In Swinburne's "Laus Veneris" the young knight, Tannhauser, specifies his love for Venus, as a dangerous addiction and erotic obsessions. As the legend says, the knight falls madly in love with Venus's external beauty and hence develops an uncontrollable lust for pleasure. The knight's "enslavement to love" and desire for physical sensuality overcomes his religious foundations, and consequently, he leaves the pardon of the Church.

Tannhauser tells how the beauty of his beloved Venus's body – at the start– ignites passion and catalyzes love between the pair. The knight esteems Venus, describing her as "the world's delight" and categorizes her as an idol surpassing the greatness of God.

Alas, Lord surely thou art great and fair.
But lo her wonderfully woven hair!
And thou didst heal us with thy piteous kiss;
But see now, Lord; her mouth is lovelier.

Throughout the monologue, the knight only mentions and praises physical attributes, like hair and lips, thus revealing his love being driven by physical beauty. As the monologue continues, Tannhauser's description of love intensifies and grows increasingly more erotic.

>No fruit of theirs, but fruit of my desire,
For her love's sake whose lips through mine respire;
Her eyelids on her eyes like flower on flower,
Mine eyelids on mine eyes like fire on fire.

So lie we, not as sleep that lies by death, With heavy kisses and with happy breath;
Not as man lies by woman, when the bride
Laughs low for love's sake and the word's he saith.

By disregarding his love as marriage-like, he reveals the lustful and sexual nature of his relationship with Venus. Thus, the beauty of pleasure she gives gradually overshadows the external beauty of her hair and lips. The woman, in the eyes of the knight, becomes less of an idol and more of a necessity to fulfill Tannhauser's desire for eroticism.

Discussion Questions

1. The Oxford English Dictionary defines atheism as the disbelief in, or denial of the existence of a God, and disregard of duty to God or godlessness. Based on "Laus Veneris," would Tannhauser be classified as an atheist despite acknowledging God in his monologue? Do you think Tannhauser is in a phase of atheist belief?

In "A Plea For Atheism" written in 1864, Charles Bradlaugh explains that

the Atheist does not say, "There is no God," but he says: "I know not what you mean by God; I am without idea of God; the word 'God' is to me a sound conveying no clear or distinct affirmation. I do not deny God, because I cannot deny that of which I have no conception, and the conception of which by its affirmer, is so imperfect that he is unable to define it to me. If, however, 'God' is defined to mean an existence other than the existence of which I am a mode, then I deny 'God,' and affirm that it is impossible such 'God' can be. That is, I affirm one existence, and deny that there can be more than one." [www.infidels.org]

Based on Bradlaugh's definition, can we identify any Victorian authors as atheist? Do you think authors such as Swinburne, Carlyle, and Ruskin discretely deny God or do they periodically fall into ruts of disbelief?

2. What components categorize the tone of Swinburne's poem as medieval?

3. Though lengthy, the poem is only a historical framing of a legend. The storyline itself is, in a sense, blurry to the audience. Do you think the knight's legend was well known back in the Victorian Era or fabricated to fit Swinburne's ideologies? What does story-line ambiguity effectively emphasize? Does it help to place the focus on Tannhauser's self-analysis throughout the poem?

4. In the legend the knight asks for forgiveness, but the Pope deems forgiveness for Tannhauser impossible like the blooming of his papal staff. Three days after the knight's departure, however, the Pope's staff blooms with flowers. Though shocked, the Pope sends messengers after the knight, but he is never seen again. Swinburne does not mention the possibility of forgiveness within his poem. Instead, he has Tannhauser rejoice in the lifestyle he chooses.

Ah love, there is no better life than this; To have known love, how bitter a thing it is, And afterward be cast out of God's sight; Yea, these that know not, shall they have such bliss

If Tannhauser had known he would be forgiven, would he still choose a life of sinful pleasures or would he revert back to Christianity? Why would Swinburne not include the true end of the legend in his poem?


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Last modified 6 April 2009