Intimations and Imitations of Immortality: Swinburne's "By the North Sea" and "Poeta Loquitur"

Article excerpt

Remarkably little attention has been paid to a poem that Algernon Charles Swinburne himself preferred in "metrical and antiphonal effect" (1) to all of his previous poems. The first sustained study of "By the North Sea" (originally published in Studies in Song, 1880) is found in the introduction to a translation of Heinrich Heine's Die Nordsee in 1916. Howard Mumford Jones, despite using "By the North Sea" to demonstrate why Heine's is the superior North Sea poem, reads Swinburne's work sensitively and critically. Much of the early twentieth century criticism of the poem, however, echoes Matthew Arnold's observation that Swinburne has a "fatal habit of using one hundred words where one would suffice." (2) Even Swinburne's most favorable critics, his early biographers, struck blows at the poem that long hindered its critical acceptance. Harold Nicolson, in 1926, wrote it off as one of "three long sea pieces, competent but wholly uninspired." (3) In 1929, Samuel Chew claimed that Swinburne "relinquished gladly the unnecessary function of thought, and yielded himself to the rhythmic undulations and eddies of the verse that seems to take color and motion from its theme." (4) George Lafourcade, in 1932, said that the poem contains a "fatal discrepancy between matter and form." (5) Most famously exemplified by T. S. Eliot's 1920 essay "Swinburne as Poet," the charge of excessive verbosity and lack of meaning or import has been part of Swinburne studies from the beginning) It is particularly unfortunate, that such a masterful and central poem as "By the North Sea," one of Swinburne's most powerful lyrics, was so long obscured by this biting criticism.

"By the North Sea" enjoyed a minor renaissance in the 1970s, initiated by a discussion in Jerome McGann's Swinburne: An Experiment in Criticism (1972). Although he devotes only a brief three pages to it, McGann engages the poem in the serious critical reading that previous scholars had avoided or ignored. Kerry McSweeney's 1973 article-length explication of the poem immediately followed. David Riede's excellent analysis of the poem as regards the Romantic heritage in 1978 is the only other detailed study of "By the North Sea." (7) Although most scholars no longer jumble the poem into the heap of bad "Putney poetry" or whimsical "nature poetry," none have studied it closely since the 1970s.

In this essay, I attempt to demonstrate the centrality of "By the North Sea" to an understanding of Swinburne's thought by tracing his complex interweaving of mortality and immortality. In doing so, I read the poem on three different, but equally important levels: as it relates to Romantic, specifically Wordsworthian notions of the natural world and immortality; as it relates to the poetic lineage from Homer and Sappho to Swinburne himself; and, in dialogue with his palinodic self-parody "Poeta Loquitur," as it relates to poetic meaning. "Poeta Loquitur" was first published posthumously in 1918. Although the date of authorship is unknown, it was likely written soon after "By the North Sea." (8) "Poeta Loquitur" not only parodies the content of "By the North Sea"--the case could be made that at the level of content "Poeta Loquitur" parodies many of Swinburne's poems--but it also links specifically with "By the North Sea" through their shared distinct meter and rhyme scheme. As I explore in my third section, however, anything Swinburne writes on the sea, even a self-parody, has larger implications for his entire body of work. Whether or not one agrees with Cecil Lang that he is the greatest parodist in our language, Swinburne is certainly notable for writing self-parodies that confront not only his poetic style, but his most cherished meanings, especially those of "By the North Sea," the target of "Poeta Loquitur." It is remarkable indeed that no scholar who has written on "By the North Sea" takes "Poeta Loquitur" into account. "Poeta Loquitur" as a parody offers a vital critical statement on "By the North Sea" from the poet himself and thus should be of great concern to any understanding of that poem. …