Algernon Charles Swinburne, Atalanta, Edmund Wilson, Garden of Proserpine, Harold Bloom, Itylus, Mirrored Images: An Anthology of Sri Lankan Poetry, Oscar Wilde, poems, Poetry, Sappho, T S Eliot, Thomas Stearns Eliot
Swinburne might not seem an obvious choice to be included in a collection of significant poets. Harold Bloom does treat him as one of his hundred exemplars of Genius, but notes that he is ‘now the most unfashionable’ of all those he discusses in his book. He was certainly not considered a poet of consequence when I was growing up, in the middle of the last century, having been, as Bloom puts it. ‘slain by T S Eliot and Edmund Wilson, both distinguished hatchet men’.
Swinburne’s extinction in the last century is understandable. His manipulation of language was brilliant, but this led to the impression that he did not really bother too much about substance. Then, his private life was easily criticized, given that he was an unashamed masochist – though Oscar Wilde suggested that he deliberately exaggerated other elements, characterizing him as ‘a braggart in matters of vice, who had done everything he could to convince his fellow citizens of his homosexuality and bestiality without being in the slightest degree a homosexual or a bestialiser’.
One aspect of Swinburne’s approach to poetry and to life can be seen in the opening lines of his poem on Sappho, the Greek poetess associated with Lesbianism
Love’s priestess, mad with pain and joy of song,
Song’s priestess, mad with joy and pain of love
He associates inextricably love and song, pain and joy, and characterizes their impact as mad, seemingly in celebration of excess. In this poem, when he notes the opposing reality of death, he celebrates Sappho as a vibrant exception
For over all whom time hath overpast
The shadow of sleep inexorable is cast,
The implacable sweet shadow of perfect sleep
That gives not back what life gives death to keep;
Yea, all that liv’d and lov’d and sang and sinn’d
Are all borne down death’s cold, sweet, soundless wind
That blows all night and knows not whom its breath,
Darkling, may touch to death:
But one that wind hath touch’d and changed not,—one
Whose body and soul are parcel of the sun;
One that earth’s fire could burn not, nor the sea
Quench; nor might human doom take hold on thee;
All praise, all pity, all dreams have done thee wrong,
All love, with eyes love-blinded from above;
Song’s priestess, mad with joy and pain of love,
Love’s priestess, mad with pain and joy of song.
But, even more emphatically, the poem I find most memorable celebrates passivity, an escape it seems from intensity. This is the Garden of Proserpine, Proserpine being the daughter of Ceres, the goddess of the harvest, who was taken to the underworld by Pluto, its ruler. Her mother sought her and was able to win her back, but the price to be paid was that Proserpine spent three months each year in the underworld – which was the origin of winter, the world lying fallow while Ceres mourned for her daughter.
Swinburne’s Proserpine, however, relishes her retreat
Here, where the world is quiet;
Here, where all trouble seems
Dead winds’ and spent waves’ riot
In doubtful dreams of dreams;
I will watch the green field growing
For reaping folk and sowing,
For harvest-time and mowing,
A sleepy world of streams.
I am tired of tears and laughter,
And men that laugh and weep;
Of what may come hereafter
For men that sow to reap:
I am weary of days and hours,
Blown buds of barren flowers,
Desires and dreams and powers
And everything but sleep.
Here life has death for neighbour,
And far from eye or ear
Wan waves and wet winds labour,
Weak ships and spirits steer;
They drive adrift, and whither
They wot not who make thither;
But no such winds blow hither,
And no such things grow here.
The poem ends with the most musical celebration of withdrawal I know
We are not sure of sorrow,
And joy was never sure;
Today will die to-morrow;
Time stoops to no man’s lure;
And love, grown faint and fretful,
With lips but half regretful
Sighs, and with eyes forgetful
Weeps that no loves endure.
From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.
Then star nor sun shall waken,
Nor any change of light:
Nor sound of waters shaken,
Nor any sound or sight:
Nor wintry leaves nor vernal,
Nor days nor things diurnal;
Only the sleep eternal
In an eternal night.
Swinburne’s celebration of sadness is even more musical in Itylus, based on the legend of a child killed by his mother in a fit of vengeance upon her husband. The narrator is her sister, whose ravishing by her husband was the reason for her rage. But the sister cannot forget the child who was sacrificed for vengeance on her behalf
Swallow, my sister, O sister swallow,
How can thine heart be full of the spring?
A thousand summers are over and dead.
What hast thou found in the spring to follow?
What hast thou found in thine heart to sing?
What wilt thou do when the summer is shed?….
O Sister, sister, thy first-begotten!
The hands that cling and the feet that follow,
The voice of the child’s blood crying yet
Who hath remembered me? who hath forgotten?
Thou hast forgotten, O summer swallow,
But the world shall end when I forget.
I have quoted at length from Swinburne, but that is essential because, as noted earlier, the sound is perhaps more important than the sense. And while one notes the pervasive melancholia, it would not do to assume that this was a guiding principle because, as we saw in the poem to Sappho, he also asserted a sense of life that could overcome passivity. I will end then with another assertion of triumphant life, from the chorus of Atalanta, the best of his longer poems
When the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces,
The mother of months in meadow or plain
Fills the shadows and windy places
With lisp of leaves and ripple of rain;
And the brown bright nightingale amorous
Is half assuaged for Itylus,
For the Thracian ships and the foreign faces,
The tongueless vigil, and all the pain.
Come with bows bent and with emptying of quivers,
Maiden most perfect, lady of light,
With a noise of winds and many rivers,
With a clamor of waters, and with might;
Bind on thy sandals, O thou most fleet,
Over the splendor and speed of thy feet;
For the faint east quickens, the wan west shivers,
Round the feet of the day and the feet of the night.
Where shall we find her, how shall we sing to her,
Fold our hands round her knees, and cling?
O that man’s heart were as fire and could spring to her,
Fire, or the strength of the streams that spring! 20
For the stars and the winds are unto her
As raiment, as songs of the harp-player;
For the risen stars and the fallen cling to her,
And the southwest-wind and the west-wind sing.
For winter’s rains and ruins are over,
And all the season of snows and sins;
The days dividing lover and lover,
The light that loses, the night that wins;
And time remember’d is grief forgotten,
And frosts are slain and flowers begotten, 30
And in green underwood and cover
Blossom by blossom the spring begins.