Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

The Ends of Rhyme: Swinburne's A Century of Roundels and Late-Victorian Rhyme Culture

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

The Ends of Rhyme: Swinburne's A Century of Roundels and Late-Victorian Rhyme Culture

Article excerpt

A roundel is wrought as a ring or a starbright sphere, With craft of delight and with cunning of sound unsought.

--Algernon Charles Swinburne, "The Roundel," A Century of Roundels (1883)

Le poete qui commence sa ballade ne sait pas trop ce qu'il y mettra: la rime, et la rime toute seule, lui suggerera des choses inattendues et charmantes, auxquelles il n'aurait pas songe sans elle, des choses unies par des rapports lointains et secrets, et qui s'enchaineront avec un peu du desordre d'un reve.

--Jules Lemaitre, "Theodore de Banville" (1885)

Algernon Charles Swinburne was always the most French of Victorian poets. In the late 1850s, as an undergraduate at Balliol College, Oxford, Swinburne came under the influence of a French revival of medieval poemes a forme fixe, such as the ballade, rondeau, rondel, and triolet. These French fixed verse forms were given their final shapes by their mid-fifteenth-century masters, Duke Charles d'Orleans and Francois Villon; four centuries later, these forms were recovered by the poet and critic Theodore de Banville and the loose cohort of poets known as the Parnassians. When Swinburne withdrew from Balliol in 1859, he began translating Villon, whom he playfully called that "poet, pimp, and pickpocket." (1) Indeed, Swinburne was so taken with Villon that he and his friend D. G. Rossetti even proposed translating Villon's oeuvre into English. While this plan never materialized, the medieval French fixed forms of the Villon circle that they did translate and with which they experimented in the 1860s helped inaugurate a post-Spasmodic, Pre-Raphaelite verse culture dedicated to the poet's technique and the poem's rhyme. This "reaction in favour of form" was chronicled by the critic Edmund Gosse in his 1877 "A Plea for certain Exotic Forms of Verse": "The dignity and service of rhyme, strangely neglected in the last generation [the Spasmodics], were insisted upon by the younger writers [Swinburne, Morris, and the Rossettis], who fed the exhausted sources of music with new combinations of old forms and with a happy reproduction of ancient measures." (2) By the 1870s, Swinburne and the "English Parnassians"--a coterie of poets and critics including Gosse, Austin Dobson, Edward Dowden, W. H. Henley, Andrew Lang, and R. L. Stevenson--had popularized medieval French fixed forms in England. Indeed, as the literary historian James K. Robinson points out, in the last third of the century, "English Parnassianism" and the "vogue of Villon translation" characterized English verse culture. (3)

In this late-Victorian culture of rhyme, and a quarter-century after first experimenting with Villon's fixed forms, Swinburne reworked Villon's rondeau to invent his "roundel," publishing A Century of Roundels in 1883. It received mixed reviews. Those who condemned Century felt that it exemplified not only Swinburne's characteristic valuing of sound over sense but also, given its preoccupation with infants, his betrayal of his radical, scandalizing youth. For instance, in the 1883 Literary World, the anonymous reviewer concludes, "Mr. Swinburne's muse is here no longer the wild bacchante of earlier days; she treads a statelier measure, clothed to the point of decency, if not precisely in her right mind." (4) And Gerard Manley Hopkins growled in a 29 April 1889 letter to his friend Robert Bridges that Century was mere "rot about babies, a blethery bathos." (5)

This critique continued through the twentieth century with Century's content dismissed for sentimentality, and it continues today with Century's form dismissed for triviality. (6) Most recently, Peter McDonald denounced Century because of its facile rhymes: "It is easy to point out instances of banal relation in Swinburne's habits of rhyme, and (especially in his later work) of banality that topples over into triviality. Certainly, the author of A Century of Roundels (1882) [sic], in his protracted and pitiless formal homage to Christina Rossetti's self-scrutinizing and acoustically self-attentive verse, comes close to rendering the startling originality of that poetry completely inaudible. …

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