Swinburne, Algernon Charles

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
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Swinburne, Algernon Charles

Algernon Charles Swinburne, 1837–1909, English poet and critic. His poetry is noted for its vitality and for the music of its language. After attending Eton (1849–53) and Oxford (1856–60) he settled in London on an allowance from his father. His first published volume, containing two blank verse plays entitled The Queen Mother and Rosamond (1860), attracted little attention, but Atalanta in Calydon (1865), a poetic drama modeled on Greek tragedy, brought him fame. In 1866 he published Poems and Ballads. The poems in this volume were savagely attacked for their sensuality and anti-Christian sentiments, but almost as excessively praised in other quarters for their technical facility and infusion of new energy into Victorian poetry. The poet's enthusiasm for the dreams for Italian unification of Giuseppe Mazzini (whom he met in 1867) found expression in A Song of Italy (1867) and Songs before Sunrise (1871). Swinburne had certain masochistic tendencies that, combined with his chronic epilepsy and his alcoholism, seriously undermined his health. By 1878 he was near death. He was restored to health under the supervision of Theodore Watts-Dunton, with whom he lived after 1879. For the final 30 years of his life he lived a closely supervised and highly ordered existence. Swinburne is equally famous as a poet and as a critic. Although many of his lyrics are weakened by verbosity and excessive use of stylistic devices, these flaws do not obscure the vigor and music in such pieces as the choruses from Atalanta, "The Garden of Proserpine," "The Triumph of Time," "A Forsaken Garden," "Ave atque vale" (an elegy on Baudelaire), and "Hertha." Swinburne also wrote three closet dramas on Mary Queen of Scots—Chastelard (1865), Bothwell (1874), and Mary Stuart (1881). His long poem Tristram of Lyonesse (1882) presents an intensely passionate vision of the medieval legend. Swinburne's critical work is marred by exaggerated vituperation and praise, digressiveness, and a flamboyant style, but he performed useful services in stimulating just appreciation of older English dramatists and of William Blake.

See his complete works (ed. by E. Gosse and T. J. Wise, 20 vol., 1925–27, repr. 1968); his letters (ed. by C. Y. Lang, 6 vol., 1959–62); biographies by G. Lafourcade (1932, repr. 1967), J. O. Fuller (1971), M. Panter-Downes (1971), and P. Henderson (1974); studies by S. C. Chew (1929, repr. 1966), E. Thomas (1912, repr. 1970), and C. K. Hyder, ed. (1970).

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