In 1868, Walter Pater published a review of not in print version William Morris's first three volumes of poetry. Five years later a revised version of his essay became the famous "Conclusion" to The Renaissance. In its original version the review focuses not only on Morris' poems but also on a constellation of literary, historical, and philosophical issues as relevant to any serious discussion of Swinburne's medievalist poetry as to analyses of Morris' Defence of Guenevere volume, The life and Death of Jason, and The Earthly Paradise. Pater sees Morris as a model of significant new developments in contemporary literary practice; these encourage Pater finally to propound the aestheticist values that conclude his review essay and The Renaissance.

His initial concern here is the emergence in his own day of "a higher degree of passion in literature," which is one crucial aspect of "the sudden pre-occupation with things mediaeval." He is especialy intrigued by the mystic "mood of the cloister" first displayed by Dante and Saint Louis, who formulate a "stricter, imaginative mediaevalism which recreates the mind of the middle age." In Pater's own era the mood has become a "profounder[156/157] mediaevalism," in which "religion shades into sensuous love and sensuous love into religion" (104-105).

Like Swinburne in his early medievalist poems and essays, as well as in the medievalist not in print version works of 1866, Pater returns to twelfth-century France to discuss the topoi, the atmosphere, and the effects of the new "medievalist" love poetry.

As before in the cloister, so now in the [medieval] chateau . . . earthly love enters, and becomes a prolonged somnambulism. Of religion it learns the art of directing towards an imaginary object sentiments whose natural direction is toward objects of sense. Hence a love defined by the absence of the beloved, choosing to be without hope, protesting against all lower uses of love, barren, extravagant, antinomian. It is the love which is incompatible with marriage, for the chevalier who never comes, of the serf for the chatelaine, the rose for the nightingale, of Rudel for the lady of Tripoli. Another element of extravagance came in with the feudal spirit: Provençal love is full of the very forms of vassalage. To be the servant of love, to have offended, to taste the subtle luxury of chastisement, of reconciliation-the religious spirit, too, knows that, and meets just there . . . the delicacies of earthly love. Here, under this strange complex of conditions, as in some medicated air, exotic flowers of sentiment expand, among people of a remote and unaccustomed beauty, somnambulistic, frail, androgynous, the light almost shining through them. [106-107]

Derivative in diction, tone, and effect from Swinburne's 1862 review of Baudelaire, this passage could well serve to describe in catalog form, the frequent situations, moods, and concerns of Queen Yseult, Rosamond, Chastelard, "Laus Veneris," "The Leper," "St. Dorothy," and Tristram of Lyonesse, as well as many of Swinburne's non-medievalist love poems, such as Atalanta in Calydon, "The Triumph of Time," "Anactoria," and "Hermaphroditus." Pater even extends his discussion to include remarks on the solipsistic relationship between man and the world of external nature, an issue of special importance, as we have seen, in Swinburne's later medievalist (and non-medievalist) poetry. In these works nature appears to be governed by the same fatal but ultimately beneficent laws and to be compelled by the same [157/158] inescapable passions that dominate men and women. Pater remarks upon the "wild, convulsed sensuousness in the poetry of the middle age . . . in which the things of nature begin to play a delirious part. Of the things of nature the mediaeval mind had a deep sense; but its sense of them was not objective, no real escape to the world without one. The aspects and motions of nature only reinforced its prevailing mood, and were in conspiracy with one's own brain.... A single sentiment invaded the world; everything was infused with a motive drawn from the soul" (108).

Such observations suggest not only the solipsism but also, by their tone, the fatalism of the medieval world view as Pater understood it, and, of course, as Swinburne interpreted it repeatedly in his poetry, but with special emphasis in Tristram and The Tale of Balen. As Pater insists later in his essay, "the bloom of the world . . . gives new seduction" to an emphasis on mutability: "the sense of death and the desire of beauty; the desire of beauty quickened by the sense of death" (113).

