This has been a good year for Swinburne studies, particularly for analyses which situate the poet within the broader cultural context. Three pieces deserve special mention at the start: Stephanie Kuduk's exploration of the radical literary tradition informing Songs before Sunrise; Catherine Maxwell's erudite discussion of how Swinburne transforms the very different literary tradition of the female sublime; and Thais Morgan's precise mapping of the versions of masculinity presented by Swinburne and other Victorian poets. In these pages last year I covered Kenneth Haynes's fine new edition, Poems and Ballads & Atalanta in Calydon, as well as John Hollander's "Algernon Charles Swinburne's 'At Eleusis'" (Paris Review 154 : 246-251), so I will say no more of them here.
One of the most innovative studies of the year is Stephanie Kuduk's "'A Sword of a Song': Swinburne's Republican Aesthetics in Songs before Sunrise" (VS 43 : 253-278). Kuduk places Swinburne within the radical literary tradition in "a world in which poetry provided a central way of experiencing radical politics" and poets used prophecy to recreate "a democratic human mythos" (pp. 255, 258). The "Hymn of Man," "Hertha," and "Christmas Antiphones" are discussed in detail, and Kuduk shows brilliantly how Swinburne's formal innovations (e.g., the elaborate antimetaboles in "Hertha") convey and enrich the poet's republican vision. Finally, Kuduk shows how reviewers and readers of Swinburne's work within "the vibrant culture of republicanism in the 1860s and 1870s" embraced the poetry and recognized it as a part of the radical literary tradition. This article should be read by all students of Swinburne.
Kuduk is unusual among Swinburneans nowadays in that she explores an area outside the study of gender and sexuality, which remain the chief issues engrossing students of the poet. Catherine Maxwell's thoughtful and finely nuanced book, The Female Sublime from Milton to Swinburne: Bearing Blindness (Manchester Univ. Press, 2001), challenges "modern cultural criticism's view of literary feminisation as a response to social change" and argues that the feminization of the male poet is "the inevitable outcome of a poetic tradition which has always... identified lyrical song with femininity"; "male poets' adoption of feminine identities and images is less a matter of appropriation than of compulsion as they are driven towards feminisation in order to attain vision" (pp. 3, 4, 2; emphasis Maxwell's). Experience of the sublime figuratively blinds and castrates the poet so that he sees in a new way but also understands himself in a radically new way which is painful; the "female sublime" is "frequently envisaged by ma le poet[s] as a penetrating and often aggressive energy which overwhelms or pierces a man's body and soul" (p. 7). Maxwell discusses Milton, Shelley, Tennyson, and Browning, concluding with a chapter on Swinburne, who "emerges as a timely flowering of the English poetic tradition and an important precursor for literary Modernism"; "the book thus offers a new assessment of his important poetic contribution to English letters" (p. 3).
Swinburneans should pay special attention not only to the separate chapter on Swinburne but also to "Swinburne and the Sapphic Nightingale" (pp. 37-46), a subsection of chapter 1. Here Maxwell's discussion of Swinburne's complex identification with Sappho finely illuminates "The Nightingale," "Anactoria," and especially "On the Cliffs." It is regrettable that Maxwell's book was in press too early for her to engage in this text with Yopie Prins's Victorian Sappho (1999), but anyone interested in this topic should certainly read both works; for me, Maxwell provides a more balanced and convincing account of the Sapphic sublime. In chapter 5, "Beneath the woman's and the water's kiss: Swinburne's metamorphosis" (pp. 178-221), a discussion of Swinburne in relation to Sappho, Milton, Shelley, Tennyson, and Browning modulates into thoughtful analyses of the emasculated masculinity so frequently explored in Swinburne's poems and criticism, and of the "poetics of masochism" and its relation to Swinburne's notoriously non-visual poetic style; his famous "haziness" shows that he has less interest "in fixed meanings and finite perceptions than in the imaginative process by which thoughts and ideas evolve into images which are themselves already mutating into other images" (pp. 187, 196). Maxwell's discussion of synaesthesia and chiasmus does more to enrich our understanding of Swinbume's style than any criticism since John Rosenberg's. A sensitive reading of "August," with its "sexual twilight ... in which senses, bodies, natural objects merge and mingle almost imperceptibly" (p. 199), introduces a richly informed and delicate analysis of "Hermaphroditus" which moves far beyond Richard Dellamora's relatively crude interpretation of that lyric. From this Maxwell moves on to the images of alchemical marriage and renewal within "the watery womb of the sea" (p. 215), discussing "Les Noyades," the conclusion to Tristram of Lyonesse, and "The Lake of Gaube," and ending with "A Nympholept," where the speaker is in a different way i ncorporated into the body of the female sublime.
