[Part V of the author's "Conceptions of Romantic Love in Pre-Raphaelite Painting and Poetry."]
Few poets differ ideologically as much as Algernon Charles Swinburne and Christina Rossetti. Irreligious and with a particular distaste for Christianity, Swinburne’s poetry suggests he ideologically approached nihilism, if he was not simply a nihilist. Nonetheless, Swinburne regularly uses biblical and specifically Christian imagery, intermixing it with pagan imagery. In this regard, he seemingly attempts the reversal of what was done in the Carmina Burana, in which Christian poets used pagan mythology (as has been done ever since) without any sincerity in its truth. Swinburne uses Christian symbolism as the mere mythology, and uses pagan symbolism generally with at least somewhat more respect.
Nonetheless, in the end, Swinburne portrays a largely nihilistic world, in absence of any meaningful God, and the narrators of his poems show how they reconcile themselves to this meaningless, ephemeral world. These narrators often regard their own subjective states as the only reasons for living, and, not surprisingly, romantic love favors as an especially important experience, especially when coupled with sexual activity. Love, in any case, is an extreme emotion. With love, you can care more about others than yourself, which requires a certain extremeness of feeling. Swinburne apparently recognized this extremeness of love — and then brought it to the forefront in his poetry. Unlike Christina Rossetti who portrays the complexities within romantic relationships, Swinburne’s portrays relationships as rather simple things — usually temporary and inevitably doomed ventures — but he portrays the emotions that these relationships create with great complexity and intensity. Swinburne rarely espouses on why the relationships mean so much to the narrators. In fact, he seems to grant them their irrationality and then push this irrationality further. Nonetheless, these narrator’s emotions teeter back and forth between extreme pleasure and extreme pain, with the latter predominating, which indicates that Swinburne finds the most value in romantic love in the sheer emotions — both good and bad — that love creates.
Swinburne’s “The Triumph of Time” exemplifies this approach to romantic love — the valuing of sheer emotion. Swinburne wrote the poem with the spiraling sense of lineation characteristic of his early work. The poem does go not from beginning to end, so much as swirl around in the same area. There plot is not linear, and Swinburne constructs the poem on variations on the same themes, with enough changes to keep interest — often with contradictions and strange mixes of thoughts. The opening stanza reveals most of the narrator’s thoughts immediately:
“Before our lives divide for ever,
While time is with us and hands are free,
(Time, swift to hasten and swift to sever
Hand from hand, as we stand by the sea)
I will say no word that a man might say
Whose whole life’s love goes down in a day;
For this could never have been; and never,
Though the gods and the years relent, shall be” [Poems and Ballads & Atalanta in Calydon, p. 29]
The narrator was in a romantic relationship that fell apart, but recognizes that it “could never have been” — could not last — and will never regain its status in the future. The narrator clearly states the relationship was of great importance, his “whole life’s love,” but as the title implies, time triumphs — and inevitably causes all love to disappear, to atrophy. The narrator, after all, believes that time is “swift to sever / Hand from hand.”
The narrator throughout the poem states in various ways how great his grief is and claims it will never dissipate. Not quite half-way through the poem, the narrator rhetorically asks:
“Have the high gods anything left to give,
Save dust and laurels and gold and sand?
Which gifts are goodly; but I will none” (p. 34).
The gods may have these gifts with are “goodly,” but he desires “none” of them now. Right after this claim, he makes another, similar claim:
“O all fair lovers about the world,
There is none of you, none, that shall comfort me.” [p. 34]
In other words, the narrator says that no other lover could “comfort” him, could make him feel as his past lover did. The narrator makes this claim despite the implied infidelity of his lover earlier in the poem, when the narrator exclaims “O love, my love, had you loved but me!” (p. 30). Furthermore, quite late in the poem, the narrator says “I shall hate sweet music my whole life long” (p. 40), suggesting his life will inevitably be devoid of all former pleasures and that he cannot associate with anything “sweet” from then on.
The narrator continues this melodrama even to the point of wishing for the death of himself and his lover: “I wish we were dead together to-day” (p. 32). Later, he rationalizes this thought by saying:
“There are worse things waiting for men than death;
Death could not sever my soul and you,
As these have severed your soul from me” (p. 33).
The narrator implies that death cannot be worse than the grief he currently feels. He evens says:
“We shall live through seasons of sun and of snow,
And none be grievous as this to me” (p. 38).
The speaker apparently believes that the pain he currently experiences will never be topped by any another experience in his life. Nevertheless, despite all claims of current sorrows and the likelihood of continued sorrows in the future, the narrator states belief in how worthwhile romantic love is:
“Sick dreams and sad of a dull delight;
For what shall it profit when men are dead
To have dreamed, to have loved with the whole soul’s might,
To have looked for day when the day was fled?
What come what will, there is one thing worth,
To have had fair love in the life upon earth:
To have held love safe till the day grew night,
While skies had colour and lips were red.” [p. 33]
“To have had fair love” is the “one thing,” the only thing of any worth. Consequently, he can wish that he does not suffer as he does, but he still does not wish to take back what happened. He recognizes the wonderfulness of the experience and still values it, despite the pain it causes. And considerably later in the poem, due to its spiral-like structure, we find that the narrator still believes in the value of romantic love enough to advise another to believe the same:
“Give thanks for life, O brother, and death,
For the sweet last sound of her feet, her breath,
For gifts she gave you, gracious and few,
Tears and kisses, that lady of yours.” [p. 39]
Even if the gifts the lover gives are “few,” as long as they are “gracious” they are enough to make the entire process of romantic love worthwhile. The narrator essentially suggests having gratitude when given a reason for it, which certainly includes any love which works, even while acknowledging that time will eventually cause everything to deteriorate. In the end, for Swinburne, romantic love causes extreme emotions which, along with the obsession and irrationality and the grief from love’s end, grants at least one real reason for gratitude and appreciation of life.
Conceptions of Romantic Love in Pre-Raphaelite Painting and Poetry
- Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Lover of Body and Spirit
- Sir Edward Burne-Jones: Painter of the Pedestal
- Christina Rossetti: Between Love of God and Love of Man
Swinburne, Algernon Charles. Poems and Ballads & Atalanta in Calydon. New York: Penguin, 2000.