Unlike the relatively sedate lives of his fellow Pre-Raphaelites, Swinburne's was characterized by his delight in shocking his contemporaries with his explorations into homosexuality and masochism. Indeed Rossetti apparently had to reprimand Swinburne for his sliding down the banisters of their house naked with his boyfriend (also equally nude) and thereby disturbing Rossetti's painting. Swinburne's explorations into sexually deviant spaces continue in his poetry. In "Anactoria" Swinburne explores homosexual tragic love. Here, he speaks through the persona of Sappho, the Classical lesbian poetess hailed by Plato as the Tenth Muse (Wikipedia). Sappho is contemplative, a woman and speaks about tragic love, however she is unlike any other Pre-Raphaelite woman we have thus far encountered.
In "Anactoria", Sappho explores the by-now familiar Swinburnian preoccupation with physical love and consumption. Preoccupation may, perhaps be an understatement; she obsesses about her love, a love that she presents as poisonous and destructive. She begins with the assertion:
My life is bitter with thy love; thine eyes
Blind me, thy tresses burn me, thy sharp sighs
Divide my flesh and spirit with soft sound,
And my blood strengthens, and my veins abound.
I pray thee sigh not, speak not, draw not breath;
Let life burn down, and dream it is not death.
For Sappho, the experience of love equates to that of dying. It is bitter, blinding and burning. Whereas she herself feels the painful effects of love, she also wishes to extend death to her love: "I would my love could kill thee." Sappho would rather her love die rather than she love another. This statement stems from jealousy and obsession. However, it is necessary to look closer at Sappho's construction of death:
That I could drink they veins as wine, and eat
Thy breasts like honey! that from face to feet
Thy body were abolished and consumed,
And in my flesh thy very flesh entombed!
Sappho would consume her love and hereby become one with her love. She explains this later in the poem when she continues:
Yea, though thou diest, I say I shall not die.
For these shall give me of their souls, shall give
Life, and the days and loves wherewith I live,
Shall quicken me with loving, fill with breath,
Save me and serve me, strive for me with death.
By devouring and consuming her love, in other words, by internalizing this love, Sappho grants love immortality. Through her voice and her verse, Sappho triumphs over this love, the very love that is consuming her she in turn consumes and transmutes into something lasting and beautiful. Men enter the poem as admirers of Sappho, through whom Sappho, and the tale of her love, shall live again. Ultimately, obsessive physical love is destructive but in the destruction exist both immortality and beauty.
The figures of the tragic lover and the contemplative woman are familiar in other Pre-Raphaelite works. Swinburne offers a twist on this figure in Sappho, who is defiantly not silent and also strangely physical. Is Sappho then, an anomaly? Does this figure of the powerful all-consuming female lover appear in other PRB works and in what capacity? Moreover, the artistic soul was presented by the Victorians as a woman. Sappho was much admired as a poetess. Does Swinburne allude to the artistic soul in "Anactoria"?
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 this repetition? The images of blood, pain, lips, vein and breast are very physical yet Swinburne/Sappho mixes this up with fruit and flower, which are more abstract symbols, perhaps representing physical and pure love respectively. Whereas Swinburne/Sappho continues to explore more complex, less ostensible images in these lines the image is explicit. Why then, this surprising explicitness?
In the last few lines of "Anactoria", Sappho writes, "Last year when I loved Atthis, and this year/ When I love thee." What? Given that the poem is a dramatic monologue, what does this insertion of another love, Atthis, allow the reader to question? Sappho is ostensibly wildly and painfully in love with the subject of the poem, not Atthis. Does this mention of Atthis cause us, the reader, to question the depth of Sappho's love for another?
"Sappho." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia . Viewed 7 November 2006.
Last modified 7 November 2006