"The Triumph of Time," one of Swinburne's finest early poems, opens with the figure of the shipwreck, for now, as he is about to part from his unnamed beloved, he realizes that he exists, and will exist henceforth, in the condition of the shipwrecked mariner. Therefore, all that follows in the poem must be taken as an interior monologue, for the poet has chosen to keep silent and suppress his complaint to the lost beloved. After emphasizing the fact of his loss with a claim that the two of them could have been as gods and could have made themselves one with the elements, the speaker turns from such broken dreams to confront a desertlike landscape bordering upon the waste ocean. This landscape, we soon realize, serves as the equivalent of the speaker's state of mind and spirit, for both are "sick of the run and the rain," bleak and burnt. Here, confronting the "sweet sea, mother of loves and hours, "the saddened lover recognizes that just as he has not been able to preserve his love, there is little that human beings can preserve at all:
It is not much that a man can save
On the sands of life, in the straits of time,
Who swims in sight of the great third wave
That never a swimmer shall cross or climb.
Some waif washed up with the strays and the spars
That ebb-tide shows to the shore and the stars;
Weed from the water, grass from a grave
A broken blossom, a ruined rhyme. [81-89]
Man, himself a castaway in the sea of time, can only preserve stray waifs and sea drift, one form of which is poetry.
In "The Triumph of Time" Swinburne finds a function for poetry and can thus respond affirmatively to the question Gerard Manley Hopkins asks in a very different context — "is the shipwreck then a harvest?" (The Wreck of the Deutschland, 1875). Poetry allows Swinburne to transform the sorrows and ravages of time into beauty, and furthermore, it captures — in fact, rescues — certain significant moments from the devouring ocean.
For Swinburne as for Rossetti, poetry enriches these instants of illumination, making them true centers for our lives. Unlike Rossetti, who most characteristically relies upon concentrated forms, such as the sonnet, to create and preserve such significant moments, Swinburne chooses far more diffuse forms that permit him to return to his central poetic idea from different points of the compass. As Jerome J. McGann has pointed out:
His method of thought turns all sequential processes of beginnings, middles, and ends into self-contained circles. This is why he characteristically talks about the "life" of Tristram and Iseult in spatial rather than temporal terms: their essential life never changes, never needs to be sought for and found. . . . Stylistically, the result is that his poetry tends not to move in a direction like a path, but to accumulate additions, like coral. . . . His propensity is toward forms which do not so much move forward as they spin off from a center, accumulating all the while what can be a bewildering variety of figures and images which are constantly interacting with each other. [Swinburne: An Experiment in Criticism, pp. 141, 41]
Whereas Tennyson and Browning write a cumulative poetry that builds to moments of illumination, Swinburne's characteristic form derives from the fact that his poetic ideas develop from a center or germ, move out from it, but are inevitably drawn back to it; and then the process repeats itself over and over, each tracing of the mental path depositing additional layers of meaning and emotion upon the central idea.
In "The Triumph of Time," for instance, the speaker begins by silently telling his beloved (whom he addresses only within the confines of his own mind) that he will not say anything that a man might say on such an occasion of irrevocable loss, but he immediately finds himself forced to think about what they have lost. This dream of what might have been soon brings him back to the fact of loss, he pulls himself up short, and then the process, which dramatizes the obsessive power of his longing, begins again. Such a means of poetic organization simultaneously locks the speaker within the moment of suffering but also allows him to expand it until it encompasses all life and all time. Swinburne's characteristic poetic organization, in other words, is obviously related to his conceptions of time and human life, for although it is ill suited for conveying Tennysonian forms of experience, it permits him to endow certain carefully chosen situations with a central importance and thus turn them into representative moments.
McGann, Jerome J. Swinburne: An Experiment in Criticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972.