The Dark Sublime: The Poetry of Algernon Charles Swinburne


I would my love could kill thee; I am satiated
With seeing thee live, and fain would have thee dead.

-Algernon Charles Swinburne, Anactoria

Algernon Charles Swinburne (April 5, 1837 – April 10, 1909) English poet and critic, outstanding for prosodic innovations and noteworthy as the symbol of mid-Victorian poetic revolt. The characteristic qualities of his verse are insistent alliteration, unflagging rhythmic energy, sheer melodiousness, great variation of pace and stress, effortless expansion of a given theme, and evocative if rather imprecise use of imagery. His poetic style is highly individual and his command of word-colour and word-music striking. Swinburne’s technical gifts and capacity for prosodic invention were extraordinary, but too often his poems’ remorseless rhythms have a narcotic effect, and he has been accused of paying more attention to the melody of words than to their meaning. Swinburne was pagan in his sympathies and passionately antitheist. This is the bare truth of a poet who would epitomize the dark sadomasochistic world of Late Romanticism, otherwise known as English Decadence.

Little read today except by aficionados of that dark realm of the fantastic one wonders at his strange craft, the elegant measure of his line and its  insouciance. Swinburne would fuse French Decadence to reinforce Coleridge against Wordsworth reviving the gothic sublime in all its horrific glory. An admirer of Sade, Gautier, and Baudelaire, Swinburne restored to English literature the sexual frankness it lost after the eighteenth century. After the Victorian defeat of Oscar Wilde the fate of Swinburne was assured. Wilde’s love letter to Lord Alfred Douglas De Profundis would lay bare the dark contours of his own prejudices and fears, presenting his association with young, working-class male prostitutes as a kind of moral and creative lapse, a bout of slumming that distracted him from the free practice of his art: “I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease … I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and meaner minds.” (here) Toward the end of his prison term in Reading he would sum up the art of Late Romanticism (Decadence), saying, “Language requires to be tuned, like a violin; and just as too many or too few vibrations in the voice of the singer or the trembling of the string will make the note false, so too much or too little in words will spoil the message.” Sadly, the fate of Wilde’s outer life would haunt the poetry and writings of Swinburne, which would fall into disfavor as a Late Victorian world of morality and accusation would put a damper on any sense of sexuality in poetry of literature.

This need to find just the right word, the mot juste, would lead Walter Pater – the critical voice of Late Romanticism – to say: “For just in proportion as the writer’s aim, consciously or unconsciously, comes to be the transcribing, not of the world, not of mere fact, but of his sense of it, he becomes an artist, his work fine art; and good art (as I hope ultimately to show) in proportion to the truth of his presentment of that sense; as in those humbler or plainer functions of literature also, truth–truth to bare fact, there–is the essence of such artistic quality as they may have.” (Style) The heightening of sense and sensibility in which  “the style becomes the man”, would become of Pater’s trademark literary and critical exemplum from which decadent sensibility emerges as the image of voice as well as mode of being for the dandy; a portrait which, linking his views on experience to his art of criticism and fiction, also becomes a portrait of a late Victorian or late romantic sensibility.

Yet, Swinburne was a Decadent but not an aesthete. Unkempt and dishevelled, he had no taste whatever in the major or minor arts. The first English aesthete was as suggested Walter Pater, whose publishing career began a year after Swinburne’s scandalous Poems and Ballads (1866). Swinburne prepared the way for Pater in two ways. As Camille Paglia in her study of decadence, Sexual Personae will argue: First, Swinburne’s poetry dissolves the Saxon solidity of English syntax by Decadent moral suspension and French linearity, that glossy accentless flow which Baudelaire makes a sinister murmur of entrancement. Second, Swinburne’s Late Romantic imagery daemonizes Shelley into a degenerate classicism. In other words, Swinburne uses Coleridge to corrupt Shelley. Swinburne’s paganism is Hellenistic and neo-primitive. It is not the radiant idealism Shelley takes from Apollonian Athens. French Late Romanticism,  is predicated on worship of objets d’art, thanks to the pioneering Gautier’s transfer of perceptual relations from the visual to the sexual realm. English Decadence is less concerned with objets, than with style, the self-consciously beautiful mode of discourse of an epicene male persona.1 One will remember William Butler Yeats poem The Choice:

The intellect of man is forced to choose
perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.   