Thais E. Morgan's "The Poetry of Victorian Masculinities," in The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry, ed. Joseph Bristow (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000), pp. 203-227, which focuses particularly on Tennyson, Arnold, and Swinburne, provides a more diverse if necessarily sketchier analysis of the various versions of masculinity explored in Swinburne's poetry. She considers the eponymous hero of Tristram of Lyonesse as "Swinburne's version of heroic masculinity in the medievalizing mode," while Iseult's "powerful and non-conformist selfhood flouts the Victorian ideal of womanliness" (pp. 214-216); Morgan also examines the "oscillations of gender identity" explored in "On the Cliffs" and "Hermaphroditus" (pp. 219-220, 224), the critique of various previous norms of gender in "Faustine," "Les Noyades," and "Before a Crucifix" (pp. 210, 218-219), and the construction of a Hellenic principle of "poetic manhood" in "The Last Oracle," "In the Bay," and "Thalassius" (p. 219).
In the same volume, Karen Alkalay-Gut's essay "Aesthetic and Decadent poetry" (pp. 228-254) features Swinburne prominently. Alkalay-Gut discusses Swinburne's Aestheticist self-justification and its perils (pp. 228-230), and explores his representation of perverse sexuality in "Dolores," "The Leper," and "Laus Veneris" particularly (pp. 232-234); she demonstrates that these works analyze the assumptions underlying Victorian moral attitudes, and that Swinburne is not merely transgressive. Other essays in this book discuss Swinburne in part. Joseph Bristow in "Reforming Victorian Poetry: Poetics after 1832" ends his discussion with Swinburne's insistence on the "anti-Utilitarian, unprophetic, and amoral condition of poetry" which rejects the Carlylean ideal of poet as socially beneficent vates (pp. 20-22); and John Lucas in "Voices of Authority, Voices of Subversion: Poetry in the Late Nineteenth Century" presents Swinburne's eager plunges into controversy (both in the quarrel with Buchanan and in Songs before S unrise, with its atheism and political radicalism) as representative of a powerful strain in Victorian poetry (pp. 290-292). Overall, this volume shows more recognition of Swinburne's diverse contributions to Victorian culture than is common in such general studies; and for the student of Swinburne it performs the very helpful function of placing the poet within the context (I should say, "contexts") of his time.
A context not too often discussed emerges in Allison Pease's Modernism, Mass Culture, and the Aesthetics of Obscenity (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000), which includes a chapter on Swinburne (pp. 37-71) as "an intriguing transitional figure whose 1866 Poems and Ballads began to destabilize the previously established boundaries between what could be considered aesthetic and what pornographic" (p. xiii). This chapter is less concerned with analyzing the poetry than Pease's earlier article, "Questionable Figures: Swinburne's Poems and Ballads" (VP 35 : 43-56), although some passages from the article reappear in altered form. Pease's focus now, however, is on the cultural context for the controversy provoked by Poems and Ballads: the widening of literacy, the class anxieties created by the appearance of a new reading public, the mass production of pornography, the aristocratic libertine tradition, and the lower class inversion of that tradition. When "writers and artists identified with high culture" began to i nclude "the sexual body" in their works as a part of "the realm of legitimate culture," they were in effect "making sex and the sexualized body safe for the middle class and the realm of high art" (pp. 63-64). Yet this was a thankless endeavor, as the panic greeting Poems and Ballads showed all too clearly.
Complementing Pease's chapter, Simon Eliot's article "Hotten: Rotten: Forgotten? An Apologia for a General Publisher" (Book History 3 : 61-93) provides useful background on the publisher who took up Poems and Ballads when Moxon had abandoned it. Hotten also received some of Swinburne's pornographic works, which caused considerable anxiety for Swinburne later on, although this is not an issue which Eliot or Pease discuss. But the publisher "seems to have had a genius for alienation," and the virulence of Hotten and Swinburne's later relationship mirrored that of many other connections between Hotten and his writers (p. 77).
Nicholas Freeman's "'Falling into Philistine Hands': Swinburne's Transgressive Correspondence," in Jennifer A. Wagner-Lawlor, ed., The Victorian Comic Spirit: New Perspectives (Ashgate, 2000), predominantly explores the sexual comedy created in Swinburne's letters through parody and allusion. Specificially, Freeman shows how in The Swinburne Letters the parodies of the Brownings' work and the "Bogshire Banner" fantasies reveal the poet's "aggressively aristocratic" stance both as a well-born man and as member of "another aristocracy--a loose assemblage of artists and writers who flouted bourgeois convention" (pp. 182, 183).
