Swinburne's Spasms: Poems and Ballads and the 'Spasmodic School'

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This article explores Swinburne's relation to the 'spasmodic school' of the 1850s, arguing that spasmodic poetry constituted an important influence on Poems and Ballads. This influence is particularly apparent in a shared interest in the body and its impulses, significant with regard to both form and content. Swinburne's early letters and a parodic review he wrote as an undergraduate indicate an engagement with spasmodic verse which is reflected in the language and themes of his first volume. More broadly, associating Swinburne with spasmodism suggests ways in which he can be read in relation to the popular working-class poetry of his day.

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From its publication in 1866 onwards, critical response to Swinburne's first volume, Poems and Ballads, can be summed up by Rikky Rooksby's comment that: 'not only did it strike Victorian poetry with the force of a tidal wave; it sent ripples of sexual and religious rebellion far and wide'. (1) The purpose of this article is not to deny the novelty and force of Swinburne's collection, but to suggest that by recovering a literary and cultural context in which Swinburne could be read as a 'spasmodic' poet--the successor to a group of young poets who enjoyed intense but brief popularity in the 1850s--we can see that certain aspects of Poems and Ballads would have seemed strangely familiar to a contemporary audience. Swinburne's engagement with a literary movement which is gradually being recovered as one of the key poetic developments of the 1850s has been recently noted, but never extensively discussed. (2) It may seem surprising that he could have perceived himself (and been perceived) not solely as the heir of Keats and Shelley, or Gautier and Baudelaire, but as the successor to a school of poets whose fame was short-lived and who seemed so distant from him in terms of class, background, religion, and education. Yet reading Swinburne in relation to spasmodism can intensify our sense of him as a radical poet, besides showing how many of the concerns of his 1860s poems were highly contemporary. His early interest in spasmodic poetry, I argue, meant that even if he developed more profound influences later, he built upon spasmodic principles in his first published collection.

The 'spasmodic school' consisted of a loosely affiliated group of poets, largely from working-class or lower middle-class dissenting backgrounds, who were linked by critics because of their penchant for lengthy subepic poems, often featuring a tormented poet-hero and with a focus on unusual imagery, extremes of emotion, insanity, violence, and sexual desire. As a literary phenomenon, spasmodism was primarily active from the late 1840s throughout the 1850s, and included poets such as Philip Bailey, Sydney Dobell, J. Westland Marston, and J. Stanyan Bigg, among others. The most notable example of a spasmodic poem, Alexander Smith's A Life-Drama, was published in 1853 and caused a literary sensation: among other accolades, Arthur Hugh Clough compared it favourably to Matthew Arnold's poems, Dante Gabriel Rossetti called it 'wonderful', and George Meredith (whose work Swinburne later championed) wrote a sonnet in appreciation of Smith for The Critic. (3) Spasmodism quickly left its mark upon (or at the least was read into) other major works of the decade, including those which Swinburne most admired as a young man--Arnold's Empedocles on Etna, Tennyson's Maud, Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, and Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh. It was also a term applied to Robert Browning's works, particularly Sordello (another poem Swinburne worshipped as a young man) and Paracelsus. The standard twentieth-century view has been that spasmodism was a passing literary fad, whose credibility was fatally damaged by the publication of W. E. Aytoun's parody of the genre, Firmilian, in 1854. (4) But while it is true that Aytoun made it difficult for spasmodic poetry to be taken seriously, and by the 1860s the leading spasmodic poets had generally renounced their early works, changed their methods, or ceased to publish, it is also evident that spasmodism had already penetrated further into the literary consciousness than might have been previously thought and lingered far after its alleged demise and disappearance from the literary scene. …