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"Swinburne, among others, had helped me live mentally, if not physically, through such a phase of vice as had poisoned my thoughts for ever." — Sybil Elton in The Sorrows of Satan

Although Algernon Swinburne's early poems quickly made him notorious as a writer of poems, such as "Dolores," his later philosophical landscape poetry and poems about the liberation of Italy made him so respectable that he was seriously proposed as Poet Laureate. Not all readers forgave his earlier work, however, and Marie Corelli's The Sorrows of Satan reveals a best-selling female author accusing the poet, whom she terms a "satyr-songster" (221) of seriously corrupting young women.

Sybil Elton, the leading female character in the novel, charges that "there are many women to whom his works have been deadlier than the deadliest poison, and far more soul-corrupting than any book of Zola's or the most pernicious of modern French writers" (221). Immediately after leveling this charge against Swinburne, she relates the effect of reading his works upon her morality and fundamental sense of the world:

At first I read the poems quickly, with a certain pleasure in the mere swing and jangle of rhythm, and without paying much attention to the subject-matter of the verse, but presently, as though a lurid blaze of lightning had stripped a fair tree of its adoring leaves, my senses suddenly perceived the cruelty and fiendish sensuality concealed under the ornate language and persuasive rhymes, — and for a moment I paused in my reading, and closed my eyes, shuddering and sick at heart. Was human nature as base and abandoned as this man declared it to be? Was there no God but Lust? Were men and women lower and more depraved in their passions and appetites than the very beasts? I mused and dreamed, — I pored over the "Laus veneris" — "Faustine" and "Anactoris," till I felt myself being dragged down to the brute-lever of the mind that conceived such outrages to decency. [221-222]

To be sure, neither Sybil nor Corelli seem to be very perceptive readers, for some of these supposedly debauched poems are psychological studies in which Swinburne's male character come off rather badly. In "Laus Veneris," for example, Swinburne uses a dramatic monologue to portray a man who blames the female figure who is the object of his desire for his own obsessions and weaknesses.

According to Sybil, Swinburne's political poems do even more damage to young people than his verse on sexual themes. Although raised within a conservative High Church Anglican family, Swinburne early embraced the atheism of Shelley and many political radicals. Like them, he argued that religion has been used to enslave the poor and ignorant as ameans of keeping them down. In Sybil's comically over-long suicide note, she makes clear that reading the poet's works has led to her self-destruction:

I drank in Swinburne's own fiendish contempt of God, and I read over and over again his verses "Before a Crucifix" till I knew them by heart; — till they rang in my brain as persistently as any nursery jingle, and drove my thoughts into as haughty a scorn of Christ and His teachings as any unbelieving Jew. It is nothing to me now, — now, when without hope or faith or love, I am about to take the final plunge into eternal darkness and silence, — but for the sake of those who have the comfort of a religion, I ask, why, in a so-called Christian country, is such a hideous blasphemy as "Before a Crucifix" allowed to circulate among people without so much as one reproof from those who elect themselves judges of literature? [222]

At this point in her verbose suicide sermon, Sybil pauses to quote four full verses of the poem before she again asks why it hasn't been censored. Swinburne, of course, doesn't have a "fiendish contempt of God;" he simply doesn't believe in the Judao-Christian divinity. No one can deny that "Before a Crucifix" is pretty strong stuff, and the verses that she quotes can be read as blasphemous, but strangely enough, most of this very political poem sets forth all of Corelli's own detailed attacks on the Roman church! One wonders if her fervent, unorthodox Christian faith kept her from understanding Swinburne's poem, or if, given the attacks on her work by orthdox Christians, she's attacking Swinburne at least in part as a way of defending herself against charges of blasphemy. She also implicitly raises the question how how anyone could attack her books while not first attacking his. (Swinburne was attacked far more than Corelli admits, though perhaps not late in the century.)


Corelli, Marie. The Sorrows of Satan. n.p., n.d. [The novel was published first in 1895.]

Last modified 26 August 2003