The Concept of Nature in Nineteenth-Century English Poetry

By Joseph Warren Beach | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XVII
SWINBURNE

WITH Swinburne we come at length to an English poet in whom the evolutionary ideas have borne fruit in a nature-poetry militantly "naturalistic." His poems all appeared after The Origin of Species; the volume in which he grapples most directly with man's place in the universe, Songs Before Sunrise, dating from 1871. Here he apparently takes for granted the derivation of man by process of evolution from the substance of the material earth. And so completely has he assimilated the concept of evolution that he does not need to use any of the technical terms of science but has already invented a highly poetical vocabulary in which to render what is for him the spiritual gist of evolution, its bearing upon human conduct and destiny.


Naturalism and the Free Spirit

The volume opens with a "Prelude" in which he represents man as bravely and freely facing the realities of existence, without borrowing comfort from any supernatural illusions. He "seeks not strength from strengthless dreams," but communes with nature and takes cheer in "the actual earth's equalities."

Then he stood up, and trod to dust
Fear and desire, mistrust and trust,
And dreams of bitter sleep and sweet,
And bound for sandals on his feet
Knowledge and patience of what must
And what things may be, in the heat
And cold of years that rot and rust
And alter; and his spirit's meat

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