The sadomasochistic goddess Dolores, Our Lady of Pain — a twisted complement to the representation of the Blessed Virgin Mary as Our Lady of Sorrows — reigns as a bloodthirsty and licentious embodiment of divine femininity over the narrator in Swinburne's "Dolores." Sterile, dominant, and corrupting, Dolores' sins and joys both number "seventy times seven." Her paradoxical nature not only stirs passion but also denies its fulfillment — her subjects are consumed by a "desire that outruns the delight." The inherent juxtaposition and entwinement of sex and death, desire and denial, and pain and pleasure in Dolores' nature fortify her with a self-feeding power that perpetuates eternally:

We shift and bedeck and bedrape us,
Thou art noble and nude and antique;
Libitina thy mother, Priapus
Thy father, a Tuscan and Greek.
We play with light loves in the portal,
And wince and relent and refrain;
Loves die, and we know thee immortal,
               Our Lady of Pain.

Fruits fail and love dies and time ranges;
Thou art fed with perpetual breath,
And alive after infinite changes,
And fresh from the kisses of death;
Of languors rekindled and rallied,
Of barren delights and unclean,
Things monstrous and fruitless, a pallid
               And poisonous queen.

Although the text later suggests that the rise of monotheism may pose some threat to Dolores, as gods fall out of fashion and the Vestal shrines are abandoned, this new God and his holy virgin "shall pass and their places be taken" as Dolores lives on. "Good" cannot possibly stay fashionable for long, and as sin continues to corrupt humanity, Dolores is fed and sustained:

Thy life shall not cease though thou doff it;
Thou shalt live until evil be slain,
And good shall die first, said thy prophet,
               Our Lady of Pain.

Discussion Questions

1. In Phantastes, the beauty of the Alder Maid bewitches Anodos, who would have succumbed to her if not for the knight's intervention. After leaving the forest, Anodos meets a matronly woman at a farm house and asks her about his encounter:

"But tell me how it is that she could be so beautiful without any heart at all — without any place even for a heart to live in."

"I cannot quite tell," she said; "but I am sure she would not look so beautiful if she did not take means to make herself look more beautiful than she is. And then, you know, you began by being in love with her before you saw her beauty, mistaking her for the lady of the marble — another kind altogether, I should think. But the chief thing that makes her beautiful is this: that, although she loves no man, she loves the love of any man; and when she finds one in her power, her desire to bewitch him and gain his love (not for the sake of his love either, but that she may be conscious anew of her own beauty, through the admiration he manifests), makes her very lovely — with a self-destructive beauty, though; for it is that which is constantly wearing her away within, till, at last, the decay will reach her face, and her whole front, when all the lovely mask of nothing will fall to pieces, and she be vanished for ever. So a wise man, whom she met in the wood some years ago, and who, I think, for all his wisdom, fared no better than you, told me, when, like you, he spent the next night here, and recounted to me his adventures." [Chapter 7]

Anodos believed the maiden to be his White Lady, despite being warned against the danger of the Alder tree. How does the nature of Anodos' experience compare to Dolores' nature?

2. Swinburne employs a significant amount of feminine rhyme in "Dolores". Does this seem a deliberate symbol, or only logistically necessary in an attempt to rhyme? How does this affect the overall tone of the work?

3. In "Dolores" Swinburne describes "curled snakes that are fed from my breast," an attribute which he also gives Venus in Laus Veneris, "wearing at breast a suckling snake of gold." Both poems contain many descriptions of love as a sucking, biting, bruising act that involves injuring one to the nourishment or satisfaction of the other. How pervasive were sadism and masochism in the Victorian period?

4. Swinburne uses Christian imagery to criticize Christianity. How does comparison of the image of Our Lady of Sorrows (generally portrayed with seven swords through her heart) enhance the efficacy of Swinburne's physical description of Dolores? How does Dolores, with her "heavy white limbs," "red mouth," and "garment not golden but gilded," compare to Victorian representations of the Virgin Mary or Venus?


Victorian Web Main Overview A. C. Swinburne Aesthetes & Decadents Leading Questions

Last modified 6 April 2009