Algernon Charles Swinburne's dramatic and lyrical poem "Laus Veneris" and Edward Burne-Jones's subsequent painting of the same title were created within 4 years of each other, the poem in 1866 and the painting between 1873 and 1878. Swinburne's "Laus Veneris," whose Latin title translates to "the praise of Venus or love," is based on the theme of Tannhauser (RPO). In the legend, the young knight Tannhauser falls in love with Venus and lives with her in her subterranean home until he becomes filled with remorse. He escapes her snares and travels to Rome to ask Pope Urban if he could be absolved of his sins. The Pope declares it impossible, just as impossible as his papal staff blossoming. Three days after Tannhauser returns to Vienna, the Pope's staff supposedly bloomed with flowers, but the knight never learns of this divine miracle and spends his life in damnation. Throughout the poem the speaker bemoans his own enslavement to love, or this damnation, such as in this case: "Alas thy beauty! for thy mouth's sweet sake/ My soul is bitter to me, my limbs quake." His addiction to physical love and sensuality also reflects the idea of Venus's dangerous beauty, for according to the legend Venus lures Tannhauser by bathing in the woods. Swinburne's poem contains rich descriptions of atmosphere as well as the inner workings of the speaker's mind and his idea of love, which all reflect the loss of this love.
According to Julia Cartwright, Burne-Jones incorporated some of the details from Swinburne's poem into his painting, while Swinburne was able to see the watercolor version of Burne-Jones's painting, yet to be completed. Burne-Jones's Laus Veneris shares the same mood of sadness, particularly in the eyes and the languid gesture of the love-sick queen. The painter depicts her beautifully attired in flame colored robes with a golden crown on her lap, yet her sad and pale expression contrasts her splendor. She reclines wearily in her bower, the "palace in the mountain," hung with an elaborate tapestry embroidered with love tales of olden times, featuring Venus on a chariot. Four maidens sit by her side with open scrolls of music, singing praises of love to cheer her up. Behind the figures and through the open window, there are five knights who seem to pause and listen, intruigued by the scene. This scene appears in Swinburne's description:
Knights gather, riding sharp for cold; I know
The ways and woods are strangled with the snow;
And with short song the maidens spin and sit
Until Christ's birthnight, lily-like, arow.
Certain stanzas in Swinburne's poem seem to directly connect to the painter's choices and inclusion of detail in this manner, capturing the overall tone of love sick sadness. The claustrophobic atmosphere of the "Horsel," or Venus's palace, presented in the poem: "Inside the Horsel here the air is hot;/ Right little peace one hath for it, God wot;" shows in the tight composition of this scene. The tapestry's elaborate scene seems to compete with the presence of the ten figures, creating a crowded composition. The glowing red tones and sumptuous coloring, for which the painting received much praise, appears in these stanzas:
Her little chambers drip with flower-like red,
Her girdles, and the chaplets of her head,
Her armlets and her anklets; with her feet
She tramples all that winepress of the dead.
Her gateways smoke with fume of flowers and fires,
With loves burnt out and unassuaged desires;
Between her lips the steam of them is sweet,
The languor in her ears of many lyres.
1. Presented in the form of a dramatic monologue, the poet conveys the tone of sadness and dark farewells through the speaker's laments of love and life (Ash). Similar to the techniques employed Browning and Rossetti, we are not made completely aware of the story and in "Laus Veneris," the very first stanza presents this complexity:
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.
Do we know whether the the speaker describes his lady asleep or dead? How does this give a rather sinister undertone to the poem? Do his other descriptions reveal any indication?
2. The language and word choice throughout the entire poem reveal the speaker's obsession with physical love and sexuality, such as:
Alas! for sorrow is all the end of this.
O sad kissed mouth, how sorrowful it is!
O breast whereat some suckling sorrow clings,
Red with the bitter blossom of a kiss!
He also speaks of love and desire as a fire consuming him, comparing it to the "wild ways of the sea" and "exceeding pleasure out of extreme pain." How does Burne Jones's Laus Veneris, convey this overwhelming sensuality? What does the painting reveal by depicting a love-sick woman, versus the clearly love-sick male speaker of the poem? Whose version of love is conveyed?
3. Although Burne Jones's Laus Veneris cannot be viewed as an exact illustration accompanying the poem, the tapestry-like surface of the painting reflects the tapestry of emotions contained in the speaker's telling of the tale. Could the contrast of the living figures to those woven with threads parallel the contrast of reality to the speaker's incongruous words? How else might the painting show this?
4. Due to his fascination with this period, many of Swinburn's poems are written in a distinctly medieval tone, in consideration of style, language and construction. How does this connect with Burne-Jones's style of painting-- how do his versions of medieval romantic scenes compare with Swinburne's?
5. How might another PRB artist, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti have depicted this same subject? Would his version have been more sensual? How might his painting have differed?
Ash, Russell. Sir Edward Burne-Jones. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1993
Cartwright, Julia Mary. The life and work of Sir Edward Burne-Jones. London : Art Journal Office, 1894.
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Last modified 31 March 2014