Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Introduction

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Introduction

Article excerpt

Part I, by Rikky Rooksby

This special issue of Victorian Poetry is the first to be dedicated to Swinburne since the spring-summer 1971 number, edited by Cecil Y. Lang, which commemorated the centenary of the publication of Songs before Sunrise. To borrow from Swinburne, that issue is certainly not yet a fugitive thing, and it is certainly worth an hour (or two) of anyone's time who is interested in Swinburne to read some of its essays.

In his introduction, Lang declared resoundingly that for Swinburne studies "a new era has begun." He looked back to 1951, when he had started editing and collecting the texts of Swinburne's letters, and recalled how in the mid-century Swinburne's reputation had lain under a negative judgement from two influential groups of critics: the formalists and those Lang described as the New-Humanists-turned-Christians. He also felt that Swinburne had suffered from the decline in classical learning. That, if anything, has probably worsened, but the two groups of critics have long since yielded ground to the aggressive ideologues of critical theory, a change Lang acknowledged was already in the air in 1971. He cautiously welcomed the change for the new approaches it might open in Swinburne studies, though "whether it will give us basic historical research, as opposed to explication, is another matter." As it turned out, his complaint that critics "who... professed objectivity were as guilty as any of using critical techniques to propagate their pre-critical biases" applied to many who published on Swinburne after 1971.

Lang was also doubtful of the value of some notable Swinburne-related publications which his monumental edition of Swinburne's letters had helped to inspire. He commented, "Swinburne dead needs rescuing from his friends as much as Swinburne alive needed it." He was strongly critical of Edith Sitwell's 1960 volume of selected Swinburne poems, attacked scholarly mistakes in Morse Peckham's 1970 edition of Poems and Ballads and Atalanta in Calydon, and described Jean Overton Fuller's 1968 biography (the first new Swinburne biography since 1949) as "best read as comic pornography or black humor."

Lang pointed out some silly mistakes which Fuller had made in her over-zealous pursuit of clues about the (then) newly hypothesized relationship between Swinburne and his cousin Mary Gordon. Along with John S. Mayfield, Lang himself had performed an inestimable service to Swinburne by undermining the absurd story (enshrined by Gosse in 1917) of Swinburne's romantic rejection by Jane "Boo" Faulkner. One might wish that literary critics and readers generally could form a balanced opinion of a writer's work independent of any damaging biographical legend, but this is not usually the case, and so it had been with Swinburne. The replacement of the "Boo" story with the Mary Gordon hypothesis did not entirely make Swinburne free from the caricature and ridicule which often substitutes for critical engagement with the poetry, but it was a significant step forward. Fuller was the first Swinburne biographer to incorporate this new hypothesis into a life of Swinburne, and it clearly carried her away. It was telling, therefore, that one of the most interesting contributions to the double Swinburne VP issue of 1971 was by F.A.C. Wilson, who provided invaluable information about Mary's writings, both poetry and fiction, as well as discussing autobiographical elements in Swinburne's late play The Sisters (1892). Wilson was convinced that Mary's novels were repeated attempts to work through her own troubled feelings about her cousin and the events in their lives in 1863-64 which had brought them initially close together but had culminated in what appears to be an arranged marriage with a much older man. Mary's writings remain unaccountably rare and it has been difficult for anyone else to follow-up Wilson's work. In April 2009 I tried looking for her books on one of the largest online book-search engines. …

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