Alegernon Charles Swinburne's "A Cameo" briefly describes six themes as figures in an image or painting. This fourteen line poem acts as a literary cameo (defined as a brief vivid depiction) in which the reader is quickly introduced to six weighty themes. Swinburne describes the strong feelings of Desire, Pain, Pleasure, Satiety and Hate as physically tormented figures of a mortal world. The suffering characters are all standing together in a space that is close to yet barred off from Death. Death rests behind a locked gate that will only let these tortured emotions in "peradventure" or by chance. Only death can free the strong human feelings of desire, pain, pleasure, satiety and hate from their pain.
There was a graven image of Desire
Painted with red blood on a ground of gold
Passing between the young men and the old,
And by him Pain, whose body shone like fire,
And Pleasure with gaunt hands that grasped their hire.
Of his left wrist, with fingers clenched and cold,
The insatiable Satiety kept hold,
Walking with feet unshod that pashed the mire.
The senses and the sorrows and the sins,
And the strange loves that suck the breasts of Hate
Till lips and teeth bite in their sharp indenture,
Followed like beasts with flap of wings and fins.
Death stood aloof behind a gaping grate,
Upon whose lock was written Peradventure.
1. In Swinburne's dramatic monologue "Anactoria," the narrator, Sappho, describes her tormented life addressing all of the emotions personified in "A Cameo." Sappho, suffering greatly the departure of her beloved, explicitly feels desire, pain, pleasure, satiation and hate. At the very end of the poem, the author describes her own death as perhaps the only way to completely rid herself of her hell on earth. The freedom of death described by Sappho consists not of a happier afterlife or a possible revenge, but rather, death provides only a state of numb nothingness.
Till supreme sleep shall bring me bloodless ease;
Till time wax faint in all his periods;
Till fate undo the bondage of the gods,
And lay, to slake and satiate me all through,
Lotus and Lethe on my lips like dew,
And shed around and over and under me
Thick darkness and the insuperable sea
This drawn-out 304-line dramatic monologue presents death as an appealing escape similarly to tempting presentation of death in the 14 line "A Cameo." These two poems use such dramatically different poetic techniques to address very similar themes. Is one style of poetry more effective than the other in addressing these sensational themes?
2. Swinburne does not go into much detail as to location or time for these male figures but he does state that they are represented in image-form. This enigmatic scene of anguished men standing idly is reminiscent of Edward Burne-Jones's mysterious Souls on the Banks of the River Styx. Was Swinburne influenced by Virgil's Aeneid or Burne-Jones's painting or was this scene completely the creation of Swinburne's imagination?
3. How does Swinburne's interpretation of a state of complete nothingness after death compare to PRB artists' and poets' interpretations of life after death? Specifically compare Swinburne's ideas to the conceptions of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Christina Rossetti.
Last modified 5 November 2004