Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Circles and the In-Between: Shaping Time, Space, and Paradox in Swinburnian Verse

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Circles and the In-Between: Shaping Time, Space, and Paradox in Swinburnian Verse

Article excerpt

One of the first trends that we note upon looking at Swinburne's landscape and erotic poetry is his tendency toward the use of paradox. Taking this technique as a lens through which to observe Swinburnian verse, we find ourselves caught in a kaleidoscopic world of abstractions. In most of Swinburne's landscape poetry, images are at once drawn and thereupon erased, observations asserted and thereupon rejected. Essentially, we find ourselves groping blindly through dark scenes ensconced in contradiction. However, once we understand the many reasons for Swinburne's attraction to this particular poetic device, we may comprehend the Swinburnian vision as one which always and necessarily depends upon the phenomenology of contradiction and ambiguity.

When defining and then redefining an image or a scene, Swinburne is, first and foremost, illustrating the transient nature of time. In poems such as "Evening on the Broads" and "On the Cliffs," as descriptions are stated and then retracted, the reader slowly feels his way toward a physical picture of the landscape while the natural forms themselves change shape; they emerge and reemerge, are sculpted, remolded, and reborn. This process of metamorphosis becomes for Swinburne the quintessential representation of time, and yet, despite this logical and constant state of physical transformation, the reader more often than not finds himself always in between two worlds. The sense of being caught in a physical and temporal state of in-between once again points to Swinburne's forever-warring paradoxes. Once we realize another manner in which Swinburne uses paradox, however, this constant state of in-between begins to resolve itself. When Swinburne aligns two binaries, he does not necessarily relate them to one another through a distancing technique, but rather he conjoins these opposites. Swinburne is thus attracted to the moment of unity in which two opposing forms become one. Like the slow evolution that takes place in Swinburnian metamorphosis, this fusion of forms too is a process. It becomes for Swinburne the state toward which all elements are destined. Paradox, for Swinburne, demands this process of unfolding, and as binary opposites struggle with one another throughout his poems, they ultimately come together in an almost erotic moment of union. This pointed interest in the moment of unity likewise accounts for Swinburne's structural and metaphorical dependence on circularity. Thus we come to see the paradoxical landscape as a circular one, and all of the contradictions of Swinburnian verse finally resolve themselves temporally and spatially into the single form, or shape, of a circle.

This circular aspect to Swinburne's poetry is essential to understanding his uniqueness among his contemporaries, an issue which Swinburne critics have long struggled to resolve. When John D. Rosenberg attempts to describe the slippage of form and space in Swinburne's verse, he states that Swinburne is "a poet not of natural objects but of natural energies." (1) Although it is true that a kind of natural energy is the only thing which survives in Swinburne's unusual landscapes, it is not merely this energy which lies at the focal point of Swinburne's poems, but it is the ever-morphing form, the ever shifting manifestation of time, which Swinburne forces upon his reader's imagination. Therefore, we must suspend our chronological, differentiating eye in order to accommodate Swinburne's poetic vision of paradox and circularity. In a natural world in which everything, time and space included, is forever shifting and overlapping upon itself, the only constant is the circle. This peculiar perspective, which resolves all things into an harmonic or at times even a disharmonic union, places Swinburne's visuals on an entirely different plane from those of his contemporaries. As poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins and Elizabeth Barrett Browning illustrate in their respective poems "As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame" and Aurora Leigh, the ideal poetic vision in Victorian terms is one of minutiae. …

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