Author: Levin, Yisrael
Date published: October 1, 2011
Although the quantity of this year's Swinburne scholarship cannot match the bonanza of the 2009 Swinburne centennial, the quality of the offerings is in no way less, and each of the articles I am about to discuss below helpfully expands the contexts in which we might read Swinburne's works. "Context" is perhaps the keyword here as it has been in the last few years. Swinburne tends to be perceived now as part of greater nineteenth- and twentieth-century movements both as a participant and a source of influence. This interesting shift in critical attitudes helps to establish Swinburne's significance in recent literary history.
Swinburne was not only an innovative poet, but also a prolific and insightful art critic. The main reason his reputation as a critic is generally overshadowed by his reputation (or infamy) as a poet is his rather unorthodox approach to art criticism. As Stefano Evangelista writes in "Swinburne's Galleries" (Yearbook of English Studies 40, no. 1-2 : 160-179), "Swinburne played an important, if often neglected, role in establishing an experimental style of critical prose linked to Aestheticism and made famous by his near-contemporary Pater" (p. 160). Focusing on "Notes on some Pictures of 1868" and "Notes on Design of the Old Masters at Florence," also published in Although the quantity of this year's Swinburne scholarship cannot match the bonanza of the 2009 Swinburne centennial, the quality of the offerings is in no way less, and each of the articles I am about to discuss below helpfully expands the contexts in which we might read Swinburne's works. "Context" is perhaps the keyword here as it has been in the last few years. Swinburne tends to be perceived now as part of greater nineteenth- and twentieth-century movements both as a participant and a source of influence. This interesting shift in critical attitudes helps to establish Swinburne's significance in recent literary history. Swinburne was not only an innovative poet, but also a prolific and insightful art critic. The main reason his reputation as a critic is generally overshadowed by his reputation (or infamy) as a poet is his rather unorthodox approach to art criticism. As Stefano Evangelista writes in "Swinburne's Galleries" (Yearbook of English Studies 40, no. 1-2 : 160-179), "Swinburne played an important, if often neglected, role in establishing an experimental style of critical prose linked to Aestheticism and made famous by his near-contemporary Pater" (p. 160). Focusing on "Notes on some Pictures of 1868" and "Notes on Design of the Old Masters at Florence," also published in
Elizabeth Helsinger's "Song's Fiction" (Yearbook of English Studies 40, nos. 1-2 : 141-159) discusses Swinburne and Tennyson's use of generic hybridity in their literary works. According to Helsinger, hybridity can be defined as the employment of two or more literary genres in one work in a way that allows authors to comment on the "most basic but hidden assumptions about language, medium, temporality, or voice" (p. 142). Helsinger's main interest lies in the manner song works to destabilize and problematize verse and prose texts. What makes song such a disruptive element is its physicality as manifested in meter and rhyme, which enables the formation of extra-textual meaning. As Helsinger writes, "the embedded song, with its fictions of embodied performance, reminds us of the otherness of musical space, musical time, and musical thinking-for Tennyson an otherness both desired and feared, for Swnburne a kind of thinking through the body that is potentially tranformative" (pp. 152-153). Swinburne's tendency to think through his body and his ability to make his readers think through their bodies is certainly one of the unique features of his poetry. Thus, while past critics tended to claim that the overwhelming musicality of his verse allowed Swinburne to disguse the fact that his poetic work carried no meaning, more recent critics such as Helsinger have argued that in Swinburne's case meaning is found in sound. Swinburne, in other words, is a performer and his "song poems ask to be imagined as scripts for performance" (p. 158). The effectiveness of Swinburne's poetic message depends, therefore, not only on what he says, but also on how he says it. As such, Helsinger's article does Swinburne scholarship an important service by suggesting that viewing his work through a Performance Studies prism may contribute greatly to our understanding of his corpus. It will be interesting to see which direction other scholars are going to take Helsinger's sugestion in the future.
