( Originally Published 1919 )
1. The Exotic Bird
SWINBURNE was an absurd character. He was a ;bird of showy strut and plumage. One could not but admire his glorious feathers ; but, as soon as he began to moult—and he had already moulted excessively by the time Watts-Dunton took him under his roof—one saw how very little body there was underneath. Mr. Gosse in his biography compared Swinburne to a coloured and exotic bird—a " scarlet and azure macaw," to be precise —and the comparison remains in one's imagination. Watts-Dunton, finding the poor creature moulted and " off its feed," carried it down to Putney, resolved to domesticate it. He watched over it as a farmer's wife watches over a sick hen. He taught it to eat out of his hand. He taught it to speak—to repeat things after him, even " God Save the Queen." Some people say that he ruined the bird by these methods. Others maintain that, on the contrary, but for him the bird would have died of a disease akin to the staggers. They say, moreover, that the tameness and docility of the bird, while he was looking after it, have been greatly exaggerated, and they deny that it was entirely bald of its old gay feathers.
There you have a brief statement of the great Swinburne question, which, it seems likely, will last as long as the name of Swinburne is remembered. It is not a question of any importance ; but that will not prevent us from arguing it hotly. The world takes a malicious joy in jibing at men of genius and their associates, and a generous joy in defending them from jibes. Further, the discussion that interests the greatest number of people is discussion that has come down to a personal level. Ten people will be bored by an argument as to the nature of Swinburne's genius for one who will be bored by an argument as to, the nature of Swinburne's submissiveness to Watts-Dunton. Was Watts-Dunton, in a phrase deprecated by the editors of a recent book of letters, a " kind of amiable Svengali "? Did he allow Swinburne to have a will of his own? Did Swinburne, in going to Putney, go to the Devil? Or did not Watts-Dunton rather play the part of the good Samaritan? Unfortunately, all those who have hitherto attempted to describe the relations of the two men have succeeded only in making them both appear ridiculous. Mr. Gosse, a man of letters with a sting, has done it cleverly. The others, like the editors to whom I have referred, have done it inadvertently. They write too solemnly. If Swinburne had lost a trouser-button, they would not have felt it inappropriate, one feels, for the Archbishop of Canterbury to hurry to the scene and go down on his knees on the floor to look for it. . . Well, no doubt, Swinburne was an absurd character. And so was Watts-Dunton. And so, perhaps, is the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Most of us have, at one time or another, fallen under the spell of Swinburne owing to the genius with which he turned into music the enthusiasm of the heretic. He fluttered through the sooty and Sabbatic air of the Victorian era, uttering melodious cries of protest against everything in morals, politics, and religion for which Queen Victoria seemed to stand. He was like a rebelious boy who takes more pleasure in breaking the Sabbath than in the voice of nightingales. He was one of the few Englishmen of genius who have understood the French zest for shocking the bourgeois. He had little of his own to express, but he discovered the heretic's gospel in Gautier and Baudelaire and set it forth in English in music that he might have. learned from the Sirens who sang to. Ulysses. He revelled in blasphemous and licentious fancies that would have made Byron's hair stand on end. Nowadays, much of the blasphemy and licentiousness seems flat and unprofitable as Government beer. But in those days it seemed heady as wine and beautiful as a mediaeval tale. There was always in Swinburne more of pose than of passion. That is why we have to some extent grown tired of him. But in the atmosphere of Victorianism' his pose was original and astonishing. He was anti-Christ in a world that had annexed Christ rather than served him.
Nowadays, there is such an abundance of anti-Christs that the part seems hardly worth playing by a man of first-rate ability. Consequently, we have to, remember the circumstances in which they were written in order to appreciate to, the full many of Swinburne's poems and even some of the amusing outbursts of heresy in his letters. Still, even today, one cannot but enjoy the gusto with which he praised Trelawney—Shelley's and Byron's Trelawney—" the most splendid old man I have seen since Landor and my own grandfather ":
Of the excellence of his principles I will say but this : that I did think, by the grace of Saban (unto whom, and not unto me, be the glory and thanksgiving. Amen : Selah), I was a good atheist and a good republican ; but in the company of this magnificent old rebel, a lifelong incarnation of the divine right of insurrection, I felt myself, by comparison, a Theist and a Royalist.
