n "Laus Veneris" (text), Swinburne explores the relationship between the femme fatale and the tragic lover. Here Swinburne speaks through the figure of the knight, the legendary Tannhauser, who believes that he has been banished from God's grace to live with his love, Venus, for all time. The Tannhauser legend presents a slightly different spin on the Pre-Raphaelite theme of tragic love; instead of the conventional parting of lovers, here the knight is doomed to live forever in the Horsel, the Venus mountain, with his goddess-love. The tragic aspect of the legend comes from the knight belief that he has lost God's grace; thus although he gains his love, he conceives of this as a sin.
Swinburne presents this paradox of fulfillment and loss through the paired images of Heaven and Hell, desire and death. The narrator blurs the distinction between passion and pain. He has attained a lover's dream, life with his love and yet, he describes Horsel in hellish terms:
Hot as the brackish waifs of yellow spume
That shift and steam — loose clots of arid fume
From the sea's panting mouth of dry desire.
The verses show an almost troubling preoccupation with the marks of physical love. The narrator begins with a description of the mark his love has left upon his lover's neck: "... for her neck,/ Kissed over close, wears yet a purple speck/"
Moreover, the knight once had a mission, God's mission, but his love has diverted him from his divine task. Although the knight lingeringly describes their lovemaking in a way that evokes consumption, he returns again and again to descriptions of his mouth and his lips on her neck and her mouth. However, it seems that it is not her but rather, him, that has been consumed in love. Later in the poem he questions:
There is a feverish famine in my veins;
Below her bosom, where a crushed grape stains
The white and blue, there my lips caught and clove
An hour since, and what mark of me remains?
In entering love's embrace, and the narrator does so literally given that Venus is the embodiment of love, the knight loses his own identity.
The source of the knight's dilemma lies in his apparent inability to reconcile spiritual and physical love. For pursuing physical desire and love, the knight believes himself banished from spiritual mercy and love. At the end of the poem, the knight resigns himself to his fate:
Ah love, there is no better life than this;
To have known love, how bitter a thing it is,
And afterward be cast out of God's sight;
Yea, these that know not, shall they have such bliss.
Ultimately, the knight embraces the paradoxical nature of his love. Love is bitterness and love is bliss.
Swinburne presents the knight's love with a variety of paradoxical images. The knight physically devours his love and yet, he is also being consumed in that he loses his own identity. Venus is a goddess, whose divine love the knight gains, yet at the same time, he loses God's grace. And again, he is in paradise, Horsel, yet he conceives of this as hell. Do other members of the PRB share this interest in opposition? How do other Pre-Raphaelites explore the theme of tragic love? Is this tragic?
Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market" also explores the themes of physical and a higher love. Both Swinburne's knight and Christina Rossetti's sisters experience love as consumption: Lizzy's goblin fruit with their sweet juices is echoed in the knight's sucking his love's neck. Why do they describe physical love in such terms? Is this a Victorian conceit or a Pre-Raphaelite concern?
Swinburne maintains a strict rhyming structure throughout this rather lengthy poem. Yet the narrator is anything but convinced, much of the poem consists of him rambling between his present regret and past passions, his former life as God's knight and his future confinement to Horsel. How does the formal structure frame the wandering narrative?
At the end of the poem, the knight resigns himself to his fate and indeed, claims that his love is all the sweeter because of all the pain it causes him. Can we take the knight at face value? Does this reflect Swinburne and the Pre-Raphaelite understanding of love?
- The Devouring Woman in Swinburne's "Laus Veneris"
- The Eroticism of Leprosy and Romantic Obsession in A.C Swinburne's "Laus Veneris" and "The Leper"
- Laus Veneris: The Poem and the Painting
Last modified 30 October 2006