In "Dolores," Swinburne describes a holy virgin-like deity, whom he addresses as "Our Lady of Pain." Swinburne quickly establishes that this particularly lady causes much suffering, describing her as having a "red mouth like a venomous flower" and "hands that reach heaven from hell," and further explaining,

O lips full of lust and of laughter,
Curled snakes that are fed from my breast,
Bite hard, lest remembrance come after
And press with new lips where you pressed.
For my heart too springs up at the pressure,
Mine eyelids too moisten and burn;
Ah, feed me and fill me with pleasure,
               Ere pain come in turn.

This passage makes clear that her "sins, which are seventy times seven" and will bear on her forever are carnal sins, sins of pleasure. Thus, the Lady of Pain presents a contradiction: she brings both the greatest pleasures in life and, according the Catholic tradition, the greatest punishments. Swinburne, then, criticizes a tradition in which "virtues are vices," which bans the most inevitable and human urges, those which bring the greatest pleasure but which must, according to the faith, bring the greatest pain.

Swinburne points out, however, that this particular lady, a mockery of Holy Mary, has done what others have been unable to do: she has brought true wisdom to her followers.

Ah thy people, thy children, thy chosen,
Marked cross from the womb and perverse!
They have found out the secret to cozen
The gods that constrain us and curse;
They alone, they are wise, and none other;
Give me place, even me, in their train,
O my sister, my spouse, and my mother,
               Our Lady of Pain.

In a sense, her followers also mimic the story of Adam and Eve. God told them not to eat of the fruit of wisdom, but temptation led them astray. Though they left Paradise, however, they gained knowledge and wisdom. In the same way, though the Church tells its followers to stay away from the temptation the Lady of Pain poses, those who follow her, though they meet with agony, find true wisdom. The stanza preceding the above quoted alludes to this story:

All thine the new wine of desire,
The fruit of four lips as they clung
Till the hair and the eyelids took fire,
The foam of a serpentine tongue,
The froth of the serpents of pleasure,
More salt than the foam of the sea,
Now felt as a flame, now at leisure
               As wine shed for me.

The use of words such as "desire," "the fruit," the "serpentine tongue," the "serpents of pleasure" all make allusions to the Bible, while the salty taste and the flame show the supposed downfall. All of this, however, leads to the "secret to cozen the gods." Swinburne, then, gives her great powers, though his presentation of her makes it clear that religion would have her and her followers condemned.

Discussion Questions

1. What symbols does Swinburne use in this poem that he commonly uses in other poems as well? Do they carry the same significance?

2. In this work, the poet at times addresses the Lady directly, with questions and statements such as "Could you hurt me, sweet lips, though I hurt you?" and "I could hurt thee - but pain would delight thee." What is the role of the poet and his relationship with the Lady of Pain?

3. Swinburne makes many allusions to various characters throughout the poem, such as Libitina, Priapus, Alciphron, Arisbe and Thalassian. What does this say about the audience he wrote for?

4. How does Swinburne describe the Lady of Pain in comparison to other gods? What message do his descriptions further?


Victorian Web Main Overview A. C. Swinburne Aesthetes & Decadents Leading Questions

Last modified 13 April 2009