Swinburne

By Levin, Yisrael; Louis, Margot K. | Victorian Poetry, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Swinburne


Levin, Yisrael, Louis, Margot K., Victorian Poetry


When reviewing the Swinburnean materials published over the last five years or so, one cannot but notice the shift that has been taking place among Swinburne scholars. Together with the on-going interest in his sexuality and radical politics, readers of Swinburne seem to be concerned with a greater range of issues that arise from his work. The past year was not different in this regard, as Swinburne's poetry and fiction were discussed in a growing variety of contexts. From his personal and artistic relationships with other literary figures, to his innovative aesthetics, conceptions of spirituality, and his place in current critical theory debates, contemporary Swinburne scholarship seems to be as diverse as his corpus.

Probably one of the most interesting articles in this year's review is Carol Poster's "'If thou art God, avenge thyself!': Sade and Swinburne as Christian Atheists" (Straight Writ Queer, ed. Richard Fantina [Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2006], pp. 244-257). Like Sade's, Poster argues, Swinburne's queerness did not necessarily reflect a sexual orientation as much as a theological stand. "Even if Foucault is correct in arguing that homosexuality did not exist as a conceptual category of personhood," Poster writes, "'sodomy,' 'fornication,' 'adultery,' and 'bestiality,' inter alia, existed as clearly defined theological categories of 'sins of the flesh'" (p. 246). Thus, in performing those sins as part of their "literary and sexual productions," both men establish "a special relationship to original sin" (p. 247). Poster's greatest contribution to contemporary Swinburne scholarship lies, therefore, in unraveling the close connection between Swinburne's spiritual and sexual conceptions, and in undoing the artificial divide between the two. And yet, despite its originality, Poster's argument could have been slightly more subtle and informed. Swinburne's youthful fascination with Sade was a short and almost insignificant matter, and the Frenchman's provocations, as the young Swinburne was soon to realize, lacked a real intellectual basis. And even though Poster briefly touches upon this issue (p. 254), the reader is given a sense that Sade's influence on Swinburne's sexual and religious radicalism was much greater than it actually was. Moreover, while Sade's anti-Christian sentiments are rooted in Christian discourse (p. 253), Swinburne does in fact manage (to various levels of success) to establish a spiritual discourse divorced of Christianity. This is an important distinction that needs to be taken into account when comparing Swinburne and Sade.

Sarah Eron's "Circles and the In-Between: Shaping Time, Space, and Paradox in Swinburnean Verse" (VP 44, no. 3 [Fall 2006]: 293-309) is an illuminating study on the circular imagery in Swinburne's poetry. "Whereas many of the poets from Swinburne's time embrace a microscopic vision of the world," Eron writes, "Swinburne rather leans toward a telescopic one, allowing all forms, essences, and time patterns to conjoin into a circular whole." By examining this circularity, Eron adds, "we can better understand Swinburne's tendencies toward contradiction and repetition" (p. 294), for in Swinburne's view all oppositional "forces and objects" (p. 295) are contained in a unified, ever-changing macrocosm in which time and space continuously "fold and grow into one another" (p. 308). Not surprisingly, Eron chooses to focus on poems that take place in an intermedial geographic setting--"Evening on the Broads," "On the Cliffs," "The Triumph of Time," and "A Forsaken Garden." In doing so, she associates natural scenery with what she refers to as a "state of in-between" (p. 295)--a state that symbolically represents the meeting point and integration of oppositional elements, physical as well as mental.

Swinburne's poetic relationship with the spasmodic school of poetry is the focus of Kirstie Blair's "Swinburne's Spasms: Poems and Ballads and the 'Spasmodic School'" (YES 36, no . …

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