Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Swinburne among the Hexametrists

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Swinburne among the Hexametrists

Article excerpt

In the "Dedicatory Epistle" with which he prefaced the first volume of his Collected Poems in 1904, A. C. Swinburne laid down the law about poetic form. "Law," he proclaimed, "not lawlessness, is the natural condition of poetic life; but the law must itself be poetic and not pedantic, natural and not conventional." (1) This pronouncement asserts that poets are subject to some kind of law, a striking claim to make about the very poems that had shocked the reading public four decades earlier by violating poetic and social taboos. But Swinburne then qualifies the claim, invoking a Romantic tradition in which both law and poetry, two presumably conventional things, are alike "natural." He insists paradoxically that the law must bow to poetry, the thing that it is supposed to govern. At the very moment that he invokes the law, conjuring its existence for his reader, he also commands it, setting forth strictures about what it must do or, rather, what it must be.

My main goal here, in exploring this paradoxical attitude, is to consider the way Swinburne's poetry and criticism together contribute to a larger nineteenth-century discourse in which poets, critics, and metrists sought to work out the laws of English verse both in theory and through practice. Unlike Kirstie Blair and Jason Rudy, who align Swinburne with a somatic or physiological understanding of meter, I pursue a less materialist approach here. (2) I argue that Swinburne's implicit metrical theory relies on a concept of law that extends, for him, from poetics to politics. Though my approach is primarily formal and contextual, I claim that for Swinburne form has wider implications. More specifically, the concept of law that grounds his poetic theory derives in part from the republican politics he espoused, while also gratifying the masochistic sexuality that his most recent biographer has characterized as "rooted in his temperament." (3)

In Swinburne scholarship, the republican commitments and the sexual investments have generally been regarded as at odds with each other. Critics often proceed either by emphasizing the oppositional potentialities of his sexual politics at the expense of his republicanism or--less often--by isolating the republicanism from the eroticism. Richard Dellamora, in his study of Swinburne's sexual politics, dismisses the explicitly political, republican Songs before Sunrise (1871), the successor to Poems and Ballads (1866), as "disappointing." (4) Isobel Armstrong, responding primarily to Atalanta in Calydcm (1865) and Poems and Ballads, similarly argues that "the real political centre ... is in the poetry of desire, the consuming, exhausting desire, which needs to be ever stimulated and ever expanded." (5) More recently, Stephanie Kuduk Weiner has turned to Songs before Sunrise in her study of Swinburne as a republican poet, defending the book's aesthetic as well as political value by arguing that its poems enact formally the "republican aesthetic" that they articulate. (6) Julia F. Saville's account of Swinburne as a "cosmopolitan republican" stands as an exception to this tendency to cordon off the republican commitments from the eroticism, particularly in her superb reading of "Les Noyades." (7) I wish to bring these aspects of his work together at the level of poetic theory and form. I return to Poems and Ballads, which does not form a part of Kuduk's analysis, and to criticism Swinburne wrote in the 1860s, to argue that his prosodic theory and practice are partly grounded in his politics, represented by his admiration for Giuseppe Mazzini. I trace the implicit connections between the political, the aesthetic, and the erotic in poems that experiment with some form of the hexameter and in the criticism in which he comments on prosodical matters. What interests me is the way Swinburne's ideas about poetics, expressed in his criticism and enacted in his poetic practice, are inflected by both his political and his erotic investments. …

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