Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Swinburne: Criticism as Perversion

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Swinburne: Criticism as Perversion

Article excerpt

Although influential and provocative in his own time, Swinburne has not been accorded critical acclaim. One reason is the daunting scope of his work; another is the resistance his work shows to easy classification. One way to appreciate his achievement as a critic is to approach it through the concept of "perversity," a term that in Freudian psychology implies deviation from a sexual norm. Because the term implies a form of pleasure that it heterogeneous, dispersed, and non-(re)productive, it is an apt way to approach Swinburne's literary output. Swinburne's perversity led him to blur genre lines, writing poetically in essays and using poems as a form of literary critique. These points are illustrated in an extended analysis of his poem "Anactoria" and the commentary he composed as a defense, published in his Notes on Poems and Reviews: the perverse physical and emotional landscape of the poem is defended in the Notes on the grounds that it is eminently normal. The "perverse aesthetic" of Swinburne's criticism foregrounds the nonutilitarian qualities of art that he promoted most famously in his pronouncement of the doctrine of "art for art's sake."

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The name of Algernon Charles Swinburne has long been coupled with the epithet "perverse" (1); Swinburne was accused of perversity early and often, and while the term irked him (and has continued to irk critics who defend him from it), the concept of perversion offers valuable purchase on some central features of his work. Scholarly assessments of this work are likely to begin by lamenting that critical acclaim has long eluded him, in spite of the wide readership and ardent admiration he enjoyed during his heyday; Jerome McGann and Charles Sligh's 2004 observation that his "critical and speculative prose [is] still largely inviolate" (xv) is no longer entirely accurate, but it is still the rhetorical move that opens most recent considerations of Swinburne as a critic. (2)

One way to account for the relative neglect Swinburne's work has suffered is its daunting scope: a poet who tried his hand at almost every form but the epic and whose technical skill was admired even by his detractors, he was also a prolific playwright, an innovative novelist, and an acute critic. In addition to presenting his own critics with an intimidating volume of work, Swinburne's range makes his work resistant to classification. Part of the difficulty is his devoted attention to form, betokened by the production of a body of work that includes hexameters and Sapphics; the roundel form he created; odes; closet drama; epistolary fiction; and hoax reviews by imaginary critics of invented writers (to list only a handful). But this dedication to formal experimentation goes hand in hand with a marked penchant for dissolving or challenging boundaries. Though a commitment to formal structures may seems at odds with Swinburne's characteristically transgressive approach to borderlines, I argue that the two interests are closely related: to interfere with form is also to insist on form, because only when formal norms are established can they be perverted. And it is via a notion of perversion that I hope to elucidate a Swinburnean theory of form.

My working definition of this notion starts with Freud's concept of the perversions as "deviations in respect to the sexual aim" or what he figures as distracting way stations on "the road towards copulation." These "deviations" are aspects of ordinary sexuality that tip decisively toward perversion, in Freud's account, only when they effectively displace "the normal sexual aim [of ...] copulation" (Three Essays 15). Metaphorical rest stops along this figurative road thus include not merely the familiar divergences (sadomasochism, oral and anal sex, fetishism), but also kissing and "overvaluation of the sexual object"--that is, becoming "intellectually infatuated [...] by the mental achievements and perfections" of the beloved (16). …

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