Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) was one of the most technically accomplished poets of the Victorian age. But as well as the sheer range of forms he mastered, there is the daring subject matter he sometimes wrote about. (He was also a colourful figure, known for his saucy private life as much as for his poetry, and tales of his naked sliding down banisters are well-known.) Below, we introduce ten of Swinburne’s greatest poems, showcasing the full range of his talents.
‘The Ballad of Villon and Fat Madge’.
When all’s made up she drops me a windy word,
Bloat like a beetle puffed and poisonous:
Grins, thumps my pate, and calls me dickey-bird,
And cuffs me with a fist that’s ponderous…
We begin this pick of the best Algernon Charles Swinburne poems with a poem that he wrote in his mid-twenties but didn’t dare publish during his lifetime; it only appeared in print in 1910, a year after his death. The poem takes as its subjects the fifteenth-century French poet Francois Villon and his ‘whore’, ‘Fat Madge’.
‘The Garden of Proserpine’. Swinburne’s most famous poetry collection was Poems and Ballads, which appeared in 1866. It contained this poem, memorably denounced by the Victorian journalist John Morley, who described Swinburne as ‘the vindictive apostle of a crushing and iron shod despair or else the libidinous laureate of a pack of satyrs’. The poem is about Proserpine (i.e. Persephone), the goddess from Graeco-Roman myth who had to spend six months of the year in the Underworld and six months on Earth:
Then star nor sun shall waken,
Nor any change of light:
Nor sound of waters shaken,
Nor any sound or sight:
Nor wintry leaves nor vernal,
Nor days nor things diurnal;
Only the sleep eternal
In an eternal night.
Here now in his triumph where all things falter,
Stretched out on the spoils that his own hand spread,
As a god self-slain on his own strange altar,
Death lies dead …
These lines appear in this long poem by Swinburne which describes a beautiful garden by the sea that has been abandoned and left to the elements. Death and neglect have seldom been so luxuriantly described in one poem.
If love were what the rose is,
And I were like the leaf,
Our lives would grow together
In sad or singing weather,
Blown fields or flowerful closes,
Green pleasure or grey grief;
If love were what the rose is,
And I were like the leaf …
Some of Swinburne’s finest lyrics sound like they could almost be Elizabethan madrigals or love lyrics, and ‘A Match’ provides one of the clearest examples of this. Couched in the subjunctive mood, the poem is one of Swinburne’s finest and best-known poems about desire and longing, although it remains tantalising and elusive.
Before our lives divide for ever,
While time is with us and hands are free,
(Time, swift to fasten and swift to sever
Hand from hand, as we stand by the sea)
I will say no word that a man might say
Whose whole life’s love goes down in a day;
For this could never have been; and never,
Though the gods and the years relent, shall be …
This longer poem showcases Swinburne’s virtuosity with verse forms and his ability to adapt existing forms for his own purposes: here, the Italian ottava rima used in many previous narrative poems helps Swinburne to tell his castaway’s tale of spurned love.
‘Faustine’. Its title a reference to the notorious wife of the good Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, ‘Faustine’ is Swinburne’s best-known take on that familiar trope from nineteenth-century poetry: the femme fatale or belle dame sans merci:
Wine and rank poison, milk and blood,
Being mixed therein
Since first the devil threw dice with God
For you, Faustine.
Your naked new-born soul, their stake,
Stood blind between;
God said ‘let him that wins her take
And keep Faustine …’
‘The Leper’. Swinburne’s poems often touch upon strange themes and setups which no other celebrated Victorian poet, not even Browning, could have dreamt up. Who hasn’t been a scribe who’s kept his beloved, a woman scarred by leprosy, close at hand even after her death so he can continue to worship her? This is one of Swinburne’s best dramatic monologues:
Six months, and I sit still and hold
In two cold palms her cold two feet.
Her hair, half grey half ruined gold,
Thrills me and burns me in kissing it.
Love bites and stings me through, to see
Her keen face made of sunken bones.
Her worn-off eyelids madden me,
That were shot through with purple once …
Let us go hence, my songs; she will not hear.
Let us go hence together without fear;
Keep silence now, for singing-time is over,
And over all old things and all things dear.
She loves not you nor me as all we love her.
Yea, though we sang as angels in her ear,
She would not hear …
Another wonderful example of Swinburne’s skill with the lyric, and the way he recalls the wistfulness present in many sixteenth-century English songs.
Asleep or waking is it? for her neck,
Kissed over close, wears yet a purple speck
Wherein the pained blood falters and goes out;
Soft, and stung softly — fairer for a fleck.
But though my lips shut sucking on the place,
There is no vein at work upon her face;
Her eyelids are so peaceable, no doubt
Deep sleep has warmed her blood through all its ways …
‘Laus Veneris’ (‘the praise of Venus’) became a painting: Swinburne’s 1866 poem inspired an artistic depiction of it by Edward Burne-Jones. One can see why the Pre-Raphaelite artist was drawn to this poem, which takes its inspiration from the medieval legend of the knight Tannhauser, who is a slave to love, long before Bryan Ferry.
‘To a Cat’. Literature is full of classic cat poems, but Swinburne’s is particularly worth mentioning – and worth including on this pick of his best poems – because of the reverence he accords the ‘lordly’ cat:
Stately, kindly, lordly friend,
Here to sit by me, and turn
Glorious eyes that smile and burn,
Golden eyes, love’s lustrous meed,
On the golden page I read…
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.
You’ve made my day. I cover the garden of Proserpine at school (in Italy) and my students like it, even though they find it difficult. I would add Hymn to Proserpine.