Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Brothers in Paradox: Swinburne, Baudelaire, and the Paradox of Sin

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Brothers in Paradox: Swinburne, Baudelaire, and the Paradox of Sin

Article excerpt

The literary and personal relationship between Algernon Charles Swinburne and Charles Baudelaire appears both signigicant and ill-defined. An often-stressed connection focuses on Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal and Swinburne's erotic poetry, but lacks clarity. Instead, W. M. Rossetti's comment that Baudelaire acted as Swinburne's Mephistopheles is reiterated making Baudelaire a demonic influence on the susceptible Swinburne. (1) The accusation of obscenity leveled at both poets supports such suggestions and enhances the oddly alluring quality of the relationship as much as it generates ambiguity. An important point of convergence is Swinburne's favorable 1862 review of Les Fleurs du Mal. The review establishes a fundamental but easily overlooked contradiction which reveals Swinburne's interaction with Baudelaire as a figure for admiration rather than direct influence and as a conduit for Swinburne's own poetic ideology. Patricia Clements acknowledges Baudelaire as a source of inspiration that Swinburne "'turned to'" and as "an enlightening grotesque, a confirmation of Swinburne's subversive purpose." (2) Baudelaire becomes Swinburne's "complex construction" that shifts the French poet from the status of influence to a created signifier intertwined with Swinburne's thematic and stylistic agenda. Swinburne's connection to Baudelaire can be focused on his use of paradox, and the connection is best defined as paradoxical.

By concentrating on two parallel approaches, we may comprehend both the importance and paradoxical nature of the connection between Swinburne and Baudelaire. Initially, the cultural elements that have informed perceptions of Swinburne's early reliance on Baudelaire--resulting in a derivative and imitative status for Swinburne's Poems and Ballads--will be identified. Critics have aligned Swinburne with Baudelaire because, even though each poet wrote with different intentions, the reaction to Baudelaire's and later Swinburne's poetry was public outrage. The second approach will focus on the poetic and ideological link between Swinburne and Baudelaire by examining the paradox of sin in Les Fleurs du Mal and Poems and Ballads as both a recurring theme and a feature of style. These two approaches are often entangled, further obscuring an understanding of Swinburne's interaction with Baudelaire. Swinburne's status is a challenging combination of imitation and originality that resists easy classification and is due to the paradoxical intentions of his work. Swinburne's connection with Baudelaire is complicated by a combination of both poets' conscious representation of a perplexingly paradoxical existence in their poetry along with the problematic effect of cultural influences on perceptions of their poetry.

Swinburne's review of Les Fleurs du Mal, considered by Philip Henderson to tell "us as much about Swinburne as about Baudelaire," (3) contributes to perceptions of derivation but presents a poetic agenda contradicted by Baudelaire. Swinburne identifies Baudelaire's focus as "sad and strange things--the weariness of pain and the bitterness of pleasure--the perverse happiness and wayward sorrows of exceptional people." (4) By stressing Baudelaire's juxtapositions of extreme emotional reactions, Swinburne reveals an enthusiasm for similar topics and an interest in cycles of pain and pleasure. Swinburne praises Baudelaire: "Even of the loathsomest bodily putrescence and decay he can make some noble use; pluck out its meaning and secret, even its beauty, in a certain way, from actual carrion" ("Baudelaire," p. 999). This response no doubt prompted Baudelaire to suggest the English poet might have overstated his argument that Baudelaire was a moralist. In an undelivered and generally complimentary response to Swinburne's review, Baudelaire continues:

Je crois simplement "come [sic] vous sans doute" que tout poeme, tout objet d'art bien fait suggere naturellement et forcement une morale. C'est l'affaire du lecteur. …

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