While sexuality in Swinburne's work remains an ever-fruitful topic, very little attention has been paid to his presentation of sexual violence. My own "Swinburne on Rape" (JPRS n.s. 9 [Fall 2000]: 55-68) tries to rectify this omission, and shows how the concept of rape "constituted a complex challenge to Swinburne's peculiar combination of male hedonism, masochism, identification with the female, and passionate devotion to the cause of personal and political freedom" (p. 55). Swinburne presents rapes and near rapes throughout his lyrical work, in "The Nightingale," "At Eleusis," "Les Noyades," "The Leper," "Itylus," Atalanta, Erechtheus, "The Garden of Cymodoce," and "A Nympholept." Sometimes he blurs the reality of the violation, sometimes he stresses the anguish and silencing of the victim, but most often he shows how "rape creates binary, incompatible realities: the experience of the person raped ... and the experience of the rapist," two individuals "in a relationship which is utterly devoid of relation, of personal connection" (pp. 55-56). This "torturing binary" embodies the violence and division which at times seem to Swinburne "the one pervasive and essential reality in the universe," and so offers us the hauntingly horrific vision of a deity who "inspires (or even enacts) rape" (pp. 56, 66); in the late lyric "A Nympholept" Swinburne strongly rejects a mysticism based on the model of rape. This article focuses on the "economics of pain and pleasure, and ... the metaphysical dimension of rape's binary reality" (p. 66).
This year has seen few studies focused exclusively on one or two lyrics by Swinburne. A comparison of Whistler's The Little White Girl and Swinburne's "Before the Mirror" appears in Jette Kjeldsen's "What Can the Aesthetic Movement Tell us about Aesthetic Education?" (Journal of Aesthetic Education 35, no. 1 [Spring 2001]: 85-97). The analysis of Swinburne's poem and its correspondences with Whistler's painting compares very favorably with J. Hillis Miller's "Whistler/Swinburne: 'Before the Mirror'" (JPRS 9 [Spring 2000]: 12-24), discussed in these pages last year; Kjeldsen provides a closer reading of the lyric's formal effects and reversal of conventional metaphors, and connects Swinburne's techniques and effects with Pater's version of Aestheticism, which Kjeldsen sees as democratizing aesthetic experience rather than as conducive to elitism.
Nathan Cervo's "A Note on 'Swallow' in Swinburne's 'Itylus'" (VN 99 [Spring 2001]: 15-16) insists that the word "swallow," repeated sixteen times in the poem, should be read as a punning reference to "what amounts to the devouring of his own children by Chronos (Time) and to Mother Nature's complicity in the perennial 'feast of Daulis'" (p. 15). The pun, says Cervo, is used "as a sort of chomping counterpoint to the poem's otherwise delicately emotional tonalities and deep harmonies" (p. 15). Such an effect would be characteristically Swinburnean, though I am not entirely persuaded that it exists in this particular poem.
A few other works should be mentioned which return us to the challenge of situating Swinburne within his diverse contexts. Laura Cooner Lambdin and Robert Thomas Lambdin's Camelot in the Nineteenth Century: Arthurian Characters in the Poems of Tennyson, Arnold, Morris, and Swinburne (Greenwood Press, 2000) includes a straightforward, competent, and unsubtle chapter on Swinburne's Arthuriana (pp. 107-141). Despite the subtitle, this book focuses not on the characters but on "the poets' ways of approaching.. . love and death," but the Lambdins' survey of Swinburne's Arthuriana does not go as deeply into Swinburne's vision of love as Antony Harrison does in Swinburne's Medievalism (1988). The Lambdins do, however, paraphrase the poems fully, quote lavishly if not always accurately, notice Swinburne's divagations from earlier sources, and provide for the novice a helpful introduction to these poems.
In "Literary Dialogues: Rock and Victorian Poetry" (Poetics Today 21, no. 1 [Spring 2000]: 33-60), Karen Alkalay-Gut takes the unusual approach of comparing Victorian lyrics with those of rock songs, and points out that both often explore sadomasochistic passion and, particularly, "the silence of the other, usually a generative silence that evokes and intensifies extreme emotions, often love--with, frequently, a dimension of anger" which may produce the murder of the other, or at least a murderous fantasy about her death (p. 49). Alkalay-Gut discusses Swinburne among other Victorian poets fascinated by these issues, and specifically considers his "Rondel" and "Laus Veneris" in connection with two songs by The Cure; she also touches lightly on the social developments which make these themes so attractive in the Victorian age and in our Own.
Catherine Maxwell's note "Swinburne and Sappho" (N&Q 246 [N.S. 48], no. 2 [June 2001]: 155-158) points out some hitherto unnoticed references to and echoes of Sappho in Swinburne's lyrics. Maxwell also points out that "a significant number of classically educated . . men would have encountered an uncensored version" of Sappho's work in Poetae Graeci (p. 156).
Finally, a section of Swinburne's study of Pericles has been reprinted in Pericles: Critical Essays, ed. David Skeele (Garland Publishing, 2000), pp. 75-77. 1 should not close without thanking my research assistant, Julie Brennan, for helping me to find the various critical works here discussed.
MARGOT K. LOUIS is Associate Professor of English at the University of Victoria and author of Swinburne and His Gods: The Roots and Growth of an Agnostic Poetry (1990).…