In "A Forsaken Garden," Swinburne explores the relationship between the fleeting passage of love and the relentless passage of time. By painting a bleak picture of an abandoned "ghost of a garden," Swinburne begins by establishing Time's unyielding hold upon all that is man-made — including love.
Throughout the poem, Swinburne repeatedly refers to the rose, a symbol of love. However, just as a rose cannot escape wilt and decay, love cannot escape elimination by time. Even the "weeds that grew green from the graves of its roses" have also died, and the thorns "that are touched not of time" stand as the last remnants of this once-voluptuous flower. In the sixth stanza, Swinburne contemplates the imagined words of a dead lover:
Heart handfast in heart as they stood, 'Look thither,'
Did he whisper ? 'look forth from the flowers to the sea;
For the foam-flowers endure when the rose-blossoms wither,
And men that love lightly may die — but we?'
Even though the lover's words convey his certitude that their love would outlast the love of other men, Swinburne creates an uneasy irony because we know that the lovers are dead. Again and again, Swinburne asserts that love cannot live beyond death. Toward the end of the poem, however, Swinburne reveals that time is not omnipotent as it seems. Rather, by perpetuating the natural course of change and renewal, death itself is "a god self-slain on his own strange altar."
1. The image of the garden, although ravaged by time, holds promise of renewal and revival. Why, then, does Swinburne choose the garden as the focal point of the poem even though he emphasizes the permanence of death? Why does he not choose a barren landscape without evidence of man, as he does in "Evening on the Broads"?
2. Why does Swinburne repeatedly insist and remind us that "Love was dead"? What poetic or stylistic purpose does this serve? And what does repeating this concept over and over suggest about Victorian readers?
4. According to Jupp and Gitting's Death in England, love in the afterlife was a source of comfort and assurance for the Victorians. During the Victorian age,
Images of Heaven increasingly lost their stress on an eternity of worship in the presence of God. Rather, Heaven became a place where lovers and families reunite, giving rise to the sombre Victorian cliche — 'Not lost, but gone before'. For the afterlife to be meaningful, love must continue after death .
What national trends in religion contribute this Victorian notion of the afterlife? Why did Christians shift the focus from "an eternity of worship" to ensuring the permanence of love after death? In light of the previous literature we have read, give other examples of this concept of enduring love.
3. In Tennyson's In Memoriam, the image of a garden pervades section CI. Read the stanzas below:
Unwatch'd, the garden bough shall sway,
The tender blossom flutter down,
Unloved, that beech will gather brown,
This maple burn itself away;
Unloved, the sun-flower, shining fair,
Ray round with flames her disk of seed,
And many a rose-carnation feed
With summer spice the humming air;
Unloved, by many a sandy bar,
The brook shall babble down the plain,
At noon or when the lesser wain
Is twisting round the polar star;
Uncared for, gird the windy grove,
And flood the haunts of hern and crake;
Or into silver arrows break
The sailing moon in creek and cove;
How does Tennyson's use of the garden compare with Swinburne's? Also, both poets address similar themes: the passage of time and lost love. How do they handle these themes differently?
Jupp, Peter, and Clare Gittings, eds. Death in England: An Illustrated History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000.
Last modified 8 April 2009