Algernon Charles Swinburne

John Florens | Mar 11, 2024

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Algernon Charles Swinburne (London, April 5, 1837 - Putney, April 10, 1909) was a Victorian-era British poet and playwright.

Active in the Aesthetic, Romantic and then Decadent circles, he met Oscar Wilde and other famous intellectuals and artists of the same milieu, attending the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and befriending Dante Gabriel Rossetti. An eccentric personality with a strong taste for artistic provocation, inspired by such literary figures as the Marquis de Sade, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Charles Baudelaire, in his day his poetry was highly controversial because of its themes (his lyric poetry is also characterized by original versificatory solutions, the worship of paganity and the idealized Middle Ages, and absolute freedom. From 1903 to 1909 he was consistently nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. With Alfred Edward Housman, Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, Ernest Dowson and William Butler Yeats, he is considered one of the most representative lyric poets of Victorian literature.

Origins and education

He was born into an aristocratic family in London, at 7 Chester Street, Grosvenor Place. His father was Admiral Charles Henry, the son of a French-educated gentleman who was accustomed to dress and think like an Ancien régime French aristocrat; his mother, Lady Jane, was the daughter of the third Earl of Ashburnham.

He grew up on the Isle of Wight, where his parents had several properties, and at Capheaton Hall, near Wallington in Northumberland. He had his first education at home; from his parents he learned French and Italian. At the same time he received a very solid Anglican religious education. He had an adolescent passion for a cousin, Mary Gordon, who, however, to his great sorrow, left him to marry another. He then studied at Eton, then at Balliol College, Oxford, where he met Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, all three of whom were engaged in 1857 in decorating the walls of the Oxford Union with frescoes inspired by the Arthurian cycle. He revealed exceptional gifts in the study of literature and ancient languages.

However, he also distinguished himself by his lack of discipline and provocative poses. It was precisely the director of Balliol, Benjamin Jowett, who in consideration of his abilities once saved him from expulsion, for having celebrated Felice Orsini (the Italian patriot who had tried to assassinate Napoleon III) in verse. However (as later Oscar Wilde) in 1859 his expulsion could not be avoided (the penalty, at English universities, was called rustication).

Poetic activity and eccentric personality

Some of his early and still admired compositions fit into the typically Victorian cult of the Middle Ages, and some of them harken back to that era in both style and tone and construction (The Leper, Laus Veneris and St. Dorothy). Evident in them is Swinburne's worship of Percy Bysshe Shelley, with whom he had remarkable similarities: he, too, had been born into an aristocratic family and harbored libertarian sentiments, and he, too, had studied at Eton and distinguished himself in the passionate study of the classics; they had both been expelled for their ideas from college; but the similarity also extended to certain personal and character qualities, such as an extreme fickleness, an abundance of poetic vein, an exhibited nonconformity and nervousness in analogical play.

He left Oxford in 1860, forming an association with Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Upon the death of the latter's wife, Pre-Raphaelite model Elizabeth Siddal, who committed suicide in 1862, the poet and painter went to live together in Tudor House, No. 16 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. Rossetti portrayed Swinburne a few times over the years according to the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic, nicknaming him "little Northumbrian friend" because of his short stature (5 feet, or about 1.52 m). His build was awkward, his voice unpleasantly high-pitched and his attitude resigned, making Swinburne seemingly as far removed from the boldness expressed in his revolutionary verse; by contrast, he had unsuspected physical strength (he was among other things the first to climb Culver Cliff in the Isle of Wight). He possessed, moreover, a highly excitable temper, to which were due occasional emphatic excesses, during which he would declaim verses loudly, indulging in disproportionate gestures. Some morbid excesses he had in public, though very rare, gave rise to the suggestion that he was epileptic. It was made worse by his alcoholism, because of which he very often had to be driven home, at the wee hours of the morning, by force of arms.

