Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Algernon Charles Swinburne (April 5, 1837 - April 10, 1909) was a Victorian era English poet. His poetry was highly controversial in its day, much of it containing recurring themes of sadomasochism, death-wish, lesbianism and anti-Christian sentiments.
Many of his early and still admired poems evoke the Victorian fascination with the mediaeval period, and some of them are explicitly mediaeval in style, tone and construction, these representatives notably being "The Leper," "Laus Veneris," and "St Dorothy".
He was an alcoholic and a highly excitable character. His health suffered as a result, until he finally broke down and was taken into care by his friend Theodore Watts, who looked after him for the rest of his life in Putney. Thereafter he lost his youthful rebelliousness and developed into a figure of social respectability.
His vocabulary, rhyme and metre arguably make him one of the best poets of the English language; but his poetry has been criticized as overly flowery and meaningless, choosing words to fit the rhyme rather than to contribute towards meaning.
Works include: Atalanta in Calydon, Poems and Ballads (series I, II and III -- these contain most of his more controversial works), Songs Before Sunrise, Lesbia Brandon (novel published posthumously).
He also wrote poems in favour of the unification of Italy. He was a student at Balliol College, Oxford, and his work in his day was very popular among undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge, though today it has largely gone out of fashion. This, at least, is the current popular and even the academic view of the decline of Swinburne's reputation, but it contains some distortion.
In fact Swinburne's Poems and Ballads, First Series and his Atalanta in Calydon have never been out of critical favor. It was Swinburne's misfortune that the two works, published when he was nearly 30, soon established him as England's premier poet, the successor to Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning. This was a position he held in the popular mind until his death, but sophisticated critics like A. E. Housman felt, rightly or wrongly, that the job of being one of England's very greatest poets was beyond him.
Swinburne may have felt this way himself. He was a highly intelligent man and in later life a much-respected critic, and he himself believed that the older a man was, the more cynical and less trustworthy he became. Swinburne may have been one of the first people not to trust anyone over thirty. This of course created problems for him after he himself passed that age.
After the first Poems and Ballads, Swinburne's later poetry is devoted more to politics and philosophy. He does not utterly stop writing love poetry, but he is far less shocking. His versification, and especially his rhyming technique, remain masterful to the end. He is the virtual star of the third volume of George Saintsbury's famous History of English Prosody, and Housman, a more measured and even somewhat hostile critic, devoted paragraphs of praise to his rhyming ability.
Swinburne and W. S. Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan were born within ten years of one another, and both had the same masterful way with rhyme. It is illuminating to remember that although Gilbert was and has remained far more popular than Swinburne, neither one has received much scholarly attention. What the scholars have missed in Gilbert is not relevant here, but Swinburne has a far greater intellect than many scholars have perceived, and the rare authors of critical works about Swinburne all acknowledge this.
Some of his poems:
A modern study of his religious attitudes:
- Swinburne and His Gods: the Roots and Growth of an Agnostic Poetry by Margot Kathleen Louis (ISBN 0773507159)
Ernest Wheldrake was a fictive character invented by Swinburne, who reviewed imaginary works by him. This was as a satire on the spasmodic poets. Wheldrake is also a character used by Michael Moorcock in his fiction.
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