A.C. Swinburne writes about the nature of love in "A Forsaken Garden." He compares love to a rose in a garden. At first, this seems like a conventional and almost cliched approach. Drawing a parallel between love and the blooming of a beautiful flower is a typical description used in poetry. For example, Robert Burns writes that his love "is like a red red rose / That's newly sprung in June." Swinburne, however, twists the relationship between love and the rose to reveal the tragic elements of love. Instead of focusing on the blooming of a rose as Burns does, Swinburne contemplates the inevitable death of the rose. Swinburne portrays love as a fleeting, transient emotion which leaves those who experienced it feeling alone and empty. As he says, "Love deep as the sea as a rose must wither." No matter how deeply intense love might be, it, like the rose, will eventually wither from death. Not only does Swinburne describe the decay of a rose, but he also incorporates the decomposition of a garden into his poem. He writes in lines six through eight, "The steep square slope of the blossomless bed / Where the weeds that grew green from the graves of its roses / Now lie dead." All vegetation, both roses and weeds, are dead. This permeation of death within the poem reinforces the idea that love is a temporal experience.

Swinburne incorporates another landscape into his piece. He describes the sea in terms of perpetuity, which contrasts the limited life of the garden. In the two last stanzas, the poet writes:

Here death may deal not again for ever;
           Here change may come not till all change end.
From the graves they have made they shall rise up never,
            Who have left nought living to ravage and rend.
Earth, stones, and thorns of the wild ground growing,
            While the sun and the rain live, these shall be;
Till a last wind's breath upon all these blowing
                       Roll the sea.

Till the slow sea rise and the sheer cliff crumble,
            Till terrace and meadow the deep gulfs drink,
Till the strength of the waves of the high tides humble
            The fields that lessen, the rocks that shrink,
Here now in his triumph where all things falter,
            Stretched out on the spoils that his own hand spread,
As a god self-slain on his own strange altar,
                       Death lies dead.

Swinburne expresses his deeply sad conviction that love is not lasting, and that death destroys the possibility of an eternal love.

Questions

1. Landscape plays an intergral part in this poem. Swinburne associates different ideas with different landscapes. In these last two stanzas, what is Swinburne trying to communicate with the descriptions of the wave and the movement of the sea taking over the land? What does the sea symbolize in this piece? What is the meaning behind the images of the eroding land? In what ways does the sea symbolically differ from the garden and the land?

2. What does Swinburne mean when he says that the lover slays himself on "his own strange altar"? What is the altar? In what ways does the lover act as a god?

3. Burns writes in the fourth stanza of "My Love is Like a Red Red Rose":

Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi' the sun,
And I will love thee still, my dear,
While the sands o' life shall run.

Burns expresses the extent of his love in this stanza in terms of landscape. Swinburne uses images of landscaping as well. How are the descriptions of landscape similar? Both poets also consider the idea of time and its relation to love. How do they connect time and love to landscape imagery? For Burns and Swinburne respectively, is love temporal or eternal? Would Swinburne agree or disagree with Burns?

References

"A Forsaken Garden" accessed at http://eir.library.utoronto.ca/rpo/display/poem2083.html.

"My Love is Like a Red Red Rose" accessed at http://www.fife.50megs.com/red-rose-lyrics.htm.


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Last modified 5 November 2004