I always feel happier and better when I have dived into the turbulent waves of Swinburne's gigantic mind. The masterly hand with which he holds the threads that seem to float unconnectedly — as if driven by the wind — and which he always succeeds in tying together when least expected seems to me exactly like Richard Wagner. [95]

Thus Ferdinand Wagner once wrote in a letter to George Powell, which Anna Sessa quotes in Richard Wagner and the English. He was certainly not the only one to connect the work of the English poet to that of the German composer. The critic Elliott Zuckerman for example observes that the two were often criticized for the same reasons: "Swinburne's verbal excesses were like Wagner's musical excesses; and the criticism of Swinburne sounds like the criticism of Wagner" (26). What is notable about the former comparison, however, is that it points to an aspect of Swinburne's debt to Richard Wagner that has perhaps not been sufficiently appreciated. For the way in which Swinburne succeeds in tying together the "threats that seem to float unconnectedly" in "Tristram of Lyonesse, "the poem he considered the crowning achievement of his poetic career (Harrison 45), derives directly from Wagner's revolutionary use of musical leitmotifs.

"Tristram of Lyonesse" was published in July 1882, only a few weeks after the first performance in London of Tristan und Isolde, Wagner's opera on the same subject (Sypher 177). In conjunction with certain similarities between the two works, this near-coincidence has given rise to quite some debate about the possible influence of Wagner's opera on Swinburne's work. Francis Jacques Sypher, for example, has compared Swinburne's poem with Wagner's libretto, and concludes that "the textual parallels between Swinburne's and Wagner's versions of the Tristram story show that Swinburne knew Wagner's text, and was significantly influenced by Wagner's conception of the story" (183). He nevertheless also admits that "the influence of Wagner's music is harder to trace" (183; my italics). In "Tristan and Tristram: Resemblance or Influence?", S.J. Sillars has taken up the question of musical influence, yet he comes up with very few concrete examples, and his conclusions remain rather vague: "there is insufficient evidence" (86) to identify definite examples of musical influence.

Fortunately, this certainly need not be a dead-end. While interesting in itself, the debate over 'Tristram''s relation to 'Tristan' has also obscured the real debt of Swinburne's poem to Wagnerian opera. For while it may be difficult to relate "Tristram of Lyonesse" to Tristan und Isolde in specific, there are very strong indications that Swinburne was influenced by Wagner's general approach to his musical dramas when he wrote his poem. Thus, his biographer Rikki Rooksby notes that "that "just as Handel's music helped to inspire Atalanta in Calydon, so Wagner inspired Tristram" (249) and, while working on his poem, Swinburne himself has written that "the thought of Wagner's music ought to abash but does stimulate me" (Letters II, 51).

More specifically, critics have noted on the use of leitmotival techniques: according to John R. Reed, "there is no doubt that Swinburne did employ, in Tristram of Lyonesse, the technique of a conscious and disciplined motif suggestive of musical composition, and thus Swinburne might have noted and sympathized with Wagner's device of the leitmotiv" (100) While mentioning a few instances of this, Reed does not go into any detail, since his concern is primarily with the poem's "intellectual unity" (102). Similarly, Catherine Maxwell notes that "the intricately scored arrangement of Swinburne's composition, with its artful internal echoes and variations, its lyrical finesse and swelling symphonic grandeur, irresistibly suggests musical analogies" (107). Yet she remains content with such grand statements and does not analyze these "musical analogies" any further. Taken a more detailed look at Swinburne's use of leitmotifs, this essay will argue that it is here that Wagner's influence on "Tristram of Lyonesse" is felt most strongly.

In order to do so, it is necessary first of all to take a closer look at the concept of a leitmotif. A musical leitmotif, which is "central to Wagner's compositional method" (Furness 7), may be described as "a theme, clearly defined so as to retain its identity if modified on subsequent appearances, whose purpose is to symbolize or represent a person, object, place, idea, state of mind, supernatural force, or any other ingredient in a dramatic work" (Sadie, 255). In other words, for a musical theme to be identified as a leitmotif, it must be (1) so clearly defined that its recurrences can be recognized as variations, and (2) connected to a specific story-element. In his Wagner and Literature, Richard Furness describes how this leitmotival technique has been transferred to literature, especially in modernist novels that frequently use stream-of-consciousness techniques; in works by writers like Virginia Woolf, he argues, leitmotifs are often used to unite and give direction to passages that would otherwise become too fragmented (17). Although they appeared many years before the celebrated experiments of the modernists, it will be seen that Swinburne's leitmotifs serve a very similar function.

Furness also provides a more elaborated definition of a literary leitmotif: "either a repeated group of words or a mere verbal formula that must make an emotional impact, and here it is Wagner's example that is of importance, for his continual transformation of existing motifs into new ones, conveying a sense of progressive emotional and psychological development, immeasurably enriched the potential of language" (17). This description adds an important third characteristic to the definition cited above: a leitmotif is not only a group of words (instead of a musical theme) that is recognizable when it re-appears and connected to a specific story-element; it must also portray a sense of emotional or psychological development in the character or theme which it represents.

