The Dark Sublime: The Poetry of Algernon Charles Swinburne

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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.

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