Even John Ruskin earlier own would reject this move toward style or what some would term “art for art’s sake,” saying, It would be a pity to waste many words on the prospect of such a school of art as this […] Its fore-doomed end must be that art at last will seem too delicate a thing for even the hands of the initiated to touch; and the initiated must at last sit still and do nothing – to the grief of no one. 2

It was here in Pater that all those postmodern thinkers who affirmed a notion of social constructivism would first be heard: “The basis of all artistic genius lies in the power of conceiving humanity in a new and striking way, of putting a happy world of its own creation in place of the meaner world of our common days, generating around itself an atmosphere with a novel power of refraction, selecting, transforming, recombining the images it transmits, according to the choice of the imaginative intellect.” This sense that one could replace reality with a constructed one, of the end game of Idealism and the beginnings of anti-realism and relativism (or subjectivist construction against creation).

Swinburne would turn the high sublime of Pater into darker territory, reviving the vampires of Baudelaire, the Gothicism of Poe. In Swinburne as in Baudelaire, sex is not pleasure but torment. As Paglia tells us Swinburne’s vampires inherit the promiscuous lesbianism of Baudelaire’s Jeanne Duval, all the more atrocious for an English audience unprepared for such aberrations by a Balzac or Gautier. The women’s plural sexuality comes from their multiple identities, flooding history.  Sexual pain is a ritual to drive off the mental. Conscience is merely an aspiring leech. Swinburne evades both Christian guilt and Romantic self-consciousness by a historical detour, surrender to the primeval dominatrix. (SP, 464)

For Swinburne the natural in man is a devouring monstrosity, the external universe a realm of impersonal and indifferent forces whose malign and darkening power was beyond our human morality, our notions of good or evil. Unlike the Gnostics who ontologized evil in the external world, Swinburne would revive a Kali like vision of the universe as a dominatrix whose eternal dance of vampiric bloodletting in creation and destruction were to be celebrated as the triumph of the sadomasochistic truth rather than to reduce it as Christianity had into a moral vision of sacrifice and self-immolation with Christ dead on the Cross. As Ian Fletcher stated, there is a “rhythm of tumescence and detumescence that flows and ebbs” within the poetry of Swinburne.3  T. S. Eliot said of Swinburne’s verse, “The object has ceased to exist, because the meaning is merely the hallucination of meaning, because language, uprooted, has adapted itself to an independent life of atmospheric nourishment.”4 The object does not exist in Swinburne’s poetry for the same reason the objet d’art did not exist in his life: because he is unconflicted toward female liquidity and does not require the objet d’art as a perceptual defense against it.

In fact in Swinburne the theme of male subordination to female authority is more consciously developed than in any other major poet or artist of the decadent era. As with the Marquis de Sade, life and work dovetail, for Swinburne was apparently a masochist in its strict sense. That is, he liked to be whipped by women and visited brothels for this purpose. As Paglia emphasizes Swinburne’s masochism had a metaphysical meaning. His recreational whippings were connected to his poetic cosmology, which restores the Great Mother to power. Self-flagellation was intrinsic to the ancient mother-cults. Flagellation, flogging, thrashing: threshing grain with a flail (from the Latin flagrum or flagellum, “a whip, scourge”). Swinburne’s ritual flagellation mimicked the public operations of agriculture. Sadomasochism is perverse nature-cult. Surrendering himself to whipping, Swinburne theatrically formalized the hierarchical sexual relations of a universe activated by female force. Mind and body, pleasure and pain, mother and son were reunited in archaic sexual ceremony. (SP, 472)

