More clearly than that of most writers, the critical reception of Swinburne shows how changes in current social and religious views may affect literary judgment. It shows, too, how the vogue of older poets may influence the attitude towards a new one: when John Morley looked in vain for the note of ‘enlarged meditation’, he was looking for something that was congenial to the age of Wordsworth and the age of Tennyson but that the twentieth century does not consider indispensable. Few authors have been more responsive to criticism, in one way or another, than Swinburne. For such reasons his inclusion in the ‘Critical Heritage’ series seems logical.
When asked to edit this volume for that series, I wondered whether in my Swinburne’s Literary Career and Fame (1933) I had not already said nearly all I could say on the subject. During the centenary of Poems and Ballads I had also published Swinburne Replies, a critical edition of the three works in which Swinburne formally answered critics. But I reflected that, with the publication of The Swinburne Letters and other books, new material has come to light, that my perspective would be somewhat different, and that repetition, even if sometimes unavoidable, would be largely confined to the Introduction; after all, I had not previously edited writings about Swinburne. If it seems that my chief indebtedness must be to earlier studies of my own, in making them I acknowledged debts to others. I have renewed my acquaintance with material already familiar and consulted some previously neglected or inaccessible, including an unpublished thesis submitted at New York University in 1964 by Roger Leo Cayer, ‘Algernon Charles Swinburne’s Literary Reputation: A Study of the Criticism of Swinburne’s Work in England from 1860 to 1960’. I found it useful to compare Dr. Cayer’s impressions with my own, particularly for the thirty years not covered in my earlier book. The plan of the ‘Critical Heritage’ series limits selections chiefly to those appearing in Swinburne’s lifetime. Though my Introduction takes some account of later critical attitudes, it does not evaluate scholarly and biographical writings, mostly belonging to the twentieth century.