Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Erotic Figuration in Swinburne's Tristram of Lyonesse, Canto 2: The Vanishing Knight and the Drift of Butterflies

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Erotic Figuration in Swinburne's Tristram of Lyonesse, Canto 2: The Vanishing Knight and the Drift of Butterflies

Article excerpt

Throughout his adult life Swinburne's sexuality was the subject of much discussion, anecdote, and invention; and from Edmund Gosse's biography of the poet onward, scholars have debated and speculated about Swinburne's sex life--his conduct and its causes. (1) Yet what Swinburne did in bed and with whom is less significant, for us, than what he did as a writer. How did he perceive sex and represent it? What models of sexual intercourse does he celebrate, develop, explore? What do his language and imagery imply about gender roles within sexual relationships, about the value of passion, about the cultural and physical implications of sexual action? These issues have not been entirely neglected, (2) yet much remains to be said, especially in regard to Swinburne's later work and the overall arc of his shifting views on sexuality. Such a study would run beyond the bounds of a single article; here I shall consider only how, in a small part of a single mature text, Swinburne develops a wonderfully complex and original vision of desire, undercutting the phallic model and substituting for it a model of sex based on the assumption of multitudinous centers of pleasure, in ways that highlight female subjectivity and female desire.

There are, of course, several models of sex which Swinburne could have explored: models based on orientation, on the underlying power dynamic, on sensuous emphasis (tangible, visual, kinetic), on position and activity, on procreation, on sex in relation to natural and spiritual values, and on the subjective experience of pleasure. Although heterosexuality, masochism, and natural and spiritual values all play significant roles in the passages I shall be discussing, the primary focus is on the subjective experience of pleasure, and on a diffuse sexuality marked by multiple centers of pleasure, experienced by both protagonists but primarily enjoyed by the female and nurtured by the male. In this context Swinburne's famed diffuseness can be seen as an integral part of his profoundly original erotic vision. Further, the poet's vision of male heroism involves a sharp critique of phallic machismo--not only in an erotic context but even in combat--and a celebration of the hero's ability to nurture female sensuality. The power dynamic between the lovers, however, is not a simple one; it fluctuates frequently, and must be traced in detail.

These dynamics are most vividly exemplified within Tristram of Lyonesse (1882), in the second half of Canto 2, "The Queen's Pleasaunce." Swinburne was understandably proud of this section. Working on it in October 1881, he wrote to Theodore Watts:

   I am well into the second book or canto of your Tristram.... The
   only person to whom I have shown it is my revered friend the
   Primate, (3) whose too flattering and characteristic comment I
   cannot forbear to send you. After reading the account of the duel
   of Tristram with Palamede, and the manner of spending a happy night
   in the woods subsequently adopted by the rescued Iseult and her
   lover, his Grace was kind enough to say that he really didn't know
   which was done best, the fighting or the-here his Grace was
   betrayed, by a taste for unmeaning alliteration which I can only
   wonder at and deplore, into a verbal indiscretion which nothing
   should induce me to report.... I hope you will like the fight. I
   don't say Morris couldn't and wouldn't have done it better, but I
   do not think any other of us all could. (4)

Swinburne expected some disapprobation from "the British Matron" for the eroticism of Canto 2 (Letters, 4:268, 275), although the tartest response perhaps came from a male critic, George P. McNeill, in his introduction to a new edition of Sir Tristrem four years after Swinburne's poem appeared. McNeill complained that Swinburne's "malapert muse" produced passages so "ticklish" as to arouse both indignation and mockery. (5) There was, however, little real outcry over this point, perhaps because the sexual issues involved were superficially less disturbing than the androgynous and flamboyant transgressions of Poems and Ballads, First Series (1866). …

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