Which brings us to Swinburne’s greatest paen to the Mother Goddess, Nature, the hymn in honor of Sappho, Anactoria. Within the architecture, rhythm, and syntactical elegance of this ferocious poem Swinburne would bring a grave and ceremonial grandeur, aligned with a complex and extensive enactment of self-abasement before the indifference of the Cosmos. Behind it would be Baudelaire’s sexual scenarios along with a philosophically enriched reading of the Divine Marquis. Swinburne would give his rendition of Sappho’s lesbian paen the authority of his mordant analyses of society, nature, and the Victorian moralist – God. Paglia would say of it: “Anactoria is the most overwhelming female monologue in literature. Swinburne gives Sappho towering emotional and intellectual passion. She combines Cleopatra’s steamy volatility with Madame de Clairwil’s late-Enlightenment high I.Q. In Anactoria the female voice has stupendous hermaphroditic power. We hear Horace’s “mascula Sappho” and Baudelaire’s “la mâle Sapho,” male by force of genius and Promethean will. Hubris, the prestigious male sin, for the first time falls within a woman’s grasp. And Swinburne’s Sappho, unlike Brontë’s Heathcliff, dominates without shifting her gender.” (SP, 473)

This post is too long as is are I’d go through the poem segment by segment detailing out the dark Gothicism of its Late Romantic decadence, its self-abasement and incarceration in pain and suffering, immolation. In some ways all those authors of weird tales from H.P. Lovecraft to our current Thomas Ligotti are no more than distant shadows of this dark progenitor of metaphysical horrorism. Swinburne’s poetry is one of the most comprehensive modern attempts to turn sex into epistemology. His sense of quest is shown in his turn toward the limits of knowledge, seeing to “discover” in tortures “undreamt of, unheard of, unwritten, unknown” – the noumenon that had been rejected by Kant and his followers. Surfeited by its Enlightenment adventurism and the High Romantic magnification of self, mind yields to the flesh, melancholy object of the Late Romantic age of discovery. As Paglia will reiterate action and experience shrink to the parameters of the body, fawningly titillated by the sense-experiments of Huysmans’ Des Esseintes and fixed and defined by agonized sensation in Anactoria. Swinburne’s nature is like the sexual preceptress of Kundalini yoga, except that Swinburne’s universe is ruled by negation. Love is terminal surgery, illicit knowledge that kills. (SP, 475)

In Anactoria Swinburne brings us Sappho’s perverse imagination, which mirrors and resists the cruel enormity of this natural imposition. Her Late Romantic fatigue comes partly from physical laws: “I am sick with time,” she declares. Life is infected with death from the start. But Sappho is also weary from her contention with the false sense of Victorian morality and its God, whom she challenges and insults. One is reminded of Melville’s Ahab: “Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.” Anactoria is a war of hierarchic orders: female power vies with male. Anactoria ends in a critique of Romantic self upon itself. It is to Swinburne’s honor that he gives this task to an imperious female artist. “I Sappho,” she boldly declares, in a thrilling assertion of poetic vocation. Anactoria shows both the Romantic insistence upon personal identity and the Late Romantic weariness with it, a longing for repose turning into a longing for death. Identity is inflamed in Sappho: it is a ring of fire within which she contemptuously isolates herself. In her scornful parting shot at Anactoria, Sappho says in effect, “You will die, because you are not a poet” Genius is Sappho’s means of evading God’s authority: “Of me the high God hath not all his will.” God’s power affects only her body, which is passive toward natural law. Therefore her femaleness is marked for dissolution, while her maleness, invested in her self-created poetic identity, triumphantly escapes into eternal life, a hermaphroditic transfiguration.

In our time the Self as Identity has been pulverized beyond redemption, for better or worse our philosophers, poets, literatures and neurosciences have buried the notion of the Self in oblivion; or, at least its substantive solidity as agency or essential soulfulness as preexistent entity, etc.. The only sense of survival in this poetry is a vampiric one of feeding off those who will read these lines:

Yea, though thou diest, I say I shall not die.
For these shall give me of their souls, shall give Life,
and the days and loves wherewith I live,
Shall quicken me with loving, fill with breath,
Save me and serve me, strive for me with death.

