In "The Swinburnian Woman" Antony H. Harrison points out that "female figures who appear as the object of a man's consuming passion dominate Swinburne's work" (90), and according to him, these women appear within one of three subtypes, all of which share cruelty as well as ideality as their characteristics:

(1) the passionate: Mary Stuart, Rosamond, Phaedra, and Iseult of Ireland. "Unlike the stereotypes of the mythical category, these women are all highly individualized, and, rather than treating their victims with the indifference of Lucretian gods, they deeply love the men they kill or threaten" (90).

(2) the mythical: Atalanta, Celopatra, Dolores, Tannhauser's Venus. and Rosamond, Queen of the Lombards. This figure, in contrast, is a "sensuous, timeless and dispassionate belle dame sans merci whose mythical or mythicized incarnations draw down to death all men who love them" 90-91)

(3) the matriarchal: Althae in Atalanta in Calydon and the maternal figures in nature. "The Triumph of Time," "By the North Sea," "Hertha," "On the Cliffs." "Metaphorically or actually maternal figures appear as second remove from the actual life of a given male protagonist, but they exert compelling control over his fate because they explicitly represent both the source of his life and the comprehensive matrix to which all men return at death" (91).

According to Harrison, in Swinburne's "largely Blakean mythology of creation, total freedom pre-exists individual man's incarnation, and it is that condition of freedom which is, ultimately, the land of his heart's desire. In life woman is the pohysical embodiment of the generative/destructive matrix" (99). The Swinburnian woman is more than a particularly sinister version of the Keatsian la belle dame sans merci, for like the women of courtly love poetry she possesses a kind of religious significance.


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Last modified 2000