Swinburne uses leitmotifs at several points in "Tristram of Lyonesse". The first of these occurs at the very end of the first canto. It represents the poem's central theme: the love between Tristram and Iseult of Ireland. The relevant sequence of words appears just after the two have drunken the love potion on board of 'The Swallow,' the ship that is to take them back to Cornwall. The relevant lines are the following (I have italicized the phrase that may considered to be a leitmotif):

Their heads neared, and their hands were drawn in one,
And they saw dark, though still the unsunken sun
Far through fine rain shot fire into the south;
And their four lips became one burning mouth. [38]

In the last line of this fragment we have a sequence of words that may, in the course of the story, be said to represent or symbolize the love between Tristram and Iseult of Ireland. Besides its placement at the end of a chapter and a central point in the story, also the particularly musical way in which Swinburne has phrased these lines contributes to the emphasis placed on the final line.

This is achieved especially through the interplay between stress and alliteration; in the first part all the alliterating syllables are all also stressed ones. 'Heads and 'hands', 'still', 'unsunken' and 'sun', and, though here the alliteration is not complete, 'they' and 'dark', are all alliterating stressed syllables. In combination with the pauses, this slows down the rhythm dramatically. Then, in the third line, 'far' and 'fine' both fall on unstressed syllables, creating a great amount of anticipation for the third and again stressed alliterating syllable, 'fire', resolving in the final line's 'four'. Another aspect that contributes greatly to the strongly marked mood of this passage is the use of assonance, especially between 'dark' vowels, as in 'drawn in one', 'saw dark' and 'unsunken sun'. Finally, the great care with which Swinburne composed the music of these lines also appears from the leitmotif itself: the separated short syllables 'their four lips', make for a meaningful contrast with the much more fluent, unified, 'one burning mouth'.

The phrase discussed above re-appears at the very end of the poem, in canto IX: 'The Sailing of the Swan'. After all their joys and sorrows in England and abroad, Tristram has finally died and Iseult of Ireland has just come upon his death-bed, when Swinburne writes:

[She] came and stood above him newly dead
And felt his death upon her: and her head
Bowed, as to reach the spring that slakes all drouth;
And their four lips became one silent mouth. [148]

Here we find the same phrase, with the only alteration that the 'burning' mouth has become a 'silent' one. Since it is representative of their relationship, this leitmotif occurs at their two most important scenes together and symbolizes their development from, put simply, being alive to being dead. In both cases the lovers are unified by a kiss, but first at the height of their youth and then at (or just after) their last moment alive. The contrast also appears from the opposition between first 'their heads neared' and then 'her head bowed'. The line 'their four lips became one burning/silent mouth' contains all the characteristics associated with a leitmotif, and is one of the main ways in which Swinburne creates unity in his poem and intensifies its emotional content. He uses the phrase to achieve exactly what, according to Raymond Furness, a leitmotif's main function is: "[to intensify] the quality of feeling by repetition, unifying the various parts of the composition and relating the various parts to the whole" (7).

A second instance of a phrase that functions in this way is associated with the relationship that comes second in importance in the poem: that between Tristram and the 'other' Iseult, Iseult of the White Hands. This phrase first occurs in canto IV, 'The Maiden Marriage,' during the wedding-night of Tristram and Iseult of the White Hands:

And [Tristram] spake
Aloud, one burning word for love's keen sake —
"Iseult;" and full of love and lovelier fear
A virgin voice gave answer "I am here"
. [74]

Though the words 'I am here' stand out, it is in fact the last two lines together that will recur later on in the poem. They represent the unconsummated marriage between the two, which eventually becomes the reason for Iseult's betrayal of Tristram and his death. It is thus closely intertwined with the leitmotif discussed above. As an imitation of a musical leitmotif, it is also important to note that the final three words are a description of a sound rather than of an image.

Tristram unwillingness to make love to Iseult of the White Hands ultimately becomes his undoing. Though in the passage quoted above Iseult's 'virgin voice' is still 'full of love and lovelier fear', this has changed dramatically when the phrase recurs in the poem's last canto, 'The Sailing of the Swan':

And he said,
Seeing hardly through dark dawn her doubtful head;
"Iseult?" and like a death-bell faint and clear
The virgin voice rang answer — "I am here"
. [145]

This example again contains all the features associated with a leitmotif: it is a sequence of words that represents in this case the relationship between Tristram and Iseult of the White Hands, and it recurs with an important alteration. This change represents Iseult's psychological development from the nave young girl full of expectance for her new husband, to the embittered and jealous wife she becomes at the end of the poem; though in the end she still has a 'virgin voice', it only cares about revenge: where the epithet 'virgin' stressed her innocence in the previous passage, here it becomes the prime reason for her bitterness. Her voice is also significantly compared to a death-bell in this scene, as it will soon tell Tristram (wrongfully) that Iseult of Ireland has refused to come to him, upon hearing which he immediately dies. It is finally also important that in this second instance, Iseult's name is followed by a question mark, and this also represents a change in their relationship: where at first Iseult was only passively waiting for Tristram, here the roles are reversed: she is the one in charge, and Tristram's life tragically depends on her decision.