Here Swinburne’s Sappho imagines readers who will give their souls, feed her their breath, their lives as supplicants and minions to her service, celebrants of her immortal mortality. At the climax of Anactoria, Swinburne’s vampire Sappho has her will of posterity, male and female, whom she spiritually and sexually invades, gorging herself on our life-energy in order to defeat God and time. Swinburne’s Sappho rejoins Balzac’s and Baudelaire’s lesbian vampires to their ultimate source in Coleridge, who entered French Late Romanticism via his artistic heirs, Byron and Poe.

While Shelley invokes a male West Wind to blow through him, Swinburne invokes Coleridge’s evil lesbian daemon. This passage is at the heart of Swinburne’s poetry. It is an allegory of his creative process: we see his innermost soul-action, the pain-music of his poetry being wrung from him through the occult mediumship or Muse-like control of a female hierarch. Swinburne, a mutilated Orpheus marooned on Lesbos, paints as his self-portrait the most wonderfully perverse Aeolian lyre in Romanticism. (SP, 478)

Not until Hart Crane and his Orphic hymn will one know such a dark and fantastic poetry. In his hymn To Brooklyn Bridge Crane would nod to his secret forbear, Swinburne:

O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry,—

In that last line we hear Swinburne’s and Late Romanticisms Aeolian Lyre.

Ultimately Swinburne like his progenitor, Baudelaire, is anti-utopian and anti-progressivist – a reactionary spirit against Rousseau’s notions of a kind and gentle Nature. That is, he asserts the primitive and daemonic character of emotion, sex, and nature. Sade and Swinburne show that sexual sadomasochism is always subliminally archaizing. Any return to Nature or neoprimitivism would lead to murder and mayhem, war and terror. Through ritual flagellation Swinburne returned his imagination to the barbaric human past. Nineteenth-century liberalism, in politics and psychology, was predicated on the western concept of free will. The future would bring a social millennium. Swinburne is a Decadent because of his contrary conviction of and longing for decline, along with a rebirth of a spiritual aristocratism – a meritocracy. In his poetry, psyche is pulled back to nature, a sinking movement like that of Michelangelo’s swooning, matter-bound athletes. Swinburne prefigures a return of Intellect over notions of Free Will, of an age when the utilitarian and voluntarist obscurantism of the progressive agenda would give way to the aggressive impersonalism of a new hierarchism and athleticism, more Apollonian elegance and aristocratic verve – a meritocratic world of women and men who would gain legitimacy not through money and riches, but through talent and ability. A difficult world that would face the natural universe on its own terms rather than imposing artificial and anti-realist constructions on its monstrous indifference to human want and desires. In the end Swinburne remakes man in nature’s image, sending him back to his origins in a world of hostility and fear.