He had published only a few magazine essays when he gave to print the dramatic poem (intended, however, for reading only) Atalanta in Calydon (1865), to which he arisen an outstanding success. Only a year later, the scandalous verses of Laus Veneris and Poems and Ballads gave him a reputation as an immoral poet, sparking a smear campaign that many felt was perfectly unnecessary: many of the perversions Swinburne described were a purely literary matter. According to others, Swinburne was bisexual, and had learned at Eton sadomasochistic erotic techniques such as, in particular, flagellation and self-flagellation; at least two homosexual relationships are attributed to him, with Richard Monckton Milnes, who introduced him to De Sade, and with the traveler Richard Francis Burton. He often manifested masochistic or algolagnia attitudes, i.e., achieving sexual pleasure through physical pain, and this was his main sexual activity; one rumor has it that Dante Gabriel Rossetti tried to "convert him to heterosexuality" and get him to abandon self-flagellation practices by having him meet with the circus performer (she, in giving up, allegedly said, "I can't get him to understand that biting is useless." Swinburne had an affair with Menken for six weeks: Rossetti is said to have offered her money to turn Swinburne away from flagellation, but after a month and a half she had to abandon the challenge and return the money. Already in his unpublished early drama of 1858-1859, Laugh and Lie Down, Swinburne sketches the erotic characteristics of a woman that returns throughout his production: the protagonist Imperia is libertine, dissolute, imperious, and cruel, thus anticipating the novels of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, such as Venus in Furs (1870).

He is considered to be a poet and a typical decadent personality, although he flaunted more vices than he actually had, a fact about which Oscar Wilde had a rather salacious comment. The gossip about him, far from disheartening him, spurred him to assume increasingly provocative attitudes, even to the point of allowing rumors to run about him that he was a pederast, and even a monkey lover. According to Oscar Wilde none of this was true; to him, Swinburne was just "a fanatic, about his own vices, who did all he could to convince the world of his homosexuality and bestiality when he was neither homosexual nor bestial."

In 1864 he made a trip to Italy, stopping briefly between Florence and Fiesole. In 1868 Swinburne rented with a friend, George Powell, a house in Étretat, christening it Chaumière de Dolmancé ("Dolmancé's cottage," named after a character in Sade's The Philosophy in the Boudoir), where he vacationed, and received in the summer of 1870 a visit from the young Guy de Maupassant, who saved him from drowning (the poet was swimming in the Normandy Sea when he was in danger of drowning, and Maupassant, a good swimmer, and others jumped in and pulled him to safety) and in gratitude was invited to lunch and spend the day at the villa. According to what Maupassant told Edmond de Goncourt and Gustave Flaubert in 1875, the French writer was vividly impressed by the presence of human bones on a table, strange paintings on the walls, and a fully clothed bertlet sleeping in Powell's bed, as well as various oddities and eccentricities exhibited. Jean Lorrain is said to have been inspired by this tale, and Goncourt, too, in his novel La Fausta (1881) inspired the character of Georges Selwyn, the sadistic lover of young girls, from Swinburne as he appears from Maupassant's tale.

Other bizarre adventures he experienced in London with his co-tenants, Rossetti and George Meredith; after his wife's death, Rossetti was obsessed with death and showed signs of derangement; the two friends persuaded him to exhume the body of his wife Elizabeth and retrieve the manuscript of her poems buried with her, which Rossetti published in 1870 in a collection entitled Poems. Together with his own agent Charles Augustus Howell, Rossetti obtained permission to open Siddal's grave at night to retrieve the notebook of poems. Howell (who is remembered as a known liar), who was present at the exhumation, fancifully recounted that Siddal's body had retained its beauty intact, and that her hair had continued to grow wildly. Rossetti wrote a letter to Swinburne in which he revealed that he had taken the "advice" and intended to publish his wife's verses. In 1882 Rossetti, after attempting suicide several times, would die of paralysis, by which time Swinburne had parted ways with his friends. Beyond legend, Swinburne was in fact in any case quite unruly, to really suffer, over the years, from various physical ailments and domestic accidents for which he often left the family home for some hospitalization, until he had a mental and physical breakdown at about age 40.

