Swinburne’s literary career was, at least in part, the story of a man’s conflict with his generation, a generation with social and literary standards very different from our own. The Saturday Review was a leader of the attack on Poems and Ballads (1866). Some statistics that appeared in that periodical on 12 January 1867 emphasize one point of difference: of the more than four thousand new publications of 1866, 849 were religious books; fiction came second, with only 390 titles. At that time an author’s role was considered an exalted one. Carlyle, for instance, had described men of letters as having a mission comparable to that of priests. Even at the risk of seeming platitudinous, one must affirm that every generation finds it hard to be tolerant of points of view cherished by previous generations. In appraising the reception of Swinburne’s work, one must make allowance for varying outlooks in the twentieth and the nineteenth century, when reviewers were conscious of the need for social discipline and were not afraid of seeming moralistic or appearing to take themselves seriously.
Swinburne objected strenuously to contemporary literary standards. As early as February 1858 he mentioned a desire to review himself and describe his ‘models—i.e., blasphemy and sensuality…. I flatter myself the last sentence was worthy of the Saturday Review.’ 1 A few years later this passage would have seemed to him strangely prophetic. So would have some parts of a hoax 2 he attempted to foist on the Spectator, to which he was contributing in 1862—a review of an imaginary French poet. Of a supposititious poem he mockingly observed, ‘Filth and blasphemy defile every line of it. ’ The hoaxing review was not published, but Swinburne’s published review of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal and his letter to the Spectator defending Modern Love, a sequence of poems by his friend George Meredith, also indicate antagonism to accepted literary criteria. A more personal antagonism may appear in some answers to his critics—answers often cited in the pages that follow. In other ways he seemingly took account of