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Algernon Charles Swinburne - A Poet Writing for Poets

by Arthur Symons

It is forty-four years since the publication of Swinburne's first volume, and it is scarcely to the credit of the English public that we should have had to wait so long for a collected edition of the poems of one of the greatest poets of this or any country. 'It is nothing to me,' Swinburne tells us, with a delicate precision in his pride, 'that what I write should find immediate or general acceptance.' And indeed 'immediate' it can scarcely be said to have been; 'general' it is hardly likely ever to be. Swinburne has always been a poet writing for poets, or for those rare lovers of poetry who ask for poetry, and nothing more or less, in a poet. Such writers can never be really popular, any more than gold without alloy can ever really be turned to practical uses. Think of how[Pg 154] extremely little the poetical merit of his poetry had to do with the immense success of Byron; think how very much besides poetical merit contributed to the surprising reputation of Tennyson. There was a time when the first series of Poems and Ballads was read for what seemed startling in its subject-matter; but that time has long since passed, and it is not probable that any reviewer of the new edition now reprinted verbatim from the edition of 1866 will so much as allude to the timid shrieks which went up from the reviewers of that year, except perhaps as one of the curiosities of literature.

A poet is always interesting and instructive when he talks about himself, and Swinburne, in his dedicatory epistle to his 'best and dearest friend,' Mr. Watts-Dunton, who has been the finest, the surest, and the subtlest critic of poetry now living, talks about himself, or rather about his work, with a proud and simple frankness. It is not only interesting, but of considerable critical significance, to know that, among his plays, Swinburne prefers Mary Stuart, and, among his lyrical poems, the ode on Athens and the[Pg 155] ode on the Armada. 'By the test of these two poems,' he tells us, 'I am content that my claims should be decided and my station determined as a lyric poet in the higher sense of the term; a craftsman in the most ambitious line of his art that ever aroused or can arouse the emulous aspiration of his kind.'

In one sense a poet is always the most valuable critic of his own work; in another sense his opinion is almost valueless. He knows, better than any one else, what he wanted to do, and he knows, better than any one else, how nearly he has done it. In judging his own technical skill in the accomplishment of his aim, it is easy for him to be absolutely unbiased, technique being a thing wholly apart from one's self, an acquirement. But, in a poem, the way it is done is by no means everything; something else, the vital element in it, the quality of inspiration, as we rightly call it, has to be determined. Of this the poet is rarely a judge. To him it is a part of himself, and he is scarcely more capable of questioning its validity than he is of questioning his own intentions. To him it is enough that it is his. Conscious, as he may rightly be, of genius, how can he[Pg 156] discriminate, in his own work, between the presence or the absence of that genius, which, though it means everything, may be absent in a production technically faultless, or present in a production less strictly achieved according to rule? Swinburne, it is evident, grudges some of the fame which has set Atalanta in Calydon higher in general favour than Erechtheus, and, though he is perfectly right in every reason which he gives for setting Erechtheus above Atalanta in Calydon, the fact remains that there is something in the latter which is not, in anything like the same degree, in the former: a certain spontaneity, a prodigal wealth of inspiration. In exactly the same way, while the ode on Athens and the ode on the Armada are alike magnificent as achievements, there is no more likelihood of Swinburne going down to posterity as the writer of those two splendid poems than there is of Coleridge, to take Swinburne's own instance, being remembered as the writer of the ode to France rather than as the writer of the ode on Dejection. The ode to France is a product of the finest poetical rhetoric; the ode on Dejection is a growth of the profoundest poetical genius.

[Pg 157]

Another point on which Swinburne takes for granted what is perhaps his highest endowment as a poet, while dwelling with fine enthusiasm on the 'entire and absolute sincerity' of a whole section of poems in which the sincerity itself might well have been taken for granted, is that marvellous metrical inventiveness which is without parallel in English or perhaps in any other literature. 'A writer conscious of any natural command over the musical resources of his language,' says Swinburne, 'can hardly fail to take such pleasure in the enjoyment of this gift or instinct as the greatest writer and the greatest versifier of our age must have felt at its highest possible degree when composing a musical exercise of such incomparable scope and fulness as Les Djinns.' In metrical inventiveness Swinburne is as much Victor Hugo's superior as the English language is superior to the French in metrical capability. His music has never the sudden bird's flight, the thrill, pause, and unaccountable ecstasy of the very finest lyrics of Blake or of Coleridge; one never wholly forgets the artist in the utterance. But where he is incomparable is in an 'arduous fulness' of[Pg 158] intricate harmony, around which the waves of melody flow, foam and scatter like the waves of the sea about a rock. No poet has ever loved or praised the sea as Swinburne has loved and praised it; and to no poet has it been given to create music with words in so literal an analogy with the inflexible and vital rhythmical science of the sea.

