Gorman for the 21st-century Oxford Authors series (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2017). This collection worthily complements the most authoritative of the extant compilations, the Major Poems and Selected Prose, edited by Jerome McGann and Charles L. Sligh (New Haven, Conn: Yale Univ. Press, 2004). Like the McGann and Sligh volume, O'Gorman's edition is apt for academics, from the graduate student to the advanced scholar. But while McGann and Sligh include more of Swinburne's major works (e.g., more entries from Poems and Ballads and the complete Tristram of Lyonesse [1882]), O'Gorman provides a broader and more even range of Swinburne's remarkable variety of writings, though some, such as Tristram and the verse drama Bothwell (1874), are merely excerpts. (O'Gorman's only perhaps surprising omissions are Swinburne's prose responses to his critics, Notes on Poems and Reviews [1866] and Under the Microscope [1872].) O'Gorman annotates his selections more thoroughly than McGann and Sligh without intruding or overexplaining, making his edition very helpful in clarifying Swinburne's frequent allusions to and quotations from obscure works. His erudite introduction combats the standard narrative of Swinburne's career that sees him, after his early success, as having declined aesthetically and become conservative politically. O'Gorman follows McGann in arguing for the value of Swinburne's later verse, just as O'Gorman argues against the influential vision of Swinburne as a political backslider by pointing out a more fundamental consistency to his political views.

O'Gorman's argument that Swinburne's beliefs were more unswerving than has heretofore been thought is developed in his engaging "Swinburne and Cowardice: Running Away and Poems and Ballads" from the special issue of the Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies (pp. 61-80). Here, O'Gorman argues that Swinburne's political and aesthetic beliefs revolved around his esteem of courage. Throughout his life and oeuvre, O'Gorman points out, Swinburne valued bravery and patriotism, disliked cowardice, advocated heroic violence (including assassination) for just ends, and sought conflict, particularly when it came to fighting about poetry, which was a way that Swinburne displayed the mettle that he admired. Realizing Swinburne's fundamental commitment to courage convincingly gives the lie to the traditional understanding that Swinburne's politics were inconsistent. For instance, while his political poetry is often thought to shift from cosmopolitan republicanism to jingoist conservatism, O'Gorman shows that regardless of looking outward or inward, his poetry always celebrated the heroism and service of patriotism. In addition, O'Gorman argues that throughout his career Swinburne conceived of authorship as opposition, a form of combat, and he constantly courted professional self-destruction, such as when he risked publishing poetry that supported terrorism and assassination, in order to show his courage. Swinburne's commitment to courage, however, had a surprising exception: despite continuing to court controversy in his middle age, Swinburne also retreated from his most offensive volume, Poems and Ballads, by omitting much of it from his 1887 selected works.

Swinburne's poetic concern with terrorism and assassination is further explored by O'Gorman in "Swinburne in Difficulty" (SEL 57, no. 4 [2017]: 823-840). Here, O'Gorman considers Swinburne's underdiscussed late-career political poetry, specifically those poems that respond unclearly to complex political issues, such as Swinburne's sonnet "Carnot" (1894), which confusingly condemns the anarchist assassination of Marie Francois Sadi Carnot, the president of France. For O'Gorman, this awkwardness is not merely poor writing; rather, O'Gorman argues that Swinburne's political poetry is unclear when his blackand-white political ideals confront gray, complicated realities. These muddled realities, O'Gorman argues, led to ambivalence and uncertainty in Swinburne and thus ambiguity, concealment, and opacity in his political poetry. This innovative argument leads O'Gorman to complicate how ambiguity is traditionally understood. Rather than emerging from a writer's command and signifying a work's complexity and quality, O'Gorman shows how ambiguity also can emerge from a writer's conflicts and signify a work's problems.

Finally, Catherine Maxwell's richly historicized Scents and Sensibility: Perfume in Victorian Literary Culture (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2017) reads Swinburne in the context of the senses. While most studies of Victorian sensation focus on sight, hearing, or touch, Maxwell draws attention to a theme that has gone understudied despite its prominence right under our very noses: frequent allusions to smell and scent, particularly perfume, by aesthetes and decadents, who Maxwell argues associated these scents with creativity, identity, and memory. Her chapter on Swinburne and Walter Pater shows that Swinburne embraced the identity of the "olfactif," a person who displayed a cultivated and discriminating sense of smell to imply refinement, and that Swinburne's frequent references to smell and display of his scent sensitivity were emulated by his aesthetic offspring, particularly Pater. While it is well known that Charles Baudelaire was behind Poems and Ballads' influential references to exotic, artificial, and heavy scents, Maxwell shows that Swinburne in fact preferred and more often referred to natural scents of the air and sea. Referencing these fresher, lighter odors was a means for the post-Poems and Ballads Swinburne to distinguish himself from Baudelaire, and while these oceanic and ozonic scents were also conventional Victorian preferences, Swinburne put their associations with stimulation to erotic ends. Swinburne also referred to these fresh, natural scents, with their implications of newness and naturalness, to commend literature that he rated highly. In sum, such cogent works as this and the others mentioned earlier show that this is an exciting time to be a Swinburnian.
COPYRIGHT 2018 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 2018 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Guide to the Year's Work; Algernon Charles Swinburne
Author:Mazel, Adam
Publication:Victorian Poetry
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 22, 2018
Previous Article:The Pre-Raphaelites.
Next Article:Tennyson.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |