winburne's "Anactoria" explores the force of language through the voice of the Greek poet, Sappho. The poem's closing is remarkable for the rolling thunder of its diatribe against omnipotence. The speaker gives great rhetorical emphasis to her status as coequal with God: "But, having made me, me he shall not slay" (line 252), or "Of me the high God hath not all his will" (line 267). The speaker goes so far as to affirm that "I Sappho shall be one with all these things, / With all high things for ever" (line 276-7). I would like to trace the speaker's megalomania back to her assertion and demonstration of how language works.
The speaker announces her poetic project over the fourteen-line length of a typical Swinburnean sentence:
Yea, thou shalt be forgotten like spilt wine
Except these kisses of my lips on thine
Brand them with immortality; but me —
Men shall not see bright fire nor hear the sea,
Nor mix their hearts with music, nor behold
Cast forth of heaven, with feet of awful gold
And plumeless wings that make the bright air blind,
Lightning, with thunder for a hound behind
Hunting through fields unfurrowed and unsown,
But in the light and laughter, in the moan
And music, and in grasp of lip and hand
And shudder of water that makes felt on land
The immeasurable tremor of all the sea,
Memories shall mix and metaphors of me. (lines 201-14)
Swinburne's poetry is best exemplified by the continual evolution of its metaphors. The language takes on a life of its own. Although it hardly lasts, the verses begin with a controlled piece of rhetoric. The simile of the first line offers an explicit point of comparison between the listener and spilt wine. Yet the terms of the figuration immediately exceed the parameters that the poet has set out for it. Wine becomes kisses. How? The poet uses an implied metonymy to substitute wine for the lips that would drink it. On the basis of this figurative connection, these lips are transformed from an object, "thou," into the speaker's subjective apparatus. Indeed, this intensely compact transubstantiation of wine from object to expressive subject follows the ascendance of pure poetic voice. It is certainly not haphazard or accidental that wine becomes kiss becomes lips becomes the "brand of immortality." What we see exhibited in these lines is poetic speech that envisions itself as the source for all theological power.
Even with only fourteen lines of verse, it would take a considerable amount of space to trace all the iterations of the speaker's expression. Suffice to say, the penultimate verses offer an exemplary figure for the force of the speaker's language: metaphors culminate and concatenate as water would on land. Indeed, the speaker imagines a veritable earthquake-force landfall of water. The image is quite apt; even the most placid ocean registers its tremendous force when it comes crashing against the shore. The "shudder of water that makes felt on land / The immeasurable tremor of all the sea," depicts the encounter between the unchecked inertia of a dynamic system as its encounters a fixed body.
It is in this sense that "Memories shall mix and metaphors of me." The full force of poetic metaphor comes crashing down against the body of memories that constitute the self. With each passing wave of language the poet dislodges a previously fixed component of the self and churns it into the mix of her poetry. I would speculate that it is the seismic force of poetic language that Swinburne's speaker hurls against the Divinity. For instance, the speaker's ultimate claim, "Yea, though thou diest, I say I shall not die" (290), takes the form of an exhortation. Such a proclamation of immortality attains to the status of a performative utterance in which the force of the saying would make it so. I submit that Swinburne's speaker avails herself of metaphor to soften the ground, so to speak, for her assault on the authority of the divine as she extends her poetic self to its utmost reaches. It is only fitting that the winding yet forceful turns of Swinburne's heroic verse recall the language of another arch-villain: Milton's Satan.
1. Are these verses from Swinburne's "Anactoria" typical of his oeuvre and characteristic of his poetic aspirations?
2. How does "Anactoria" function as a dramatic monologue?
3. Should we identify the poetic persona of "Anactoria" with Swinburne himself?
4. How would Swinburne's Victorian audience respond to the over-the-top poetic rhetoric and theological heresy of such verses?
- Consuming Love: Sappho speaks in Swinburne's "Anactoria"
- Swinburne's "Anactoria": The Death of Love versus the Afterlife of Art
- Bitterness and Triumph in Swinburne's "Anactoria"
- "A Cameo" and "Anactoria"
Last modified 7 November 2006