These two instances, symbolizing the two main relationships in the poem, are the most convincing instances of Swinburne's use of the essentially Wagnerian leitmotif. There is, however, another recurrence of a particular phrase that may suggest the use of this musical technique. It is again related, as our first example was, to the relationship between Tristram and Iseult of Ireland, but it may also be said to symbolize the theme of knowledge. It first occurs just before the two lovers drink the love-potion, in the poem's first canto:

The last time —
The last that should be told in any rhyme
Heard anywhere on mouths of singing men
That ever should sing praise of them again;
The last hour of their hurtless hearts at rest,
The last that peace should touch them, breast to breast
The last that sorrow far from them should sit
The last was with them, and they knew not it. [36]

Though it is somewhat longer than the previous passages considered, the way in which the syntactic structure and final phrase are echoed later on again relates it to the musical technique of the leitmotif. The focus is on the repeated 'the last', suggesting a somehow irrevocable end just beyond the horizon. On the other hand, the ending line 'and they knew not it' is perhaps even more significant, especially if we read it in conjunction with the second occurrence of this construction. This is in the penultimate canto, called "The last pilgrimage", and appears when Tristram and Iseult of Ireland say their final goodbye:

The last time —
The last that ever love's rekindling rhyme
Should keep for them life's days and nights in tune.
[] The last before the labour marked for last
And toil of utmost knighthood.
[] The last time ere the travel were begun
Whose goals is unbeholden of the sun,
The last wherewith love's eyes might yet be lit,
Came, and they could but dream they knew not it. [113]

The entire passage runs to about eighteen lines, but it is obvious from these lines alone that Swinburne purposefully repeats the syntactic structure of the previous passage. The striking change is in the last line, and suggests the development of Tristram and Iseult from blissfully ignorant of the future, to, in this later instance, painfully aware of the sorrows it will bring. This also links it with the other instances of leitmotival techniques in "Tristram of Lyonesse", in which the changing leitmotif denotes a similar change in the theme or relationship which it represents. Thus the whole structure of these passages, but especially their final line, may be read as a third and last instance of a leitmotif in Swinburne's poem.

Tennyson once called Swinburne "a reed through which all things blow into music" (qouted in Noyes, 299); more recently, he has been described as "a virtuoso of the English metrical keyboard" (9) and a recent collection of essays on his work is titled The Whole Music of Passion. This essay has argued that such musical metaphors are not arbitrary, nor solely concerned with the purely aural music of Swinburne's poetry. While Walter Pater's statement that "all art constantly aspires to the condition of music" (126) may be an over-generalization, it certainly holds true for the self-declared magnum opus of Swinburne; in "Tristram of Lyonesse", it has been argued, Swinburne has consciously and identifiably applied a musical technique derived specifically from Wagner's operas. Long before the modernists discovered the potential of the literary leitmotif, Swinburne made it his own: he used three intricately connected leitmotifs to shape and unify his celebrated poem. This is the "masterly hand" Ferdinand Wagner recognized in the work of both Wagner and Swinburne, and the key to the success of the masterpiece of Swinburne's later career.

Works Cited

Harrison, Anthony H. Swinburne's Medievalism: a Study in Victorian Love Poetry. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.

Maxwell, Catherine. Writers and their Work: Swinburne. Horndon: Northcote Houe Publishers Ltd, 2006.

Noyes, Alfred. A Pageant of Letters. New York: Ayer publishing, 1968.

Pater, Walter. The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Reed, John R. "Swinburne's Tristram of Lyonesse: The Poet-Lover's Song of Love". Victorian Poetry 4:2 (Spring 1966). 99-120.

Rooksby, Rikki. A.C. Swinburne: a Poet's Life. Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1997.

--- "A Century of Swinburne." The Whole Music of Passion. Ed. Rikki Rooksby. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1993.

Sadie, Stanley (Ed.) The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians Vol.14. London: Macmillan Publishers, 2001.

Sessa, Anna Dzamba. Richard Wagner and the English. London: Associated University Press, 1978.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. "The Defense of Poetry". The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th ed. Ed: M.H. Abrams. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007.

Sillars, S.J. "'Tristan' and 'Tristram': Resemblance or Influence?". Victorian Poetry 19:1 (Spring 1981). 81-87.

Sypher, Francis Jacques. "Swinburne and Wagner". Victorian Poetry 9:1/2 (Spring/Summer 1971). 165-183.

Swinburne, Algernon Charles. The Swinburne Letters, Vol 2.. Ed. Cecil Y. Lang. New Haven, 1959.

--- Tristram of Lyonesse. New York: Boydell Press, 1990.

Zuckerman, Elliott. First Hundred Years of Wagner's Tristan . New York: Columbia University Press, 1964.

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

Last modified 17 March 2010