In celebration of Swinburne's 2009 centenary, David Latham asks his readers to reconsider their image of the poet ("Shadows Hot from Hell: Swinburne's Poethics," JPRS 18 [Spring 2009]: 5-15). More specifically, Latham tries to reconcile the common view that regards Swinburne as the wild child of Victorian poetry, on the one hand, with the more recent view that acknowledges his contribution to late-Victorian aesthetic thought, on the other. Swinburne, writes Latham, "lived the first half of his life as the Keith Richards of the Victorian era." But at the same time, he also maintained his commitment to aesthetic ideals and to "the communal spirit of art envisioned by the Pre-Raphaelites" (p. 5). Latham does not perceive Swinburne's personality and artistic ideology as two conflicting elements: "faced with the l'allegro and il penseroso options that Milton once wrestled with," he writes, "Swinburne managed to conflate the Apollonian scholar with the Dionysian reveller, [and was] able to embody the excessive extremes of both lives at once" (p. 6). According to Latham, Swinburne the scholar and Swinburne the "late-night clubber" (p. 5) simply complemented and informed each other. Latham then turns to discuss some of Swinburne's greatest poetic and aesthetic achievements, focusing on his radical view on art (pp. 7-8), innovative prosody (pp. 9-10), and the metaphysical significance he found in the sea as a poetic image (pp. 11-12). In doing so, Latham shows that despite Swinburne's reputation in both Victorian and contemporary popular culture, his abilities as poet and student of poetry define him as an important nineteenth-century figure. Like a real rock star, Swinburne's eccentricities were an integral part of his poetic genius. Indeed, regarding Swinburne as a Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain may allow us to perceive his behavior (or rather, misbehavior) as an aspect of his creative self.
Angela Sorby's article on the nineteenth-century American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox does not focus on Swinburne, but continuously refers to him as an important influence on Wilcox's poetry ("The Milwaukee School of Fleshly Poetry: Ella Wheeler Wilcox's Poems of Passion and Popular Aestheticism," Legacy 26, no. 1 : 69-91). Wilcox's best-selling book of poetry, Poems of Passion, was published in 1883, and, as Sorby informs us, drew "heavily on the popularity of Wilde, and even more heavily on the extravagant style of Algernon Swinburne" (p. 73). Wilcox's style and success, Sorby notes, was the result of a general American fascination with British Aestheticism. "Aestheticism was attractive to many middle-class Americans," Sorby writes, "because it offered them mobility and a sense that they could act as they wished." As she adds, "whereas British aestheticism was controlled by a coterie of educated upper-class men, Americans embraced aesthetic principles less systematically but more widely" (p. 73). In other words, subscribing to Aestheticism allowed middle-class, Midwestern individuals such as Wilcox to adopt an upper-class image. Wilcox's conscious adoption of Swinburne's poetic style marked her, therefore, as an American aesthete. Sorby draws her readers' attention to the resemblance between Wilcox and Swinburne's poetic language by comparing specific passages and by quoting contemporary critics who commented on Wilcox's work. Poking fun at Wilcox's Midwestern background, Charles A. Dana, editor of the New York Sun, writes about what he terms the "Milwaukee School of fleshly poetry": "as there are centers of atmospheric disturbance so also are there centers of intellectual disorder; just at present the vortex of the aphrodisiac movement in poetry seems to hang over Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We have been astonished by the amount of Swinburnian verse sent to us by different young women living in a town heretofore chiefly celebrated for its bricks and beer" (p. 71). And indeed, Wilcox's Aestheticism was not much more than a façade; "if Wilcox's poems display little learning, they also require little learning: they offer the texture of Swinburne without his challenges" (p. 80). Wilcox's superficial Aestheticism, Sorby writes, was the result of her middle-class background: "the aristocratic Swinburne can afford to devalue everything that the upstart Wilcox desperately overvalues, so that he tends toward irony and she tends toward camp. Their aesthetic styles converge, but Wilcox plays with the very gender and class hierarchies that Swinburne reinscribes, marking the distance between the British literary tradition of aestheticism and its redeployment as an American fad" (p. 76). In other words, the idea of class mobility through the adoption of British Aestheticism was in essence an illusion. Wilcox, Sorby argues, was aware of that; her poetry was not really concerned with adopting Aesthetic ideals as much as it was with the possibility of turning poetry into a commodity. "Poems of Passion," Sorby writes, "is less about sex than about the specific freedoms and anxieties generated by [American] laissez-faire economy that was revaluing not just gold and real estate, but poetry as well" (p. 72). Wilcox's commercial success clearly indicates that poetry can indeed become part of the free market. Sorby's discussion of Wilcox's poetry beautifully shows how certain aesthetic tropes can acquire different significances in different cultural contexts. The only aspect that seems to be missing from her article, however, is the biographical resemblance between Wilcox and Swinburne. As Sorby writes, "beginning with the publication of Poems of Passion in 1883 and continuing through the first decades of the twentieth century, Ella Wheeler Wilcox was quite possibly the most commercially successful and most ridiculed poet in the English-speaking world" (p. 69). Wilcox's experience seems to echo Swinburne's own experience following the publication of Poems and Ballads; the young star-poet who published Atalanta in Calydon the previous year soon became the target of public criticism and ridicule. One cannot but wonder, therefore, whether initial success followed by a vehement public rejection is the fate of all aesthetes.
