In Algernon Charles Swinburne's dramatic monologue "Anactoria," the ancient Greek lyric poet Sappho meditates on the relative values of carnal love and artistic immortality. Sappho opens by describing the carnal pleasures she has shared with her lover and the pain her lover's rejection has caused her:

I feel thy blood against my blood; my pain
Pains thee, and lips bruise lips, and vein stings vein.
Let fruit be crushed on fruit, let flower on flower
Breast kindle breast, and either burn one hour.
Why wilt thou follow lesser loves? are thine
Too weak to bear these hands and lips of mine?

Swinburne presents Sappho's love as intensely sensual, or "fleshly," as Robert Buchanan might have said. He develops a vision of carnal love as fierce, all-consuming, and simultaneously painful and pleasurable. However, her lover's rejection has deprived her of this supreme earthly pleasure. Thus, as the monologue continues, Sappho attempts to console herself with the thought that love cannot escape death:

[...] Those herds of his
Who laugh and live a little, and their kiss
Contents them, and their loves are swift and sweet,
And sure death grasps and gains them with slow feet.

Love, however sensual and pleasurable, exists within the confines of a mortal lifetime. "Sure death" will prevail over it eventually, just as Sappho's neglectful beloved will eventually experience death and oblivion. Sappho, however, will long outlive both the beloved and their physical love:

"Thee too the years shall cover; thou shalt be
As the rose born of one same blood with thee,
As a song sung, as a word said, and fall
Flower-wise, and be not any more at all,
Nor any memory of thee anywhere;
For never Muse has bound above thine hair
The high Pierian flower whose graft outgrows
All summer kinship of the mortal rose
[ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .]
Yea, thou shalt be forgotten like spilt wine,
Except these kisses of my lips on thine
Brand them with immortality; but me --
Men shall not see bright fire nor hear the sea,
Nor mix their hearts with music, nor behold
Cast forth of heaven, with feet of awful gold
And plumeless wings that make the right air blind,
Lightning, with thunder for a hound behind
Hunting through fields unfurrowed and unsown
But in the light and laughter, in the moan
And music, and in grasp of lip and hand
And shudder of water that makes felt on land
The immeasurable tremor of all the sea,
Memories shall mix and metaphors of me."

After her death, Sappho's beloved will gain only a secondhand immortality as a name mentioned in Sappho's poetry. Her afterlife survival depends on Sappho's willingness to "brand" her "kisses" with immortality. By contrast, Sappho has been favored by the Muses (who lived in Pieria) and thus has the ability not only to write great poetry that will survive forever, but also to fundamentally change people's way of seeing. Sappho's poetry will insinuate itself into the human imagination to such an extent that people will see lightning, fire, and a host of other things only through Sappho's rhetoric and on Sappho's terms. To this extent, Sappho's poetic achievement endows her with a supreme immortality.

Questions

1. The contrast of transitory earthly pleasure with the eternal afterlife reminds us of Christina Rossetti's "The Convent Threshold," in which Rossetti's speaker urges her beloved to abandon carnal pleasures so that he can gain the greater and more durable pleasures of heaven. This poem presents a similar dichotomy, but invokes artistic, rather than spiritual, immortality as the alternative to worldly joys. Swinburne thus replaces the Christian afterlife of heaven with the secular afterlife of artistic immortality. Why might Swinburne have done this, and what effects result from this choice?

2. One might label "Anactoria" as a metapoem, a poem about poetry, although it also has other major themes. Most of the previous poetry we have read was not specifically about poetry, though we have read poems, such as Tennyson's "Palace of Art," which concerned visual art. Was Swinburne unique in the Pre-Raphaelite circle in his use of metatextuality? What significance does it have for his overall aesthetic?

3. Sappho's argument that poetic achievement takes precedence over worldly pleasures seems applicable to Swinburne himself, who, as a poet, might have hoped for a similar immortality for his own poems. However, this being a dramatic monologue, we might expect that the poet does not entirely agree with his speaker. To what extent do Sappho's views on poetry reflect Swinburne's own views? Is there enough biographical information available to answer this question?

4. How does "Anactoria" reflect upon Swinburne's religious beliefs? Given the references to Venus and the use of an ancient Greek poet as the speaker, could we label "Anactoria" as a pagan poem?


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Last modified 5 November 2004