The Years at The Pines

In 1877 his father died and his financial problems began. In 1878 Victor Hugo publicly invited him to Paris for the centenary celebrations of Voltaire's death (May 30, 1778), but the English poet had to decline because of ill health, writing a funeral lament for Baudelaire (died 1867) anyway. By 1879, almost unable to move and seriously ill since the winter of the previous year due to neglect, complications of alcoholism, and the strenuous poetic work to which he had nevertheless subjected himself, Swinburne was on the verge of death; he was then taken under a sort of "guardianship" by his friend Theodore Watts-Dunton, a lawyer and his legal adviser (with the consent of Swinburne's mother, Lady Jane, and sisters), who looked after him in the family mansion at "The Pines," Putney, near London. (For the next thirty years, Swinburne lived at The Pines with his friend's family, and was forced by Watts-Dunton to give up his dissipated life and to get sober from alcohol. Watts-Dunton forced him to stop hanging out with his old friends in London, to the point of restricting his activities and even checking his mail, requiring him to drink no more than a bottle of beer with lunch; it is believed that all this almost certainly saved him from an early death.

This profound crisis induced him, however, to cease his youthfully rebellious attitudes and to assume a certain social respectability, although he continued to write, with less success than he once had (it has been said that Watts "saved the man but killed the poet"), but in an even more massive and conspicuous way, not only poetry (even the most numerous part of his output is from this period, and much was published posthumously) but dramas and essays on literary criticism, especially on Elizabethan-era authors such as William Shakespeare. In 1882 he published a poem in memory of Rossetti, after receiving news of his friend's sudden death; the same year Swinburne and Watts-Dunton made a trip to France, where they met the elderly Victor Hugo for dinner, but Swinburne rarely moved from Putney again, even refusing a subsequent trip to Cambridge on his return from France. In 1896 his mother died, aged 87, celebrated by her son with the double elegy The High Oaks: Barking Hall.

His social isolation deepened as deafness set in; in 1903 he became seriously ill with pneumonia but survived, though he remained with respiratory problems. In the spring of 1909 Swinburne contracted influenza, developing pneumonia again, and died at age 72, at his friend's home, on the morning of April 10. On April 15, 1909, he was buried in St. Boniface Cemetery (the funeral was attended by friends, admirers and his only living relative, his younger sister, Isabel.

His mastery of vocabulary, rhyme, and meter probably place him among the most gifted English poets of all time, although he was also much criticized for his ampullatory style and lexical choices "for rhyme" rather than "for meaning." He is the implied hero of the third volume of George Saintsbury's capital History of English Prosody, and Alfred Edward Housman, a more measured and at times even hostile critic, devoted many laudatory paragraphs to his skill as a rhymer.

Swinburne's work experienced a certain popularity among Oxford and Cambridge students, although it meets much less with public tastes today. The same has been true with regard to the general public and critics, except for Poems and Ballads. First Series and Atalanta in Calydon, which have always enjoyed high favor in academic circles.

It played against Swinburne that he was anointed the first English poet, and successor to Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning around the age of 30, after the publication of his first two works. He retained this prestige until his death, but knowledgeable critics such as Alfred Edward Housman perceived, rightly or wrongly, that placing him among the greatest English poets was a stretch too far. It is likely that Swinburne himself was aware of this. Gifted with a very fine intelligence, he himself, in his maturity, active as a critic, was convinced that old age entailed increasing cynicism and insincerity.

Growing old, for him, was obviously not an easy thing. But all of Swinburne's work, of which one appreciates more the formal sense and the boldness of many solutions, is the building work of a word genius, in which it is very difficult to grasp the most sincere inspirational motive. That is why the definition Walt Whitman gave of him, that damned simulacrum, has remained famous: ready to welcome into his poetic universe, with an attitude of an experimenter, subjects, suggestions, forms, colors from wherever they came to him, according to critic Richard Church he did not bring to perfect inner maturity any of the themes he dealt with.

