decorated initial 'W'hereas Tennyson and Browning's elegiac themes of unrequited love use figurative language and veiled references, Algernon Charles Swinburne's open representations of sexuality undercut Victorian aesthetic conventions. Swinburne's portrayal of overt bodily imagery and sexual themes conflicts with cultural values of order, rationality, and spirituality. In "Laus Veneris," Swinburne depicts the animalistic side of human nature, that which is instinctual and physical. The opening image of lips sucking blood blurs the boundary between human and non-human. The poem reflects a Decadent fascination with the sublime, an experience in which pleasure and pain, beauty and terror exist simultaneously. Like a typical decadent, the speaker in this passage is dominated by a passion for sin and a desire to experience new sensations. The poet reworks classical depictions of Venus and Adonis to fit his theme of unrestrained lust. The figures of Venus and Adonis are usually rendered in a state of unproductive stasis, whereas Swinburne endows them with sexual potency and activity. In Swinburne's portrayal, Venus exhibits a raging appetite rather than a passive love for Adonis. In another passage, the male subject expresses a masochistic longing to be devoured by a female Medusa:

For she lies, laughing low with love; she lies
And turns his kisses on her lips to sighs,
To sighing sound of lips unsatisfied,
And the sweet tears are tender with her eyes.

Ah, not as they, but as the souls that were
Slain in the old time, having found her fair;
Who, sleeping with her lips upon their eyes,
Heard sudden serpents hiss across her hair.

Their blood runs round the roots of time like rain:
She casts them forth and gathers them again;
With nerve and bone she weaves and multiplies
Exceeding pleasure out of extreme pain.

It is clear that Swinburne's provactive images convey the sexual themes of the poem. How does he also use language to convey sensuality? What other poet(s) use similar techniques?

What are recurring images of eyelids and lips supposed to signify?

What are the implications of the Medusa reference? How does the oedipal complex function in this poem? How do the roles of sexual dominance and passivity oscillate between genders throughout the poem?

Is the female specifically associated with notions of excess and extremes?

What is Swinburne's attitude toward decadent sexual practices that are perverse and masochistic?


Victorian Web Main Overview A. C. Swinburne Aesthetes & Decadents Leading Questions

Last modified 5 November 2003