I leave you with his great poem, Anactoria,

  τίνος αὖ τὺ πειθοῖ
μὰψ σαγηνεύσας φιλότατα

My life is bitter with thy love; thine eyes
Blind me, thy tresses burn me, thy sharp sighs
Divide my flesh and spirit with soft sound,
And my blood strengthens, and my veins abound.
I pray thee sigh not, speak not, draw not breath;
Let life burn down, and dream it is not death.
I would the sea had hidden us, the fire
(Wilt thou fear that, and fear not my desire?)
Severed the bones that bleach, the flesh that cleaves,
And let our sifted ashes drop like leaves.
I feel thy blood against my blood: my pain
Pains thee, and lips bruise lips, and vein stings vein.
Let fruit be crushed on fruit, let flower on flower,
Breast kindle breast, and either burn one hour.
Why wilt thou follow lesser loves? are thine
Too weak to bear these hands and lips of mine?
I charge thee for my life’s sake, O too sweet
To crush love with thy cruel faultless feet,
I charge thee keep thy lips from hers or his,
Sweetest, till theirs be sweeter than my kiss.
Lest I too lure, a swallow for a dove,
Erotion or Erinna to my love.
I would my love could kill thee; I am satiated
With seeing thee live, and fain would have thee dead.
I would earth had thy body as fruit to eat,
And no mouth but some serpent’s found thee sweet.
I would find grievous ways to have thee slain,
Intense device, and superflux of pain;
Vex thee with amorous agonies, and shake
Life at thy lips, and leave it there to ache;
Strain out thy soul with pangs too soft to kill,
Intolerable interludes, and infinite ill;
Relapse and reluctation of the breath,
Dumb tunes and shuddering semitones of death.
I am weary of all thy words and soft strange ways,
Of all love’s fiery nights and all his days,
And all the broken kisses salt as brine
That shuddering lips make moist with waterish wine,
And eyes the bluer for all those hidden hours
That pleasure fills with tears and feeds from flowers,
Fierce at the heart with fire that half comes through,
But all the flowerlike white stained round with blue;
The fervent underlid, and that above
Lifted with laughter or abashed with love;
Thine amorous girdle, full of thee and fair,
And leavings of the lilies in thine hair.
Yea, all sweet words of thine and all thy ways,
And all the fruit of nights and flower of days,
And stinging lips wherein the hot sweet brine
That Love was born of burns and foams like wine,
And eyes insatiable of amorous hours,
Fervent as fire and delicate as flowers,
Coloured like night at heart, but cloven through
Like night with flame, dyed round like night with blue,
Clothed with deep eyelids under and above—
Yea, all thy beauty sickens me with love;
Thy girdle empty of thee and now not fair,
And ruinous lilies in thy languid hair.
Ah, take no thought for Love’s sake; shall this be,
And she who loves thy lover not love thee?
Sweet soul, sweet mouth of all that laughs and lives,
Mine is she, very mine; and she forgives.
For I beheld in sleep the light that is
In her high place in Paphos, heard the kiss
Of body and soul that mix with eager tears
And laughter stinging through the eyes and ears;
Saw Love, as burning flame from crown to feet,
Imperishable, upon her storied seat;
Clear eyelids lifted toward the north and south,
A mind of many colours, and a mouth
Of many tunes and kisses; and she bowed,
With all her subtle face laughing aloud,
Bowed down upon me, saying, “Who doth thee wrong,
Sappho?” but thou—thy body is the song,
Thy mouth the music; thou art more than I,
Though my voice die not till the whole world die;
Though men that hear it madden; though love weep,
Though nature change, though shame be charmed to sleep.
Ah, wilt thou slay me lest I kiss thee dead?
Yet the queen laughed from her sweet heart and said:
“Even she that flies shall follow for thy sake,
And she shall give thee gifts that would not take,
Shall kiss that would not kiss thee” (yea, kiss me)
“When thou wouldst not”—when I would not kiss thee!
Ah, more to me than all men as thou art,
Shall not my songs assuage her at the heart?
Ah, sweet to me as life seems sweet to death,
Why should her wrath fill thee with fearful breath?
Nay, sweet, for is she God alone? hath she
Made earth and all the centuries of the sea,
Taught the sun ways to travel, woven most fine
The moonbeams, shed the starbeams forth as wine,
Bound with her myrtles, beaten with her rods,
The young men and the maidens and the gods?
Have we not lips to love with, eyes for tears,
And summer and flower of women and of years?
Stars for the foot of morning, and for noon
Sunlight, and exaltation of the moon;
Waters that answer waters, fields that wear
Lilies, and languor of the Lesbian air?
Beyond those flying feet of fluttered doves,
Are there not other gods for other loves?
Yea, though she scourge thee, sweetest, for my sake,
