Algernon Charles Swinburne was an English Victorian poet known best for his incredible abilities of rhyme and scansion, and for his work's focus on socially taboo topics of the day such as atheism and sadomasochism.
Swinburne was born on April 5, 1837
at Grosvenor Place in London
. Most of his childhood was spent on the Isle of Wight
, at his grandfather's country estate, where he resided with both of his parents. While Swinburne and his father were not remarkably close, he was affectionate of his mother and cared very dearly for his grandfather. They tutored him in Italian
, respectively, from the time he was a young boy; his mother versed him in the Bible
, as the Aristocratic family was of a strict Anglican
persuasion. Swinburne rejected religion from a very young age -- he stopped going to church at 11 -- but his mother's influence on him was strong, and the time she spent with him kept him from dejection all through his childhood.
As an adolescent Swinburne was sent off to King's College of Our Lady of Eton, where he was given a superior education, and first introduced to flagellation in the form of disciplinary birching. Some historians theorize that Swinburne's sadomasochistic tendencies have their origins in this introduction. He continued into his higher education at the Balliol College, Oxford, where he met his lifetime friend and Pre-Raphaelite companion, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, adopted nihilism as his general life philosophy, and became politically interested. He was rusticated by Balliol College in 1860, reportedly for publicly supporting the attempted assassination of Napoleon III by Orsini, an Italian nationalist, which occurred in 1858. He moved in with the Rossetti family, and lived in its household until the death of Dante's mother, Elizabeth Siddall, in 1862, at which point the two (Rossetti and Swinburne) took up residence together at Chelsea.
Swinburne was hopeless as an independent. He had always been known as an excitable character, and he even suffered from manic fits and, possibly, epileptic seizures. At Chelsea, Swinburne drank for weeks at a time, until he was mentally and physically exhausted, at which point he would return to the Isle of Wight for another few weeks to recover. Once he returned to Chelsea, he would immediately began drinking again. His stay at Chelsea is also when Swinburne began having open homosexual relationships, and practicing the sadomasochism that he had been so magnetized to as a boy. Famous contemporary poet Oscar Wilde believed that Swinburne was in fact a normal heterosexual man who was disposed to exaggerating his perversions for attention; and in fact, there aren't very many remnant accounts of Swinburne being with men, or participating in sadomasochistic behaviors. Regardless, by 1872, alcoholism and undisciplined living had gotten the best of Swinburne, and he came down with dysentery. This prompted close friend Theodore Watts to take him into his home at The Pines of Putney, where Watts minded Swinburne and helped him to overcome his sicknesses.
Swinburne grew old at The Pines, and evolved into a sociable gentleman. His aberrant and reprehensible activities ceased; he became more reserved. He died peacefully of natural causes by Theodore Watts-Dunton (he added his mother's maiden name to his in 1892), on April 10, 1909, at the age of 72.
But what of his poetry, you ask? Well, of course, he wrote for most of his life. While his earliest poetry was written at Eton, his first major success was "Atlanta at Calydon," which immediately received critical acclaim upon its publication in 1865. He proceeded to release "Poems and Ballads" in 1866, and "Songs Before Sunrise" in 1867. "Songs Before Sunrise", a very political collection, was written after Swinburne met Mazzini, the Italian nationalist whose reforms and protests lead to the formation of the Italian Republic. Other volumes were published, each as notable as the last; but Swinburne's individual successes have always been of greater importance than the volumes that they were published in.
Swinburne's poetry, as noted in the first paragraph, was considered pornographic at the time of its first publication. It was, however, and still is, absolutely impossible to deny Swinburne's talent as a lyricist, and he was believed, by some, to be England's national poet: He to define English poetry, in fact, after the fall of the Romantics. Critics such as A.E. Housman denied Swinburne's supremacy on the English literary scene; even he, however, conceded Swinburne's mastery of English vocabulary and rhyme.
I know as a noder that to do what I am about to do is disgusting and thoroughly offensive, but here I post my favorite poem of A.C. Swinburne's, called "Before Dawn". It represents, to me, the writer's amazing technical capabilities, as well as the nature of his unique and personal work. So, without further ado:
Sweet life, if life were stronger,
Earth clear of years that wrong her,
Then two things might live longer,
Two sweeter things than they;
Delight, the rootless flower,
And love, the bloomless bower;
Delight that lives an hour,
And love that lives a day.
From evensong to daytime,
When April melts in Maytime,
Love lengthens out his playtime,
Love lessens breath by breath,
And kiss by kiss grows older
On listless throat or shoulder
Turned sideways now, turned colder
Than life that dreams of death.
This one thing once worth giving
Life gave, and seemed worth living;
Sin sweet beyond forgiving
And brief beyond regret:
To laugh and love together
And weave with foam and feather
And wind and words the tether
Our memories play with yet.
Ah, one thing worth beginning,
One thread in life worth spinning,
Ah sweet, one sin worth sinning
With all the whole soul’s will;
To lull you till one stilled you,
To kiss you till one killed you,
To feed you till one filled you,
Sweet lips, if love could fill;
To hunt sweet Love and lose him
Between white arms and bosom,
Between the bud and blossom,
Between your throat and chin;
To say of shame—what is it?
Of virtue—we can miss it;
Of sin—we can but kiss it,
And it’s no longer sin:
To feel the strong soul, stricken
Through fleshly pulses, quicken
Beneath swift sighs that thicken,
Soft hands and lips that smite;
Lips that no love can tire,
With hands that sting like fire,
Weaving the web Desire
To snare the bird Delight.
But love so lightly plighted,
Our love with torch unlighted,
Paused near us unaffrighted,
Who found and left him free;
None, seeing us cloven in sunder,
Will weep or laugh or wonder;
Light love stands clear of thunder,
And safe from winds at sea.
As, when late larks give warning
Of dying lights and dawning,
Night murmurs to the morning,
“Lie still, O love, lie still;”
And half her dark limbs cover
The white limbs of her lover,
With amorous plumes that hover
And fervent lips that chill;
As scornful day represses
Night’s void and vain caresses,
And from her cloudier tresses
Unwinds the gold of his,
With limbs from limbs dividing
And breath by breath subsiding;
For love has no abiding,
But dies before the kiss;
So hath it been, so be it;
For who shall live and flee it?
But look that no man see it
Or hear it unaware;
Lest all who love and choose him
See Love, and so refuse him;
For all who find him lose him,
But all have found him fair.
It makes me shiver, gives me goosebumps. I love it. I hope you appreciate my subjective posting. The source of this poem can be found just below, in the References.