lgernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909), whose poetry is marked by sadomasochism, androgyny, blasphemy, and political radicalism, does not at first glance seem to have that much in common with his contemporaries. In fact, Swinburne, l'infant terrible of Victorian poetry and self-proclaimed laureate of Italian liberty, fits very comfortably within the context of Victorian poetry — and not only because this alcoholic son of Admiral Sir John Swinburne attended Eton and Oxford, earned recognition as an expert on English Renaissance history, and ended his days having (in the manner of Browning, Hardy, and Tennyson) attained stature as a wisdom-speaker. Like Tennyson and Browning, he often displayed Victorian high seriousness in poems about religious and philosophical matter. Like these poets, he had a deep knowledge of Classical and Renaissance literary forms, traditions, and myth, as well as of Christianity and biblical interpretation, and like them he tried to integrate such interest with a devotion to the great Romantics, particularly Shelley. Like them, he used the dramatic monologue to great effect, and like them, he also devoted considerable energy to writing verse drama.
The Victorian tension between personal and political appears in particularly stark form in Swinburne, whose first two volumes of poetry are marked by themes of erotic obsession and whose next two by concern with Italian freedom. His political works, which appear in Songs before Sunrise (1871) and Songs of Two Nations (1871), largely concern themselves with the Risorgimento.
Swinburne's political poetry makes elaborate use of biblical imagery, which he employs as a means of morally aggrandizing Italy while simultaneously speaking in argumentative terms enjoyed by an English Protestant audience. "A Song of Italy" (1867), for example, draws upon the types of Christ and Satan in Genesis 3:15 when he praises
Milan, whose imperial tread
Bruised once the German head;
Whose might, by northern swords left desolate,
Set foot on fear and fate.
Like Swinburne's poetic celebration of England's victory in "The Armada" (1889), this poem on the liberation of Italy makes a nation's battles play a major role in a universal struggle of good with evil.
He makes a somewhat different modification of the same biblical allusion in "A Counsel," one of the "Dirae" (1869) written in imitation of Victor Hugo's poems of political invective. There he instructs the "strong Republic" of Italy that he hopes will come into being "not to crush . . . the snake whose belly cleaveth to the sod" but allow "the worm Napolean crawl" untrampled. Swinburne implies with characteristic combination of hyperbole and blasphemy that a Republican Italy would be so superior to evil men that it need not crush them physically and would be therefore greater and more gracious than Christ.
In Swinburne's political verse, England, Italy, Garibaldi, and the people at various times take the place of Christ. Purporting to discover the same moral principles in Italian politics and Gospel events, he effectively applied the interpretive modes of a religion he despised, which he could do without alienating his Victorian contemporaries. Like Ruskin and Carlyle after they had lost their early evangelical Protestant belief, Swinburne frequently employed religious vocabulary, rhetoric, and iconography that appeal to many in the contemporary audience.
"Super Flumina Babylonis" (1871), presents Christ's passion, death, and resurrection as simultaneously the antitype (or fulfillment) of Israel's Babylonian captivity and deliverance and a type of Italy's current enslavement and coming freedom. Resurrection becomes equivalent to Risorgimento. This characteristic Swinburnean use of Christ's passion and death also appears in poems that present not Italy but its common people in terms of the Saviour Himself. "Christmas Antiphones" (1871) thus presents the oppressed poor as being crucified on the tree of life, and "The Litany of Nations" (1871), which presents an image of "the blood-sweat of the people in the garden," makes the condition of the masses equivalent to Christ's agony in the garden. Swinburne does not use the Gospel narrative, as a believer might, to suggest any full equivalence between the people and Christ since he cannot accept any of its emphases other than that upon innocent suffering.
This same political intonation of Christian symbolism appears in "Before a Crucifix" (1871), which is one of Swinburne's most effective political poems. It begins as a meditation upon a weather-scarred roadside crucifix to which the poor bring their sorrows. After admitting that he has neither "tongue nor knee/ For prayer," Swinburne addresses the shrine as if it were Christ and demands if His coming has produced only a suffering race of men praying to a suffering image of man.
Having thus bitterly questioned Christ, Swinburne turns to his main target, the Church, and explains to the wooden image of Christ that His supposed priests have used His suffering to establish their tyrannical dominion over men. Heaping up satirical analogies, types, and parodied types, the poet charges that priests and prelates have enslaved — and crucified — the people while enriching themselves. Having set forth the corruptions of religion, Swinburne ends "Before a Crucifix" by urging the people to free themselves from its bonds.
This need to free oneself and others from bonds, whether of convention, religion, or political oppression, marks all Swinburne's poetry. Even when he draws upon conventional imagery and situations, the poet endows them with his own bleakness and sense of being beyond conventional limits. In fact, Swinburne, who creates an entire imaginative cosmos out of the notion of being wrecked in the sea of time, repeatedly emphasizes that all love, all life, all civilization sinks beneath these waters. As the "Hymn to Proserpine" (1866) explains to the old "Gods dethroned and deceased, cast forth, wiped out in a day" by the coming of Christianity, all things perish in the wastes of this ocean:
All delicate days and pleasant, all spirits and sorrows are cast
Far out with the foam of the present that sweeps to the surf of the past:
Where beyond the extreme sea-wall, and between the remote sea-gates,
Waste water washes, and all tall ships founder, and deep death waits. [full text]
According to Swinburne, our situation as castaways in the sea of time defines our lives and loves, for like these old gods and their worshipers, we all find ourselves immersed in the ocean of time.
Last modified 2000