Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Cosmopolitan Republican Swinburne, the Immersive Poet as Public Moralist

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Cosmopolitan Republican Swinburne, the Immersive Poet as Public Moralist

Article excerpt

"Rooted cosmopolitanisnm," a paradoxical concept that gained currency in the 1990s, has recently garnered revived attention as theorists address the shortcomings apparent in cosmopolitanism more conventionally conceived--for instance, its inclination to think in idealized universal terms, or its potential disregard for local alliances and gravitation toward detachment and privileged immunity. (1) Kwame Anthony Appiah, for instance, presents rooted or partial cosmopolitanism as a negotiative social practice that balances the need both to honor commitments to the ties of local community and to foster alliances with other nation-states. In evaluating wide-ranging cosmopolitan projects, Appiah consciously rejects humanism's generalizations and erasures of difference, celebrates diverse views, and believes that "sometimes it is the differences we bring to the table that make it rewarding to interact at all." (2) Recognizing moral values as social, not individual, he emphasizes the importance of imaginative engagement and conversation as crucial supplements to abstract theory. (3) For this reason, Appiah treats literary and especially poetic conversation as a powerful ally to moral and political philosophy. (4)

Craig Calhoun reminds us that many aims and challenges with which today's cosmopolitans engage were anticipated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (p. 89). In particular, they resonate with those of an ethos that flourished in Britain between the early 1850s and the late 1870s which I shall call "cosmopolitan republicanism." Numbering among their ranks intellectuals of diverse radical and liberal persuasion such as W. J. Linton, Charles Bradlaugh, John Stuart Mill, and John Morley, cosmopolitan republicans focused on the idea of representative government, debating questions of how to balance the welfare of the individual with that of the body politic, and on a wider scale, how to reconcile the interests of an emergent nation with those of a broader, international community. Like rooted cosmopolitans today, cosmopolitan republicans counted poets and novelists among their warmest allies. Among the most colorful and imaginative of these was the poet whose centennial we commemorate, Algernon Charles Swinburne.

Swinburne has long been celebrated as the bad boy of Victorian poetry, a precursor of aestheticism who challenged bourgeois sexual and religious conventions with iconoclastic dramatic monologues and perverse ballads. Far less attention has been paid to the republican political affiliations apparent in even his most erotic and aesthetic poetry. (5) In this paper I aim to show that this "unclean fiery imp from the pit" (6) is in fact a seriously challenging political thinker--a "public moralist," to borrow Stefan Collini's term, but one whose unorthodox poetics disrupted the homogeneity of Victorian London's liberal intellectual elite. (7) Swinburne was alert to poetry's special capacity to mediate through the sounds and sensations of rhythm and rhyme those viscerally felt emotions familiar to a particular culture. "Rhyme," he argues, for instance, "is the native condition of lyric verse in English; a rhymeless lyric is a maimed thing, and halts and stammers in the delivery of its message." (8) At the same time, Swinburne like Mill and Matthew Arnold believed that literature, to be worthwhile, "must be large, liberal, sincere" (9) and that "the pestilence of provincial thought and tradition" can be remedied by a turn to other literatures and cultures ("Matthew Arnold's New Poems," p. 83). He also believed that other cultures, to be effective in vitalizing the imagination must be experienced through intense sensual immersion. (10) Poets must immerse themselves in the very life forces and lived emotions of the cultures they represent--"To paint one aright of its [the World's] many faces," he declares, "you must have come close enough on that side to breathe the breath of its mouth and see by the light of its eyes. …

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