Like "Laus Veneris," Algernon Charles Swinburne's "The Leper," a work published alongside "Laus Veneris" in Poems and Ballads in 1866, presents a situation where the speaker faces God's condemnation by means of his passionate and border-line obsessive love for a woman. Although similar in theme, these two works actually differ drastically in their depiction of the beloved. While the beloved in "Laus Veneris" retains the beauty of Venus, the woman in "The Leper" suffers the loss of beauty and societal acceptance through her contraction of leprosy: "Changed with disease her body sweet/the body of love wherein she abode."
Both works exhibit medieval tendencies and influences. Those within "The Leper," however, function differently than those within "Laus Veneris" as the former "draws attention to the aesthetic implications of its own medievalism" by means of placing focus on the speaker's "anguished recognition that any genuine fulfillment of his passion is irretrievably lost" (Harrison) due to her love for another man and her disease-induced death. Conversely, "Laus Veneris" places emphasis on the speaker's heavy guilt wrought by his obvious psychological divisions between love and obsessive passion (exemplified by his role as a lover) on one hand, and God and dutiful salvation (exemplified by his role as a knight) on the other. The psychological dialectic "The Leper" does not instill the same sense of guilt within the speaker, who realizes and accepts the fact God scorns his lustful romantic tendencies.
I vex my head with thinking this.
Yea, though God always hated me,
And hates me now that I can kiss
Her eyes, plait up her hair to see
How then she wore it on her brows,
Yet I am glad to have her dead
Here in this wretched wattled house
Where I can kiss her eyes and head.
Anthony Harrison states that the speaker of this monologue is not primarily concerned, "as Tannhauser is, with himselfÉbut with his ministry to the woman he lovesÉwith nurturing an ideal of love that transcends any erotic gratification he might derive." However, he eventually acknowledges that this love and eroticism remains ungratified. Thus, the speaker's divisions and struggles present themselves in a different way than they do for Tannhauser, as the scribe's unrequited love for the leper — "mere scorn she had of me,/ a poor scribe, nowise great or fair" — suffers the loss of passion genuinely unfulfilled. Thus, although similarly obsessive, the speaker's tone differs from Tannhauser's, as Tannhauser received complete erotic fulfillment in a passionate union with his beloved. Rather, the scribe's tone implies comparisons with speaker within Robert Browning's dramatic monologue "Prophyria's Lover." While the situation in "Prophyria's Lover" differs with the situation in "The Leper" in terms of the nature of the relationships between both sets of lovers, similarities remain in terms of the obsessive nature in which both speakers glorify and worship their beloveds' dead bodies (within the confines of a secret dwelling). The scribe, who "hid her in this wattled house," states,
Six months, and now my sweet is dead
A trouble takes me; I know not
If all were done well, all well said,
No word or tender deed forgot.
Too sweet, for the least part in her,
To have shed life out by fragments; yet
Could the close mouth catch breathe and stir,
I might see something I forget.
Six months and I sit still and hold
In two cold palms her cold two feet.
Her hair, half grey half ruined gold,
Thrills me and burns me in kissing it.
Love bites and stings me though, to see
Her keen face made of sunken bones.
Half worn-off eyelids madden me,
That were shot through with purple once.
1. Comment on the idea of love and beauty portrayed in the above stanzas, especially in comparison with Tannhauser's portrayal of love and beauty within "Laus Veneris." While seemingly different in terms of the use of such phrases as "her clear limbs," "love as a flower," "her little chambers" that "drip with flower-like red", "sweet tears". . . etc, Swinburne includes such phrases as "with nerve and bone she weaves and multiplies," and there remain constant references to "blood," "dead," "yellow spume," "loose clots," "arid fume" and "burns" within the "Laus Veneris's" otherwise beautiful imagery. Do these allude to the dead leper and death's "sunken bones" and/or the various forms of punishment that God bestows upon the speakers within both works? What is beautiful? Swinburne's portrayal of the dead woman in comparison to D.G Rossetti's?
2. Comment on Swinburne's portrayal of God as a wrathful deity. As he states, "God had wrought this curse to plague her," and "God hateth us." How does this relate to Swinburne's general opinion regarding the doctrine of Puritanism? Compare/relate this idea to those within D.G. and Christina Rossetti's differing religious stances.
3. Anthony Harrison states, "the aestheticism of 'The Leper,' unlike that of 'Laus Veneris,' is not to be found primarily in the poem's imagery or the sonorities of its music ir the richness of its language." Describe the aesthetic nature of "The Leper." How is this language different from that of Swinburne's other works? What does this imply?
4. What type of love is portrayed within "The Leper"? Are there erotic undertones, or does the love remain strictly spiritual and transcendental in nature? Is this love reminiscent of Dante's love for Beatrice, or for Tannhauser's love for Venus? Comment on the love portrayed within stanzas 15, 16 and 17 — are there any hints of eroticism, pain or suffering within the imagery? If so, what role do these images play within "The Leper"?
He that had held her by the hair,
With kissing lips blinding her eyes,
Felt her bright bosom, strained and bare,
Sigh under him, with short mad cries
Out of her throat and sobbing mouth
And body broken up with love,
With sweet hot tears his lips were loth
Her own should taste the savor of,
Yea, he inside whose grasp all night
Her fervent body leapt or lay,
Stained with sharp kisses red and white,
Found her a plague to spurn away.
Harrison, Anthony H. Swinburne's Medievalism: A Study in Victorian Love Poetry. Louisiana State U Press: 1979.
Swinburne, A. C. Poems and Ballads & Atalanta Calydon. London: Penguin Group, 2000.
Last modified 14 March 2005;
Thanks to Coleman Ridge for correcting a quoted passage.