A poet not known for his subtlety, Algernon Charles Swinburne used his works to attack the dominating beliefs of his time. In "Laus Veneris," Swinburne sets out to rid readers of falsely ideal conceptions of the Middle Ages while simultaneously attacking the conservative materialism that abounded in the Victorian era. He uses language that evokes images of the Middle Ages to tell a tale of tragic love and the destruction of religious conviction:

Hélas trop malheureux homme et mauldict pescheur, oncques ne verrai-je clémence et miséricorde de Dieu. Ores m'en irai-je d'icy et me cacherai dedans le mont Horsel, en requérant de faveur et d'amoureuse merci ma doulce dame Vénus, car pour son amour serai-je bien tout jamais damné en enfer.

Here, the knight grieves the loss of his faith while at the same time proclaiming that he would willingly spend eternity in the fires of hell if only Venus would bestow her love upon him. Tannhauser experiences a collapse of faith and erotic love appears to fill the void left by his fall from God's grace:

Ah love, there is no better life than this;
To have known love, how bitter a thing it is,
And afterward be cast out of God's sight;
Yea, these that know not, shall they have such bliss

Tannhauser's preoccupation with Venus and the earthly pleasures that she can provide supersedes his devotion to the Christian faith. Swinburne ensures that Christianity emerges the loser in this crisis of identity. Tannhauser is no longer defined by his devotion to God, but instead by his obsession with Venus. Swinburne leaves the reader with a tarnished image of the Middle Ages as well as with questions regarding the value of love versus that of religious conviction.

Discussion Questions

1. In many of his works, Swinburne addresses the transient nature of love. In "Laus Veneris", Tannhauser sacrifices everything to spend his life with Venus. At the end of the poem, do you think the knight still believes the trade was worthwhile?

2. Images of animals are very common throughout "Laus Veneris":

Curled like a tiger's that curl back to feed;
Red only where the last kiss made them bleed;
Her hair most thick with many a carven gem,
Deep in the mane, great-chested, like a steed.

What do these images contribute to the tone of the poem?

3. In what ways do Tannhauser's descriptions of his relationship with Venus resemble that which exists between Laura and the goblins in Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market"?

4. Tannhauser seems to engage in sadomasochistic acts with Venus. Swinburne depicts their love as dark and hurtful. The very first stanza sets the tone for their relationship:

Asleep or waking is it? for her neck,
Kissed over close, wears yet a purple speck
Wherein the pained blood falters and goes out;
Soft, and stung softly — fairer for a fleck.

Were these practices common in the Victorian age or did Swinburne use this as a device to demonize the Middle Ages?


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Last modified 8 April 2009