Thus, the general characteristics of not in print version Pre-Raphaelite medievalist love poetry, which Pater announces in his deliberately expansive and philosophical review of Morris, also consistently apply to Swinburne's — and much of Rossetti's — medievalist poetry. Despite the frequent similarities in subject matter, mood, tone, and technique, however, Swinburne must finally be seen as more coherently, systematically, and overtly philosophical in his medievalist poems than is either Morris or Rossetti. Morris' emphasis in his early medievalist poems is often brutally realistic; in his later medievalist works it is, equally often, self-consciously escapist. Rossetti's use of medieval settings and topoi is, throughout his career, largely ornamental and tangential to the communication of philosophical ideas. The fundamental purpose of Swinburne's "medievalizing" — to communicate a coherent and firmly held vision of the world, a system of historical, social, moral, and spiritual values-more closely resembles the purpose of his non-Pre-Raphaelite medievalizing contemporaries. But the vision and values [158/159] embodied in medievalist works by not in print version Tennyson, not in print version Arnold, not in print version Carlyle, not in print version Ruskin, and writers of the not in print version Oxford movement, for instance, are entirely antithetical to Swinburne's in their essential conservatism. The unyielding and radical Romantic libertarianism (and humanitarianism) of Swinburne's medievalist poems is one characteristic that distinguishes his works.

An equally pervasive and equally distinctive characteristic is what Pater calls the "desire of beauty." The wisest men, according to Pater's concluding words, spend their lives "in art and song," generating "high passions" that evoke a "quickened sense of life, ecstacy and sorrow of love, political or religious enthusiasm, or the 'enthusiasm of humanity'" 1116). Such passions characterize the origins and effects, the substance and the style of Swinburne's medievalist poems, the function of whose historical settings and topoi are also helpfully explained by Pater:

The composite experience of all the ages is part of each one of us; to deduct from that experience, to obliterate any part of it, to come face to face with the people of a past age . . . is as impossible as to become a little child, or enter again into the womb and be born. But though it is not possible to repress a single phase of that humanity, which, because we live and move and have our being in the life of humanity, makes us what we are; it is possible to isolate such a phase, to throw it into relief.... We cannot conceive the age; we can conceive the element it has contributed to our culture; we can treat the subjects of the age bringing that into relief. [111]

For Swinburne the element that the medieval age contributed to our culture was rich and complex. But, as we have seen, the late Middle Ages especially served Swinburne as a historical paradigm, a premodern period of relatively simple though conflicting political, social, religious, and amatory values that gave birth to great myths of love. Such myths and the art that embodies them powerfully expose all important aspects of the tragic human condition and its ultimate beauty.

Late in his career Swinburne's emphasis, as in The Tale of Balen, is on the essential brotherhood of mankind. Such brotherhood results from all men's tragic, because inevitably frustrated, experience of life's potential for spiritual fulfillment through love relationships and communion with nature. As Swinburne matured, his important poetry became less erotic and sadomasochistic, less iconoclastic, and concerned less with the divisions between men than with the common [159/160] experiences that unite them. The movement of his love poetry's dominant philosophical concerns — from eros to caritas — reflects that development. His initial sympathies with the special individual in conflict with society and tortured by frustrated passion, expanded to include all individuals in society who blindly suffer erotic unfulfillment and inevitably endure impassioned political, religious, and amatory conflict. Increasingly, too, in all his poems sympathy and communion with nature (which is in harmony with the ostensible disharmony of men's lives) provide temporary solace and fulfillment, as does art that memorializes human tragedies of love and conflict. Yet, throughout his career, more consistently and successfully than any other distinct group of works by Swinburne, his medievalist poems demonstrate his irrepressible desire to memorialize and beatify the tragic life of humanity, in which we all live and move and have our being.

References

All quotations from Pater's essay are cited from James Sambrook's edition of it in Pre-Raphaelitism: A Collection of Critical Essays (Chicago, 1974), 105-17. Sambrook reprints the original text from Westminister Review, n.s., xxxiv (1868), 300-312, rather than the abridged version that appeared in Pater's (1889). Page numbers appear in parentheses after quotations.


Victorian Website Overview A. C. Swinburne Walter Pater William Morris Next

Last modified June 2000