Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

"Will He Rise and Recover[?]": Catullus, Castration, and Censorship in Swinburne's "Dolores"

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

"Will He Rise and Recover[?]": Catullus, Castration, and Censorship in Swinburne's "Dolores"

Article excerpt

I beg you ... do not seek to castrate my poems. Than a Priapus as Cybele's priest nothing is more disgusting.

--Martial, Epigrams I.35 (1)

   Old poets outsing and outlove us,
      And Catullus makes mouths at our speech.

--"Dolores," ll. 339-340 (2)

Swinburne "is the Victorian poet who is most obviously devoted to Catullus," (3) so it is not surprising to find the speaker of "Dolores" invoking the ancient poet in order to measure the degradation of poetry under the moralistic constraints of this "ghastly, thin-faced time of ours" ("Faustine," l. 139). As George M. Ridenour remarks, Swinburne's writings often position Catullus "as a kind of Roman Gautier, a poet of art for art's sake," (4) which effectively recruits the elder poet as an ally in the battle against "the prurient prudery and the virulent virtue" of Victorian reviewers, (5) which Swinburne launched with the publication of Poems and Ballads (1866). Swinburne's dubious choice of poetic company was not left unnoticed by the hostile reviewers of the volume: "Mr. Swinburne's last volume of poems, though Catullus need not have blushed for some, will not suit our present civilization." (6) Another irate critic was prompted to ask (and answer): "Should we tolerate a Catullus now, however exquisitely he hymned his uncongenial objects of worship? No!" (7) And finally, in a premonition of the "Fleshly School" scandal, Robert Buchanan observed that "the 'lepidum novum libellum' [of Catullus] seems to me really an immoral work, and I wish that the dry pumice-stone had rubbed out at least half of the poems": "If an Englishman to-day were to write like Catullus ... we should hound him from our libraries." (8) Considering the readiness of the contemporary reviewers to associate Swinburne's poetry with the "immoral work" of Catullus, of which they (like Swinburne himself) were familiar from their school days, it should be unsurprising to find Swinburne both anticipating and exploiting these associations by embedding his direct reference to the Roman poet in an erudite and complex web of allusions designed to comment wickedly (albeit obliquely) on the state of moralistic Victorian criticism, literary censorship, and even the pedagogical and curricular policies of public school education.

The image of Catullus "mak[ing] mouths at our speech" (l. 340) occurs roughly two-thirds of the way through a (second) vision of the "old world" (l. 329), extending roughly from lines 297 to 368, conjured-up by the speaker to please his dark goddess: "Dost thou dream of what was and no more is, / The old kingdoms of earth and the kings? / Dost thou hunger for these things, Dolores, / For these, in a world of new things?" (ll. 257-260). The direct reference to Catullus occurs after the vision is disrupted by the arrival of an aggressive rival to Dolores: "From the midmost of Ida, from shady / Recesses that murmur at morn, / They have brought and baptized her, Our Lady, / A goddess new-born" (ll. 333-336). "Our Lady" is Cybele, the Great Mother (or Mother of the Gods), whose cult was centred in Pessinos near Mount Dindymus (l. 345). She was also associated with Mount Ida (l. 333) in Phrygia (l. 330), and is often depicted with her chariot-drawing lions (l. 346) (P&B, p. 353 n): "Out of Dindymus heavily laden / Her lions draw bound and unfed / A mother, a mortal, a maiden, / A queen over death and the dead" (ll. 345-348). Since Dolores functions as a "satanically inverted Virgin Mary," (9) it is unsurprising to find her rival blurring into the Virgin Mary herself. Apart from her "lowly" "habit" (l. 349) and her manger-like "temple of branches and sods" (l. 350), Cybele (like Mary) is also paradoxically both "a mother" and "a maiden" (l. 347): "Most fruitful and virginal, holy, / A mother of gods" (ll. 351-352). Swinburne makes his identification of Mary and Cybele explicit in his defense of "Dolores" in Notes on Poems and Reviews (1866): "Our Lady of Pain" is "no Virgin, and unblessed of men; no mother of the Gods or God; no Cybele, served by sexless priests or monks, adored of Origen or of Atys; no likeness of her in Dindymus or Loreto" (Swinburne Replies, p. …

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