Blossom not thorns and flowers not blood should break.
Ah that my lips were tuneless lips, but pressed
To the bruised blossom of thy scourged white breast!
Ah that my mouth for Muses’ milk were fed
On the sweet blood thy sweet small wounds had bled!
That with my tongue I felt them, and could taste
The faint flakes from thy bosom to the waist!
That I could drink thy veins as wine, and eat
Thy breasts like honey! that from face to feet
Thy body were abolished and consumed,
And in my flesh thy very flesh entombed!
Ah, ah, thy beauty! like a beast it bites,
Stings like an adder, like an arrow smites.
Ah sweet, and sweet again, and seven times sweet,
The paces and the pauses of thy feet!
Ah sweeter than all sleep or summer air
The fallen fillets fragrant from thine hair!
Yea, though their alien kisses do me wrong,
Sweeter thy lips than mine with all their song;
Thy shoulders whiter than a fleece of white,
And flower-sweet fingers, good to bruise or bite
As honeycomb of the inmost honey-cells,
With almond-shaped and roseleaf-coloured shells
And blood like purple blossom at the tips
Quivering; and pain made perfect in thy lips
For my sake when I hurt thee; O that I
Durst crush thee out of life with love, and die,
Die of thy pain and my delight, and be
Mixed with thy blood and molten into thee!
Would I not plague thee dying overmuch?
Would I not hurt thee perfectly? not touch
Thy pores of sense with torture, and make bright
Thine eyes with bloodlike tears and grievous light?
Strike pang from pang as note is struck from note,
Catch the sob’s middle music in thy throat,
Take thy limbs living, and new-mould with these
A lyre of many faultless agonies?
Feed thee with fever and famine and fine drouth,
With perfect pangs convulse thy perfect mouth,
Make thy life shudder in thee and burn afresh,
And wring thy very spirit through the flesh?
Cruel? but love makes all that love him well
As wise as heaven and crueller than hell.
Me hath love made more bitter toward thee
Than death toward man; but were I made as he
Who hath made all things to break them one by one,
If my feet trod upon the stars and sun
And souls of men as his have alway trod,
God knows I might be crueller than God.
For who shall change with prayers or thanksgivings
The mystery of the cruelty of things?
Or say what God above all gods and years
With offering and blood-sacrifice of tears,
With lamentation from strange lands, from graves
Where the snake pastures, from scarred mouths of slaves,
From prison, and from plunging prows of ships
Through flamelike foam of the sea’s closing lips—
With thwartings of strange signs, and wind-blown hair
Of comets, desolating the dim air,
When darkness is made fast with seals and bars,
And fierce reluctance of disastrous stars,
Eclipse, and sound of shaken hills, and wings
Darkening, and blind inexpiable things—
With sorrow of labouring moons, and altering light
And travail of the planets of the night,
And weeping of the weary Pleiads seven,
Feeds the mute melancholy lust of heaven?
Is not his incense bitterness, his meat
Murder? his hidden face and iron feet
Hath not man known, and felt them on their way
Threaten and trample all things and every day?
Hath he not sent us hunger? who hath cursed
Spirit and flesh with longing? filled with thirst
Their lips who cried unto him? who bade exceed
The fervid will, fall short the feeble deed,
Bade sink the spirit and the flesh aspire,
Pain animate the dust of dead desire,
And life yield up her flower to violent fate?
Him would I reach, him smite, him desecrate,
Pierce the cold lips of God with human breath,
And mix his immortality with death.
Why hath he made us? what had all we done
That we should live and loathe the sterile sun,
And with the moon wax paler as she wanes,
And pulse by pulse feel time grow through our veins?
Thee too the years shall cover; thou shalt be
As the rose born of one same blood with thee,
As a song sung, as a word said, and fall
Flower-wise, and be not any more at all,
Nor any memory of thee anywhere;
For never Muse has bound above thine hair
The high Pierian flower whose graft outgrows
All summer kinship of the mortal rose
And colour of deciduous days, nor shed
Reflex and flush of heaven about thine head,
Nor reddened brows made pale by floral grief
With splendid shadow from that lordlier leaf.
Yea, thou shalt be forgotten like spilt wine,
Except these kisses of my lips on thine
Brand them with immortality; but me—
Men shall not see bright fire nor hear the sea,
Nor mix their hearts with music, nor behold
Cast forth of heaven, with feet of awful gold
And plumeless wings that make the bright air blind,
Lightning, with thunder for a hound behind
Hunting through fields unfurrowed and unsown,
But in the light and laughter, in the moan