In another letter he writes in the same gay, undergraduatish strain of marriage:
When I hear that a personal friend has fallen into matrimonial courses, I feel the same sorrow as if I had heard of his lapsing into theism--a holy sorrow, unmixed with anger ; for who am I to judge him ? I think at such a sight, as the preacher—was it not Baxter ?—at the sight of a thief or murderer led to the gallows : " There, but for the grace of --, goes A. C. S.," and drop a tear over fallen man.
There was, it is only fair to say, a great deal in Swinburne's insurrectionism that was noble, or, at least, in tune with nobleness. But it is impossible to persuade oneself that he was ever among the genuine poets of liberty. He loved insurrectionism for its own sake. He revelled in it in the spirit of a rhetorician rather than of a martyr. He was a glorious humbug, a sort of inverted Pecksniff. Even his republicanism cannot have gone very deep if it is true, as certain of his editors declare, that having been born within the precincts of Belgravia " was an event not entirely displeasing to. a man of his aristocratic leanings." Swinburne, it seems, was easily pleased. One of his proudest boasts was that he and Victor Hugo bore a close resemblance to each other in one respect : both of them were almost dead when they were born, " certainly not expected to live an hour." There was also one great difference between them. Swinburne never grew up.
His letters, some of which Messrs. Hake and Compton Rickett have given us, are interesting and amusing, but they do not increase one's opinion of Swinburne's mind. He reveals himself as a sensitive critic in his remarks on the proofs of Rossetti's poems, in his comments on Morris, and in his references to Tennyson's dramas. But, as a rule, his intemperance of praise and blame makes his judgments appear mere eccentricities of the blood. He could not praise Falstaff, for instance, without speaking of " the ever dear and honoured presence of Falstaff," and applauding the " sweet, sound, ripe toothsome, wholesome kernel " of Falstaff's character as well as humour. He even defied the opinion of his idol, Victor Hugo, and contended that Falstaff was not really a coward. All the world will agree that Swinburne was right in glorifying Falstaff. He glorified him, however, on the wrong plane. He mixed his planes in the same way in his pan over Captain Webb's feat in swimming the English Channel. I consider it," he said," as the greatest glory that has befallen England since the publication of Shelley's greatest poem, whatever that may have been." This is shouting, not speech. But then, as I have said, Swinburne never grew up. He never learned to speak. He was ever a shouter. The question that has so far not been 'settled is Did Watts-Dunton put his hand over Swinburne's mouth and forcibly stop him from shouting? As we know, he certainly stopped him from swearing before ladies, except in French. But, as for shouting, Swinburne had already exhausted himself when he went to the Fines. Mean-while, questions of this sort have begun to absorb us to such a degree that we are apt to, forget that Swinburne after all was a man of genius—a man with an entrancing gift of melody-spiritually an echo, perhaps, but aesthetically a discoverer, a new creature, the most amazing ecstatician of our time.
2. Genius without Eyes
Swinburne, says Mr. Gosse, " was not quite like a human being." That is chiefly what is the matter with his poetry. He did not write quite like a human being. He wrote like a musical instrument. There are few poets whose work is less expressive of personal passions. He was much given to ecstasies, but it is remarkable that most of these were echoes of other people's ecstasies. He sought after rapture both in politics and poetry, and he took as his masters Mazzini in the one and Victor Hugo in the other. He has been described as one who, while conversing, even in his later years, kept " bobbing all the while like a cork on the sea of his enthusiasms." And, in a great deal of his rapture, there is much of the levity as well as the " bobbing " quality of the cork. He who sang the hymns of the Republic in his youth, ended his life as rhetorician-in-chief of the Jingoes against the Irish and the Boers. Nor does one feel that there was any philosophic basis for the change in his attitude as there was for a similar change in the attitude of Burke and Wordsworth in their later years. He was influenced more by persons than by principles. One does not find any real vision of a Republic in his work as one finds it in the work of Shelley. He had little of the saintliness of spirit which marks the true Republican and which turns politics into music in The Masque of Anarchy. His was not one of those tortured souls, like Francis Adams's, which desire the pulling-down of the pillars of the old, bad world more than love or fame. There is no utterance of the spirit in such lines as :
Let our flag 'run out straight in the wind !
When the devil's riddle is mastered
It is possible for those who agree with the sentiments to derive a certain satisfaction from verse of this sort as from a vehement leading article. But there is nothing here beyond the rhetoric of the hot fit. There is nothing to call back the hot fit in anybody older than a boy.
Even when Swinburne was writing out of his personal experience, he contrived somehow to empty his verse of personality and to put sentimentalism and' rhetoric in its place. We have an instance of this in the story of the love-affair recorded by Mr. Gosse. Swinburne, at the age of twenty-five, fell in love with a kinswoman of Sir John Simon, the pathologist. " She gave him roses, she played and sang to him, and he conceived from her gracious ways an encouragement which she was far from seriously intending." Swinburne proposed to her, and, possibly from nervousness, she burst out laughing. He was only human in feeling bitterly offended, and " they parted on the worst of terms."
He went off to Northumberland to escape from his wretchedness, and there he wrote The Triumph of Time, which Mr. Gosse maintains is " the most profound and the most touching of all his personal poems." He assured Mr. Gosse, fourteen years afterwards, that " the stanzas of this wonderful lyric represented with the exactest fidelity the emotions which passed through his mind when his anger had died down, and when nothing remained but the infinite pity and the pain." Beautiful though the poem intermittently is, however, it seems to me to lack that radiance of personal emotion which we find in the great love poems. There is much decoration of music of a kind of which Swinburne and Poe alone possessed the secret, as in the verse beginning :
There lived in France a singer of old
But is there more than the decoration of music in the verses which express the poet's last farewell to his passion?
I shall go my ways, tread out my measure,
Ah, had I not taken my life up and given
Browning, unquestionably, could have expressed Swinburne's passion better than Swinburne did it himself. He would not have been content with a sequence of vague phrases that made music. With him each phrase would have been dramatic and charged with a personal image or a personal memory.
Swinburne, however, was a great musician in verse and beyond belittlement in this regard. It would be incongruous to attempt a close comparison between him and Longfellow, but he was like Longfellow in having a sense of music out of all proportion to the imaginative content of his verse. There was never a distinguished poet whose work endures logical analysis so badly. Mr. Arthur Symons, in a recent essay, refers scornfully to those who say that " the dazzling brilliance of Swin burne's form is apt to disguise a certain thinness or poverty of substance." But he produces no evidence on the other side. He merely calls on us to observe the way in which Swinburne scatters phrases and epithets of " imaginative subtlety " by the way, while most poets " present us with their best effects deliberately." It seems to me, on the contrary, that Swinburne's phrasing is far from subtle. ,He induces moods of excitement and sadness by his musical scheme rather than by individual phrases. Who can resist, for example, the spell of the opening verses of Before the Mirror, the poem of enchantment addressed to Whistler's Little White Girl? One hesitates to quote again lines so well known. But it is as good an example as one can find of the pleasure-giving qualities of Swinburne's music, apart from his phrases and images :
White rose in red rose-garden
Behind the veil, forbidden,
The snowdrop image in the first verse is, charming as is the sound of the lines, nonsense. The picture of the snowdrops pleading for pardon and pining from fright would have been impossible to a poet with the realizing genius of the great writers. Swinburne's sense of rhythm, however, was divorced in large measure from his sense of reality. He was a poet without the poet's gift of sight. William Morris complained that Swinburne's poems did not make pictures. Swinburne had not the necessary sense of the lovely form of the things around him. His attitude to Nature was lacking, as Mr. Gosse suggests, in that realism which gives coherence to poetry. To quote Mr. Gosse's own words : ---
Swinburne did not live, like Wordsworth, in a perpetual communion with Nature, but exceptional, and even rare, moments of concentrated observation wakened in him an ecstasy which he was careful to brood upon, to revive, and perhaps, at last, to exaggerate. As a rule, he saw little of the world around him, but what he did see was presented to him in a blaze of limelight.