Jonathan Bate's "Shakespeare in the Twilight of Romanticism: Wagner, Swinburne, Pater" (Shakespeare Jahrbuch 146 : 11-25) reviews different European artists' reading of Shakespeare, and discusses the manner in which his works inspired and influenced the development of their politics and aesthetics. Starting with Goethe, Bate defines Shakespeare as a source of inspiration for many German Romantic thinkers who found him to offer an alternative to French neo-classicism. Shakespeare, he writes, became "a weapon in the hand of those fighting against French cultural hegemony in the name of an emergent German linguistic and cultural consciousness" (p. 11). Goethe's ideas, Bate informs us, were later adopted by Herder and Wagner, who saw in Shakespeare's historical plays and celebration of the English language a manifestation of British nationalism. Next, Bate discusses Giuseppe Mazzini, the Italian Republican, whose politics were partly inspired by Wagnerian Romanticism, and who was a great political influence on the young Swinburne. Not surprisingly, Swinburne's 1866 edition of Poems and Ballads invokes German Romantic nationalism. As Bate writes, "Swinburne's revolutionary volume of 1866 . . . in which the lead poem was 'Laus Veneris,' his version of the Tannhäuser myth, was a kind of manifesto for a 'Young England' movement. . . . Notoriously, the collection was replete with poems in praise of republicanism, anti-clericalism, and free love" (p. 20). Swinburne can be perceived, therefore, as part of a poetic-political legacy that starts with German Romantics reading of Shakespeare, then continues with Mazzini's Republicanism, and eventually finds its manifestation in Swinburne's radical poetry. At the same time, however, Swinburne's actual reading of Shakespeare has always been deliberately a-political. "One little-remarked aspect of Swinburne's radicalism," Bate writes, "was his desire to imagine Shakespeare without nationalism." In fact, the main emphasis of Swinburne's colossal A Study of Shakespeare (1880) "was upon Shakespeare's metrical development as an aid to questions of attribution and chronology" (p. 20). As such, Bate adds later, "Swinburne complicates the Victorian image of patriotic Shakespeare" (p. 21). Bate, however, does not really try to resolve the conflict between his two perceptions of Swinburne: on the one hand, he considers Swinburne the product of a European, political reading of Shakespeare; yet on the other hand, he views Swinburne as a consciously a-political scholar of Shakespeare. Perhaps what may explain this discrepancy is a closer look into Swinburne's own relation with French culture. Unlike Goethe and the German Romantics, Swinburne never regarded French culture to be limiting in its classicism; on the contrary, French art was one of Swinburne's main sources of inspiration as a poet. Thus Bate's attempt to associate Swinburne's Republicanism with German Romantic politics seems a bit odd. Indeed, Swinburne's political views (at least during the first half of his poetic career) were nothing but Romantic, but Goethe and his contemporaries' reading of Shakespeare did not have much to do with them.
Finally, I would like to mention two online resources that are supposed to become available later this year or early next year. John Walsh's The Swinburne Project has been going through a process of expansion and will include an electronic version of the complete Chatto & Windus 1904 edition of The Poems of Algernon Charles Swinburne in six volumes, as well as a significant addition to Terry L. Meyers' Uncollected Letters. In addition, Georgetown University's library will be making the John S. Mayfield notes and paper on Swinburne available online. An easy access to one of the most important collections of Swinburne materials will certainly be an invaluable contribution to future Swinburne scholarship.
YISRAEL LEVIN is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. He is the editor of A. C. Swinburne and the Singing Word: New Perspectives on the Mature Work (2010) and the co-editor of VP's special issue on Victorian prosody (Summer 2011). His manuscript "Swinburne's Apollo: Myth, Faith, and Victorian Spirituality" is forthcoming with Ashgate. His current project investigates the relation between religious attitudes and prosodic theorization in Victorian poetry.