After the early Poems and Ballads, which scandalized for poems with erotic and sadomasochistic themes such as Anactoria, inspired by the events of Sappho ("Ah, s'io potessi bermi le tue vene

He still wrote love poetry, but with less traumatizing content. His versification technique, especially his inventiveness in the use of rhyme, remained sublime to the last.

His works include: Atalanta in Calydon, Tristram of Lyonesse, other Poems and Ballads (separated into Series I, II and III, the latter containing the most controversial part of his work), Songs before Sunrise and Lesbia Brandon (published posthumously).

Thomas Stearns Eliot, reading Swinburne's essays on Elizabethan playwrights in The Contemporaries of Shakespeare and The Age of Shakespeare, and Swinburne's books on William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, noted that, being also a poet's observations on other poets, he nonetheless had such a mastery of the subject as to make him "a more reliable guide than Hazlitt, Coleridge or Lamb," Swinburne's three Romantic predecessors. He noted, however, about Swinburne's prose, "a tumultuous flurry of adjectives, an incessant profluence of disorganized sentences, are indicative of the undisciplinedness and perhaps even the laziness of a disordered mind."

Instead, Giuseppe Chiarini considers him the most poetic of English lyricists after Shelley.

Swinburne's poem is quoted in Jack London's novel Martin Eden; the main character in particular reads the last four lines of the penultimate stanza before committing suicide. These are lines from the poem The Garden of Proserpine (not to be confused with the almost eponymous Hymn to Proserpine, where the poet sings of the rise of late antique Christianity and laments the end of classical Roman paganism).

Indeed, in Swinburne, a love of Greek mythology and Hellenic religion, modern cursing and a fascination with medieval Christianity converge, under the influence of the Arthurian cycle, a typical theme of Pre-Raphaelism.

Major works

Edmund Gosse's (1917) and Georges Lafourcade's (1932) are notable.


  1. Algernon Charles Swinburne
  2. Algernon Swinburne
  3. ^ Il vero George Selwyn era in realtà un personaggio storico diverso, George Augustus Selwyn (1719-1791), politico del XVIII secolo (omonimo del vescovo anglicano ottocentesco George Augustus Selwyn); era noto anche lui per le sue eccentricità, e in gioventù per la sua fama di libertino blasfemo e perverso, con la passione per il macabro e gli spettacoli violenti come le esecuzioni pubbliche, e che già aveva ispirato Charles Robert Maturin, zio di Wilde, per alcune pagine del romanzo gotico Melmoth l'errante; in età avanzata fu un personaggio salottiero e un filantropo nei confronti di alcune bambine orfane di cui era tutore.
  4. ^ a b c d Algernon Charles Swinburne, Encyclopædia Britannica Online, accesat în 9 octombrie 2017
  5. ^ a b c d Algernon Charles Swinburne, SNAC, accesat în 9 octombrie 2017
  6. ^ a b Algernon Charles Swinburne, International Music Score Library Project, accesat în 9 octombrie 2017
  7. ^ Cox, Montagu H; Norman, Philip. "No. 3 Whitehall Gardens Pages 204-207 Survey of London: Volume 13, St Margaret, Westminster, Part II: Whitehall I. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1930". British History Online. Retrieved 7 August 2020.
  8. ^ Swinburne, Algernon (1919), Gosse, Edmund; Wise, Thomas (eds.), The Letters of Algernon Charles Swinburne, vol. 1–6, New York: John Lane Company, retrieved 4 December 2015
  9. ^ Swinburne, Algernon (2013), Delphi Complete Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne (Illustrated), Delphi Classics, ISBN 9781909496699, retrieved 4 December 2015
  10. ^ a b Ted Jones (15 December 2007). The French Riviera: A Literary Guide for Travellers. Tauris Parke Paperbacks. pp. 185–. ISBN 978-1-84511-455-8.
  11. Charles Algernon Swinburne en Biografías y vidas
  12. Enciclopedia Británica
  13. Portal en Poetry Foundation

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