Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Swinburne: "The Sweetest Name"

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Swinburne: "The Sweetest Name"

Article excerpt

"You have a subtle riddling skill at love Which is not like a lover."

--Swinburne, Chastelard, I.ii (1865)

For a writer of such astonishing range as Swinburne, responses to his poetry tend to embody a predictable and oddly limited number of judgments. Critics have objected to the musicality of the poetry as an instance of sound turning too much on itself, which is an objection to a perversion of the referential dimension of language that imputes to Swinburne's poetry a barren circuit where words germinate neither things nor ideas but return to themselves and to other words. Commentators have also given considerable attention to states of difference and otherness based on depictions in the poetry of moral and sexual acts or attitudes coded as abnormal or otherwise awry, and in this instance the "impersonative mode" of Victorian poetry is recognized in Swinburne as a way to consider how Victorian poets adopted other selves. (1) That poetry's volume is turned up in Swinburne needs little verification; what remains is to understand the techniques whereby Swinburne raises the pitch, as it were, something that has been recognized at least since Empson lodged a complaint against T.S. Eliot's dismissal of the wild-eyed poet whom Arnold referred to in 1863 as a "sort of pseudo-Shelley." (2) Swinburne in some ways remains the most neglected recovered poet of the period: he is now widely included in the central canon of Victorian poetry, and yet his uniquely demanding body of work has not received close scrutiny of the forms and verbal strategies that give rise to effects taken to be scandalous, grotesque, and lurid-the effects for which he is most remembered but whose origin is least understood. What is odd, or at least remarkable about one critic's suggestion that the erotics of Swinburne's poetry are due to a "systematic indefiniteness of reference" is how it reiterates, but with a reversal in value, the same charges against Swinburne and the Pre-Raphaelites made in 1871 by Buchanan in his famous review-essay, "The Fleshy School." (3) Writing on Baudelaire and Swinburne, Sieburth associates "obscenity" with a "systematic indefiniteness of reference," yet whether Swinburne's poetry is as "indefinite" as both his apologists and detractors suggest is not at all clear. But that is another question, not to be entered into at this point. The collapse of distinction ("indefiniteness of reference") has become valorized as a source of strength in the poetry when before it was an index of its weakness. Indeed, attempts to read Swinburne's verse tend to gravitate toward features of language taken to produce effects seen as dissolution, blurring, and vagueness. (4) These effects are in some cases projected into extra-linguistic contexts where they are taken to be symptomatic of historical dynamics. There is, in addition, a curious view that Swinburne's poetry approaches a condition of pure sound, sonorousness for the sake of sonorousness.

The difficulty of such an idea is the dubious status of the premise that language could ever be "simply" sound or meaningless noise. But in any case, Swinburne has been taken to be so much a poet of frustrating obscurity and empty musicality that his techniques and purposes are often avoided for the sake of confirming the patently ostentatious. Undoubtedly, the writing deploys challenging and complex figures of thought and devices of patterning (metalepsis, hyperbaton, and anacoluthon, among others), and we do not have far to look in order to confirm the standard estimation of him as a poet of torturous style, a poet of congeretic webs of description and limitless qualification. Cecil Lang's work on Swinburne responds to this problem, but it is safe to say that the "fundamental brainwork" of Swinburne's poetry still remains insufficiently understood. (5) Calling Swinburne a "thinker," Lang means to counter the one-sidedness of Tennyson's notion that Swinburne was a "reed through which all things blow into music. …

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