Swinburne. (Guide to the Year's Work)

By Louis, Margot K. | Victorian Poetry, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Swinburne. (Guide to the Year's Work)


Louis, Margot K., Victorian Poetry


This has been a good year for Swinburne studies, particularly for analyses which situate the poet within the broader cultural context. Three pieces deserve special mention at the start: Stephanie Kuduk's exploration of the radical literary tradition informing Songs before Sunrise; Catherine Maxwell's erudite discussion of how Swinburne transforms the very different literary tradition of the female sublime; and Thais Morgan's precise mapping of the versions of masculinity presented by Swinburne and other Victorian poets. In these pages last year I covered Kenneth Haynes's fine new edition, Poems and Ballads & Atalanta in Calydon, as well as John Hollander's "Algernon Charles Swinburne's 'At Eleusis'" (Paris Review 154 [2000]: 246-251), so I will say no more of them here.

One of the most innovative studies of the year is Stephanie Kuduk's "'A Sword of a Song': Swinburne's Republican Aesthetics in Songs before Sunrise" (VS 43 [2001]: 253-278). Kuduk places Swinburne within the radical literary tradition in "a world in which poetry provided a central way of experiencing radical politics" and poets used prophecy to recreate "a democratic human mythos" (pp. 255, 258). The "Hymn of Man," "Hertha," and "Christmas Antiphones" are discussed in detail, and Kuduk shows brilliantly how Swinburne's formal innovations (e.g., the elaborate antimetaboles in "Hertha") convey and enrich the poet's republican vision. Finally, Kuduk shows how reviewers and readers of Swinburne's work within "the vibrant culture of republicanism in the 1860s and 1870s" embraced the poetry and recognized it as a part of the radical literary tradition. This article should be read by all students of Swinburne.

Kuduk is unusual among Swinburneans nowadays in that she explores an area outside the study of gender and sexuality, which remain the chief issues engrossing students of the poet. Catherine Maxwell's thoughtful and finely nuanced book, The Female Sublime from Milton to Swinburne: Bearing Blindness (Manchester Univ. Press, 2001), challenges "modern cultural criticism's view of literary feminisation as a response to social change" and argues that the feminization of the male poet is "the inevitable outcome of a poetic tradition which has always... identified lyrical song with femininity"; "male poets' adoption of feminine identities and images is less a matter of appropriation than of compulsion as they are driven towards feminisation in order to attain vision" (pp. 3, 4, 2; emphasis Maxwell's). Experience of the sublime figuratively blinds and castrates the poet so that he sees in a new way but also understands himself in a radically new way which is painful; the "female sublime" is "frequently envisaged by ma le poet[s] as a penetrating and often aggressive energy which overwhelms or pierces a man's body and soul" (p. 7). Maxwell discusses Milton, Shelley, Tennyson, and Browning, concluding with a chapter on Swinburne, who "emerges as a timely flowering of the English poetic tradition and an important precursor for literary Modernism"; "the book thus offers a new assessment of his important poetic contribution to English letters" (p. 3).

Swinburneans should pay special attention not only to the separate chapter on Swinburne but also to "Swinburne and the Sapphic Nightingale" (pp. 37-46), a subsection of chapter 1. Here Maxwell's discussion of Swinburne's complex identification with Sappho finely illuminates "The Nightingale," "Anactoria," and especially "On the Cliffs." It is regrettable that Maxwell's book was in press too early for her to engage in this text with Yopie Prins's Victorian Sappho (1999), but anyone interested in this topic should certainly read both works; for me, Maxwell provides a more balanced and convincing account of the Sapphic sublime. In chapter 5, "Beneath the woman's and the water's kiss: Swinburne's metamorphosis" (pp. 178-221), a discussion of Swinburne in relation to Sappho, Milton, Shelley, Tennyson, and Browning modulates into thoughtful analyses of the emasculated masculinity so frequently explored in Swinburne's poems and criticism, and of the "poetics of masochism" and its relation to Swinburne's notoriously non-visual poetic style; his famous "haziness" shows that he has less interest "in fixed meanings and finite perceptions than in the imaginative process by which thoughts and ideas evolve into images which are themselves already mutating into other images" (pp. …

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