Nearly all his poems are a little too long, a little tedious, for the simple reason that the muzziness of vision in them, limelight and all, is bewildering to the intelligence. There are few of his poems which close in splendour equal to the splendour of their opening verses. The Garden of Proserpine is one of the few that keep the good wine for the last. Here, however, as in the rest of his poems, we find beautiful passages rather than beauty informing the whole poem. Swinburne's poems have no spinal cord. One feels this even in that most beautiful of his lyrics, the first chorus in Atalanta in Calydon. But how many poets are there who could' have sustained for long the miracle of " When the hounds of spring are on winter traces," and the verse that follows? Mrs. Disney Leith tells us in a charming book of recollections and letters that the first time Swinburne recited this poem to her was on horseback, and one wonders whether he had the ecstasy of the gallop and the music of racing horses in his blood when he wrote the poem. His poems are essentially expressions of ecstasy. His capacity for ecstasy was the most genuine thing about him. A thunderstorm gave him " a more vivid pleasure than music or wine." His pleasure in thunder, in the gallop of horses, in the sea, was, how-ever, one fancies, largely an intoxication of music. It is like one's own enjoyment of his poems. This, too, is simply an intoxication of music.
The first series of Poems and Ballads, it must be admitted, owed its success for many years to other things besides the music. It broke in upon the bourgeois moralities of nineteenth-century England like a defiance. It expressed in gorgeous wordiness the mood of every green-sick youth of imagination who sees that beauty is being banished from the world in the name of goodness. One has only to look at the grey and yellow and purple brick houses built during the reign of Victoria to see that the green-sick youth had a good right to protest. A world that makes goodness the enemy of beauty and freedom is a blasphemous denial of both goodness and beauty, and young men will turn from it in disgust to the praise of Venus or any other god or goddess that welcomes beauty at the altar. The first volume of Poems and Ballads was a challenge to the lie of tall-hatted religion. There is much truth in Mr. Gosse's saying that " the poet is not a lotus-eater who has never known the Gospel, but an evangelist turned inside out." He had been brought up Puritanically by his mother, who kept all fiction from him in his childhood, but grounded him with the happiest results in the Bible and Shakespeare. " This acquaintance with the text of the Bible," says Mr. Gosse, " he retained to the end of his life, and he was accustomed to be emphatic about the ad-vantage he had received from the beauty of its language." His early poems, however, were not a protest against the atmosphere of his home, but against the atmosphere of what can only be described by the worn-out word " respectability." Mrs. Disney Leith declares that she never met a character more " reverent-minded." And, certainly, the irreverence of his most pagan poems is largely an irreverence of gesture. He delighted in shocking his contemporaries, and planned shocking them still further with a volume called Lesbia Brandon, which he never published ; but at heart he never freed himself from the Hebrew awe in presence of good and evil. His Aholibah is a poem that is as moral in one sense as it is lascivious in another. As Mr. Gosse ,says, " his imagination was always swinging, like a pendulum, between the North and the South, between Paganism and Puritanism, between resignation to the instincts and an ascetic repudiation of their authority." It is the conflict between the two moods that is the most interesting feature in Swinburne's verse, apart from its purely artistic qualities. Some writers 'find Swinburne as great a magician as ever in those poems in which he is free from the obsession of the flesh. But I doubt if Swinburne ever rose to the same great heights in his later work as in the two first series of Poems and Ballads. Those who praise him as a thinker quote Hertha as a master-piece of philosophy in music, and it was Swinburne's own favourite among his poems. But I confess I find it a too long sermon. Swinburne's philosophy and religion were as vague as his vision of the world about him. " I might call myself, if I wished," he wrote in 1875, " a kind of Christian (of the Church of Blake and Shelley), but assuredly in no sense a Theist."
Mr. Gosse has written Swinburne's life with distinction and understanding ; but it was so eventless a life that the biographer's is not an easy task. The book contains plenty of entertainment, however. It is amusing to read of the author of Anactoria as a child going about with Bowdler's Shakespeare under his arm and, in later years, assisting Jowett in the preparation of a Child's Bible.
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