Wednesday, 18 November 2020

A Singing Lesson: A.C. Swinburne

Prompted partly by Thomas Hardy’s fine elegy ‘A Singer Asleep’, I’ve been seriously delving into Swinburne’s poetry for the first time.  Trained as I was in what was possibly the last Leavisite English department in the country (Bristol), I’m not a natural Swinburne reader, being still by instinct committed to those modernist poetic values – concretion, trenchancy, wit, irony, ambiguity – that Swinburne so flagrantly falls foul of. 

But none the less, for all the wearing prolixity, the sameness of imagery and predictable intoxications of rhythm, there is something compelling about the Swinburne poetic world: the powerful appeal back to a Sapphic tradition of Greek lyricism, the obsessive exploration of non-standard modes of sexuality, the vigorous republicanism, the fine evocations of cliffs and seascapes throughout the verse.  I like Harold Bloom’s description of him as ‘a Shelleyan intellectual skeptic whose polemic against Christianity is compelling’, and can see more clearly now why Hardy felt himself part of a radical poetic tradition to which Swinburne also belonged.

I don’t recall much activity over here for the centenary of Swinburne’s death in 2009 (perhaps there was more in the USA), but given his close early connections with Morris and Burne-Jones the Morris Society could and should be making more of him and his work.  As I’ve noted before in this blog Morris-as-poet is something of a blindspot for the Society, so I wonder whether, in the post-Covid epoch that is hopefully now getting close, it might run a sustained seminar on Victorian poetry culminating, say, in a symposium on Isobel Armstrong’s superb magnum opus on this topic which will be thirty years old in 2023. 

The Society certainly has to hand the talented personnel who could make this project happen, as with Journal Reviews editor Rosie Miles, whose splendid study of Victorian Poetry in Context was published just a few years back.  Till such a seminar gets under way, I shall continue immersing myself in such claustrophobic but curiously energising masterpieces as the ‘Hymn to Proserpine’, ‘Anactoria’ and ‘On the Cliffs’.