Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Uncollected Letters of Algernon Charles Swinburne

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Uncollected Letters of Algernon Charles Swinburne

Article excerpt

Uncollected Letters of Algernon Charles Swinburne, ed. Terry L. Meyers. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2005. xxvi + 334 pp. (vol. 1), v + 487 pp. (vol. 2), v + 399 pp. (vol. 3). Hardback $475.00; 295.00 [pounds sterling].

Algernon Charles Swinburne, Major Poems and Selected Prose, ed. Jerome McGann and Charles L. Sligh. New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 2004. xxx + 498 pp. Paperback. $24.95; 15.00 [pounds sterling]

Back in the early 1960s the late, much-respected Cecil Y. Lang laid the foundation stone for modern Swinburne studies with the six volumes of The Swinburne Letters. At a stroke this exposed the biographies by Gosse (1917), Lafourcade (1932), and Hare (1949) as doing little more than skimming over the life. He went on to edit unpublished and uncollected New Writings By Swinburne (1964) and to select from Swinburne's poetry in the anthology The PreRaphaelite Poets (1975). Both Terry Meyers and Jerome McGann personally acknowledge Lang's assistance to them, his scholarship, and his passing, in two substantial new publications that will inspire Swinburne scholars in the first decades of a new century.

I can personally testify to the importance of Terry Meyers' twenty-five years of labor because he very kindly allowed quotation from some of the letters in this edition for my biography A. C. Swinburne: A Poet's Life (1997). The purple cloth of these three volumes of uncollected Swinburne letters is going to become as familiar a shelf companion as the navy blue of their six predecessors. Each carries an illustration for its frontispiece: volume 1 (1848-74) has an unseen Swinburne/Menken photograph from the late 1860s; volume 2 (1875-89) prints a picture of Swinburne taken at Holmwood in the 1870s, which I first unearthed for VP a few years ago; and volume 3 (1890-1909) has a Rotherstein caricature of Swinburne. In addition to the Index, volume 3 also has a group of undated letters, and two appendices--"Background to a Family Joke," an extended footnote to some of the Disney Leith-Swinburne letters of the 1890s, and some notes and corrections to Lang's edition.

In his introduction, Terry Meyers agrees with Henry James that "everything about such a being as [Swinburne] becomes and remains fascinating" (p. xv). This edition originated in 1970 when he pursued the text of a Swinburne letter whilst working on a Ph.D about Shelley. Meyers pays tribute to his friendship with Swinburne collector John Mayfield, as well as his studies with Jerome McGann. Lang and Mayfield both assisted with some of the details in the copious and often remarkable annotations. Meyers' intention is "to collect all of the letters by Swinburne that have come to light since the last volumes of Lang's The Swinburne Letters appeared in 1962." The new edition includes letters published in journals by other scholars since the 1960s, others from printed sources that Lang (forgivably) missed, and a choice from some 1200 letters to Swinburne known to survive. Meyers adds, "Nearly all of the letters in this edition are previously unpublished and they are collected now for the first time." There is a website which contains extra annotations and corrections at

So, do the Uncollected Letters advance Swinburne studies? And if so, how?

First and foremost, Uncollected Letters prints a group of letters, and other relevant material, that relate directly to the central question of Swinburne biography, namely, the identity of Swinburne's "lost love" (to use Lang's famous title phrase). In volume 3, Meyers annotates a number of letters written between Swinburne and his cousin Mary Disney Leith in the 1890s. Three of these letters were first discussed by Fuller in 1968 and a further seventeen by James D. Birchfield in 1980. Much of this correspondence ("cy merest dozen") is in a playful cypher transposing the initial letters of words, and has numerous flagellation allusions. …

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