And music, and in grasp of lip and hand
And shudder of water that makes felt on land
The immeasurable tremor of all the sea,
Memories shall mix and metaphors of me.
Like me shall be the shuddering calm of night,
When all the winds of the world for pure delight
Close lips that quiver and fold up wings that ache;
When nightingales are louder for love’s sake,
And leaves tremble like lute-strings or like fire;
Like me the one star swooning with desire
Even at the cold lips of the sleepless moon,
As I at thine; like me the waste white noon,
Burnt through with barren sunlight; and like me
The land-stream and the tide-stream in the sea.
I am sick with time as these with ebb and flow,
And by the yearning in my veins I know
The yearning sound of waters; and mine eyes
Burn as that beamless fire which fills the skies
With troubled stars and travailing things of flame;
And in my heart the grief consuming them
Labours, and in my veins the thirst of these,
And all the summer travail of the trees
And all the winter sickness; and the earth,
Filled full with deadly works of death and birth,
Sore spent with hungry lusts of birth and death,
Has pain like mine in her divided breath;
Her spring of leaves is barren, and her fruit
Ashes; her boughs are burdened, and her root
Fibrous and gnarled with poison; underneath
Serpents have gnawn it through with tortuous teeth
Made sharp upon the bones of all the dead,
And wild birds rend her branches overhead.
These, woven as raiment for his word and thought,
These hath God made, and me as these, and wrought
Song, and hath lit it at my lips; and me
Earth shall not gather though she feed on thee.
As a shed tear shalt thou be shed; but I—
Lo, earth may labour, men live long and die,
Years change and stars, and the high God devise
New things, and old things wane before his eyes
Who wields and wrecks them, being more strong than they—
But, having made me, me he shall not slay.
Nor slay nor satiate, like those herds of his
Who laugh and live a little, and their kiss
Contents them, and their loves are swift and sweet,
And sure death grasps and gains them with slow feet,
Love they or hate they, strive or bow their knees—
And all these end; he hath his will of these.
Yea, but albeit he slay me, hating me—
Albeit he hide me in the deep dear sea
And cover me with cool wan foam, and ease
This soul of mine as any soul of these,
And give me water and great sweet waves, and make
The very sea’s name lordlier for my sake,
The whole sea sweeter—albeit I die indeed
And hide myself and sleep and no man heed,
Of me the high God hath not all his will.
Blossom of branches, and on each high hill
Clear air and wind, and under in clamorous vales
Fierce noises of the fiery nightingales,
Buds burning in the sudden spring like fire,
The wan washed sand and the waves’ vain desire,
Sails seen like blown white flowers at sea, and words
That bring tears swiftest, and long notes of birds
Violently singing till the whole world sings—
I Sappho shall be one with all these things,
With all high things for ever; and my face
Seen once, my songs once heard in a strange place,
Cleave to men’s lives, and waste the days thereof
With gladness and much sadness and long love.
Yea, they shall say, earth’s womb has borne in vain
New things, and never this best thing again;
Borne days and men, borne fruits and wars and wine,
Seasons and songs, but no song more like mine.
And they shall know me as ye who have known me here,
Last year when I loved Atthis, and this year
When I love thee; and they shall praise me, and say
“She hath all time as all we have our day,
Shall she not live and have her will”—even I?
Yea, though thou diest, I say I shall not die.
For these shall give me of their souls, shall give
Life, and the days and loves wherewith I live,
Shall quicken me with loving, fill with breath,
Save me and serve me, strive for me with death.
Alas, that neither moon nor snow nor dew
Nor all cold things can purge me wholly through,
Assuage me nor allay me nor appease,
Till supreme sleep shall bring me bloodless ease;
Till time wax faint in all his periods;
Till fate undo the bondage of the gods,
And lay, to slake and satiate me all through,
Lotus and Lethe on my lips like dew,
And shed around and over and under me
Thick darkness and the insuperable sea.

  1. Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae (pp. 460-461). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
  2.  John Ruskin, “The Art of the People” from William Morris. ( This chapter was originally presented as a lecture at the Birmingham Society of Arts and School of Design. (Printed in Warner & Hough, op. cit. , vol. 1, p. 89)
  3. Flecther, Ian.  Swinburne (London, 1973), 30.
  4. Eliot, T.S.. The Sacred Wood (New York, 1950), 149.

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