Introspection pervades Tannhauser' narration in A.C. Swinburne's "Laus Veneris." A knight of medieval legend condemned to live inside the Horsel as a lover of Venus — see Harrison's detailed description of this story — Tannhauser undergoes an interesting evolution from feeling guilty about, to embracing bodily pleasures. Early on, the shame of his hedonistic "sin" is so strong that he expresses a desire to die, using elaborate metaphors such as the following:

Ah God, that sleep with flower-sweet finger-tips
Would crush the fruit of death upon my lips;
Ah God, that death would tread the grapes of sleep
And wring their juice upon me as it drips.

In the same solemn tone, Tannhauser describes the distance between himself and other men. He effectively presents his suffering as isolated and unique.

Ah God, that I were as all souls that be,
As any herb or leaf of any tree,
As men that toil through hours of labouring light,
As bones of men under the deep sharp sea.

Outside it must be winter among men;
For at the gold bars of the gates again
I heard all night and all the hours of it
The wind's wet wings and fingers drip with rain.

However, did Swinburne intend the knight's perceived exceptional suffering to be a pun? Clearly, others have been in love before him, and the knight even alludes to them. The way he derives "pleasure out of extreme pain" makes his self-absorption seem ironic, since Tannhauser's description of his torment seems almost enjoyable in its elaborate, self-centered nature — yet how much is he truly suffering?

Yea, all she slayeth; yea, every man save me;
Me, love, thy lover that must cleave to thee
Till the ending of the days and ways of earth,
The shaking of the sources of the sea.

Me, most forsaken of all souls that fell;
Me, satiated with things insatiable;
Me, for whose sake the extreme hell makes mirth,
Yea, laughter kindles at the heart of hell.

By the end of the poem, the narrator's persistent self-indulgence make his earlier wishes for death and complaints of isolation no longer seem humble, but rather overdramatic, inauthentic, and charged with unnecessary self-pity. Although Tannhauser ultimately demonstrates a change in spirit — from repenting his lust to devoting himself wholeheartedly to it — the change is consistently self-indulgent. After all, Tannhauser may choose to give way to his "feverish famine" for the erotic, but in doing so, he chooses to live in an underground world of flames: "I know that such-like flame / Shall cleave to me for ever; yea, what care, / Albeit I burn then, having felt the same?"

Questions

1. To what extent did Swinburne intend the poem's exaggerated introspection to be a criticism of, or a recommendation for hedonism? Might a modern reader be more likely to interpret the narration as satirical rather than literal in comparison to 19th-century readers? Consider the many types of media of today (internet, television, radio, print) and the problem of sensory overload.

2. Swinburne was known for his pre-occupation with self-flagellation and problems with alcohol (Swinburne's Biography. Is the ending of the poem a representation of his personal incapability for moderation? On the other hand, is it not an inherent part of human nature to take some pleasure from pain? Tannhauser's desperation in his desire for redemption (and his subsequent failure) may be read as a cynical comment on religion. Considering religion in his other works, does Swinburne's atheism appear in "Laus Veneris"?

3. How does the knight's love — centered on bodily sensations — compare to that of Pip's love for Estella in Great Expectations, which is more concerned with ideals? Is Pip's love more or less self-absorbed? Is each character powerless to love's influence? How does the pleasure-pain principle function in the latter?

Consider the following passage, in which Pip describes his painful love:

In Mrs. Brandley's house and out of Mrs. Brandley's house, I suffered every kind and degree of torture that Estella could cause me. The nature of my relations with her, which placed me on terms of familiarity without placing me on terms of favor, conduced to my distraction. She made use of me to tease other admirers, and she turned the very familiarity between herself and me to the account of putting a constant slight on my devotion to her. If I had been her secretary, steward, half-brother, poor relation, — if I had been a younger brother of her appointed husband, — I could not have seemed to myself further from my hopes when I was nearest to her. The privilege of calling her by her name and hearing her call me by mine became, under the circumstances an aggravation of my trials; and while I think it likely that it almost maddened her other lovers, I know too certainly that it almost maddened me.

4. Marie Corelli, a well-known contemporary novelist, criticized Swinburne through the words of her character Sybil Elton in The Sorrows of Satan (1895). The character complains:

Was human nature as base and abandoned as this man declared it to be? Was there no God but Lust? Were men and women lower and more depraved in their passions and appetites than the very beasts? I mused and dreamed, — I pored over the "Laus veneris" — "Faustine" and "Anactoris," till I felt myself being dragged down to the brute-lever of the mind that conceived such outrages to decency. ["Marie Corelli's Criticism of A. C. Swinburne," 221-22]

How well does Corelli's criticism represent the widespread Victorian rejection of Swinburne's works? Did such remarks only encourage an author who regularly went out of his way to shock others? (Would Swinburne have responded, "what care [?]" in the same way as Tannhauser finally does?)


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Last modified 11 April 2009