Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics, and Politics

By Isobel Armstrong | Go to book overview

13

SWINBURNE: AGONISTIC REPUBLICAN

The poetry of sensation as democratic critique

I once jokingly asked him ‘what is the most original and unrealisable thing you would like to experience at the moment?’ ‘I’ll tell you,’ Swinburne replied, ‘to ravish Saint Geneviève during her most ardent ecstasy of prayer - but in addition, with her secret consent!’

(Turgenev on Swinburne) 1

I did not follow Dr Sandwith in quoting the loathsome detail about the ‘whips made of piano-wire’ being ‘first tried on the backs of women’ and showing ‘that their skins were easier cut (sic) than those of males’, for very shame and physical nausea.

(Swinburne on the atrocities of Governor Eyre of Jamaica, described by Sandwith in the Fortnightly Review, July 1871) 2

The two quotations juxtaposed above are indicative of the Swinburne problem. Complicated here by a slightly ironised sado-masochism and a self-conscious understanding of its own desire to shock, a de Sadean pleasure in the transgressive and orgiastic excitements of violation signals that subversive ‘naughtiness’ which enabled Buchanan to trivialise Swinburne’s poetry so effectively. On the other hand, when faced with the ‘real thing’, with Governor Eyre’s barbaric violence perpetrated on Black rebels in Jamaica, one of the most sickening examples of colonial violence in the 1860s, Swinburne was revolted. Like other intellectuals he read accounts of the atrocities with disgust. It is moral seriousness of this kind which prompted him to make claims for the essential morality and seriousness of his own poetry. And yet, the transgressive poet such as Swinburne undoubtedly is needs to shock - and to go on shocking. He cannot allow his work to be normalised or assimilated to conventional paradigms. What we know of the life - the flagellations at St John’s Wood, the de Sadean cottage, La Chaumière de Dolmance, in Normandy - tends to put Swinburne in a pathological context and to consolidate that sense of the superficially and irrelevantly shocking which Buchanan fostered. By being categorised as ‘abnormal’ erotic experiments the biting kisses and stinging

-402-

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