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Charles Algernon SwinburneApril 5, 1837 - April 10, 1909
A son of the English aristocracy, Swinburne was a poet and critic who became enmeshed in the Pre-Raphaelite vortex through his association with the Rossettis, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones in the late 1850s.
He had a "craving for what was sensational and exotic" [Note 1]and an appearance that supported the craving. At five feet, four inches (5',4") he had a great shock of red hair to complement his innate arrogance born of genius.
Swinburne, though frail of body was very strong of mind, William Rossetti provides the following comments:
Among people whom he likes, no one can be more affectionate, sweet-natured, and confiding, than Algernon Swinburne...That he can retaliate fiercely, and this upon quondam friends as well as professed foes, is a fact sufficiently notorious..no man living has a more vigorous command of the powers of invective, to which his ingenuity of mind, and consummate mastery of literary resource, lend a lash of the most cutting and immediate keenness...His golden words, like the beams of the morning and the evening sun, flush into splendour whatever they fall upon. [Note 2]
Swinburne's output was prolific. He published more than 35 books during his lifetime, including 12 verse dramas, a novel, 14 volumes of poetry and more than 12 volumes of criticism. Two childhood poems remain. One called "The Unhappy Revenge" takes as its theme Eudoxia's betrayal of Rome to the Huns. Eudoxia had been raped by the Roman emperor Maximus.
Swinburne's first published poetry, Poems and Ballads (1865) created a robust score of refutations. The attacks were frequently personal. Swinburne was called "the Absalom of modern bards, long-ringleted, flippant-lipped, down-cheeked, amorous-lidded" by one reviewer. [Note 3]Another called him "an unclean fiery imp from the pit...the libidinous laureate of a pack of satyrs." [Note4]
Swinburne's association with the Pre-Raphaelites began late in 1857 while he was attending Balliol College. He first met William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones and then Rossetti. In 1859 he dropped out of school and in 1862 he began living with Rossetti at Tudor House, 16 Cheyne Walk in Chelsea. While never a formal member of the by-then disbanded Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Swinburne's writing style reflects the intense and naturalistic style typical of the Pre-Raphaelites.
Swinburne is known for his excessive and passionate personality and his life and his poetry reflect these qualities. He appears to be a bisexual masochist who read and admired the work of the Marquis de Sade. His desire to be whipped as a form of sexual pleasure has been traced to the canings students received at the elite public schools such as Eaton, which Swinburne attended. These idiosyncrasies certainly helped position him outside the mainstream and afforded him a sharper position of observation.
The repressions endured during the Victorian era created leaks in the traditions of culture. Hedonism, the ethical philosophy of the Pre-Raphaelites, found a willing soul in Swinburne. What appeared frivolous above, however, was frequently very somber and serious below. The intellectual who gazes so profoundly into the wishy-washy mirror must occasionally be compelled to look away and consider the anomalies of the culture. Like other landmark periods, the emerging Industrial Revolution, overlaying nature everywhere, provided many anomalies.
Swinburne's hedonism did not preclude political involvement. He supported the South in the American Civil War, despised Napoleon I, and sympathized with the Turks in their 1878 war with the Russians. He was greatly influenced by the Italian republican revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini. Swinburne's collection of poems, Songs Before Sunrise (1871) were a direct result of his association with Mazzini. The poems in this volume are polemics and invectives against autocrats, monarchs, priests.
However, in later years, the revolutionary turned more conservative. In 1872 Swinburne met Walter Theodore Watts "a provincial solicitor whose bland and sensible demeanor masked a romantic longing to be a poet and a consuming eagerness for intimacy with famous authors." [Note5]. By 1879 Watts had removed Swinburne to the suburbs where he could be protected from himself. Swinburne spent the rest of his life under the watchful eye of Watts.
Some argue that Watts stifled Swinburne's natural creativity, others point to the increase in literary output during this last period; still others concede the output but decry its quality. Most likely some combination of Watts more conservative ethos and Swinburne's natural creative decline account for the much less inspired and passionate output of this period.
Swinburne died of the flu in 1909 in England.
|Notes & References|
Note 1. William Gaunt, The Pre-Raphaelite Dream (1966), page 138
Note 2. William Rossetti, Some Reminiscences. 1906.
Note 3. Athenaeum August 4, 1866 pages 137-138. This review of Poems and Ballads was written by the critic Robert Buchanan.
Note 4. Saturday Review No. 22 (1866). Review by John Morley.
Note 5. Stevenson, The Pre-Raphaelite Poets (1972), page 235
|Charles Algernon Swinburne|
Swinburne was a member of the original 1983 Eden Bohemians. An outstanding player until 1990 when he suffered from hyponchondriasis and spent the season on the disabled list. He went into retirement after the 1991 season and really hasn't been heard of until his old friend, Dante Gabriel Rossetti talked Swinburne into returning to cosmic baseball as the starting catcher for the Pre-Raphaelite Baseball Club.
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