ove takes new form in Swinburne's "Félise." Here, the speaker rejects the conventional Pre-Raphaelite idealization of love, instead informing Félise that their love is dead, never to reawaken. Unlike typical tales in which lovers surrender to their passions and are thus doomed to death or great suffering, the doomed subject in this poem is love itself. Throughout the poem, the speaker offers many rationalizations of why love, like all other things, must someday die — as his love for Félise lives no more.
Swinburne sets the poem in a space of memory; it begins in a field familiar to the ex-lovers, a place where they once loved each other. This immediately sets up an opposition between the speaker's past feelings and his feelings now.
What shall be said between us here
Among the downs, between the trees,
In fields that knew our feet last year,
In sight of quiet sands and seas,
This year, Félise?
Although this opening stanza evokes a sense of something lost, it does not reveal the speaker's precise feelings toward Félise. The speaker does not disclose his complete rejection of Félise's love until the fourth stanza, when he concedes that all love "Ends in a laugh, a dream, a kiss, / A song like this." After this admission, the speaker's tone toward Félise grows progressively harsher, exemplified by the lines, "My heart will never ache or break / For your heart's sake." Though it is natural for people to fall out of love, the speaker seems to have fallen to an extreme state in which he has ceased to care for Félise at all. The speaker's severe attitude toward Félise culminates in a strikingly cold farewell to her at the poem's conclusion:
Live and let live, as I will do,
Love and let love, and so will I.
But, sweet, for me no more with you:
Not while I live, not though I die.
Swinburne creates a contrast between life and death, past and present, loving and ceasing to love, through the use of parallels. Often, he illustrates these parallels with images of nature. He compares "green May" to "last year's leaves", which "lie dead and red". He also compares Félise to the sea, recalling how he once considered her more beautiful than the sea, yet now prefers the sea.
The speaker again uses descriptions of the sea to explain how love, once dead, is dead forever: "No diver brings up love again / Dropped once, my beautiful Félise, / In such cold seas." But how is such love dropped in the first place? The answer, it seems, is in forgetting.
As afternoon forgets the dew,
As time in time forgets all men,
As our old place forgets us two,
Who might have turned to one thing then,
But not again.
Throughout the poem, the speaker equates forgetting with death, and he thus encourages Félise to forget the feelings she has for him. Just as he now associates "old memories" with "the ghosts of words and dusty dreams", the speaker urges Félise to do the same, to "let all dead things lie dead" — "for man dies, and love also dies."
1. Is Félise an example of an empowered or a disempowered female figure? How do the speaker's attitudes toward Félise contrast with Swinburne's attitudes about love? What might this signify about Félise?
2. For much of the poem, the speaker attacks the idea of physical, sensual love, but near the end of the poem, he also attacks the concept of spiritual love, claiming that prayers are never answered and that there is no proof that any gods exist. The speaker is not criticizing the same weaknesses in each case, so how might they relate to each other?
3. By the speaker's own arguments, has his and Félise's love truly ended? What statement might Swinburne be making about the act of artistic creation?
4. How does "Félise" compare to Christina Rossetti's "Song"?
5. Poems and Ballads, in which Félise first appeared, also contains Swinburne's better-known "The Triumph of Time." Do you see any connection between the two, and, if so, why didn't Swinburne pair them as he did "A Ballad of Life" and "A Ballad of Death," which he placed one after the other. [GPL]