In his reference to the 'clatter aroused' by the first publication of the wonderful volume now reprinted, the first series of Poems and Ballads, Swinburne has said with tact, precision, and finality all that need ever be said on the subject. He records, with a touch of not unkindly humour, his own 'deep diversion of collating and comparing the variously inaccurate verdicts of the scornful or mournful censors who insisted on regarding all the studies of passion or sensation attempted or achieved in it as either confessions of positive fact or excursions of absolute fancy.' And, admitting that there was work in it of both kinds, he claims, with perfect justice, that 'if the two kinds cannot be distinguished, it is surely rather a credit than a discredit to an artist whose medium or material has more in[Pg 159] common with a musician's than with a sculptor's.' Rarely has the prying ignorance of ordinary criticism been more absurdly evident than in the criticisms on Poems and Ballads, in which the question as to whether these poems were or were not the record of personal experience was debated with as much solemn fury as if it really mattered in the very least. When a poem has once been written, of what consequence is it to anybody whether it was inspired by a line of Sappho or by a lady living round the corner? There may be theoretical preferences, and these may be rationally enough argued, as to whether one should work from life or from memory or from imagination. But, the poem once written, only one question remains: is it a good or a bad poem? A poem of Coleridge or of Wordsworth is neither better nor worse because it came to the one in a dream and to the other in 'a storm, worse if possible, in which the pony could (or would) only make his way slantwise.' The knowledge of the circumstances or the antecedents of composition is, no doubt, as gratifying to human curiosity as the personal paragraphs in the[Pg 160] newspapers; it can hardly be of much greater importance.

A passage in Swinburne's dedicatory epistle which was well worth saying, a passage which comes with doubled force from a poet who is also a scholar, is that on books which are living things: 'Marlowe and Shakespeare, Æschylus and Sappho, do not for us live only on the dusty shelves of libraries.' To Swinburne, as he says, the distinction between books and life is but a 'dullard's distinction,' and it may justly be said of him that it is with an equal instinct and an equal enthusiasm that he is drawn to whatever in nature, in men, in books, or in ideas is great, noble, and heroic. The old name of Laudi, which has lately been revived by d'Annunzio, might be given to the larger part of Swinburne's lyric verse: it is filled by a great praising of the universe. To the prose-minded reader who reads verse in the intervals of newspaper and business there must be an actual fatigue in merely listening to so unintermittent a hymn of thanksgiving. Here is a poet, he must say, who is without any moderation at all; birds at dawn, praising light, are not more troublesome to a sleeper.

[Pg 161]

Reading the earlier and the later Swinburne on a high rock around which the sea is washing, one is struck by the way in which these cadences, in their unending, ever-varying flow, seem to harmonise with the rhythm of the sea. Here one finds, at least, and it is a great thing to find, a rhythm inherent in nature. A mean, or merely bookish, rhythm is rebuked by the sea, as a trivial or insincere thought is rebuked by the stars. 'We are what suns and winds and waters make us,' as Landor knew: the whole essence of Swinburne seems to be made by the rush and soft flowing impetus of the sea. The sea has passed into his blood like a passion and into his verse like a transfiguring element. It is actually the last word of many of his poems, and it is the first and last word of his poetry.

He does not make pictures, for he does not see the visible world without an emotion which troubles his sight. He sees as through a cloud of rapture. Sight is to him a transfiguring thrill, and his record of things seen is clouded over with shining words and broken into little separate shafts and splinters of light. He has still, undimmed,[Pg 162] the child's awakenings to wonder, love, reverence, the sense of beauty in every sensation. He has the essentially lyric quality, joy, in almost unparalleled abundance. There is for him no tedium in things, because, to his sense, books catch up and continue the delights of nature, and with books and nature he has all that he needs for a continual inner communing.

In this new book there are poems of nature, poems of the sea, the lake, the high oaks, the hawthorn, a rosary, Northumberland; and there are poems of books, poems about Burns, Christina Rossetti, Rabelais, Dumas, and about Shakespeare and his circle. In all the poems about books in this volume there is excellent characterisation, excellent criticism, and in the ode to Burns a very notable discrimination of the greater Burns, not the Burns of the love-poems but the fighter, the satirist, the poet of strenuous laughter.

But love and wine were moon and sun
For many a fame long since undone,
And sorrow and joy have lost and won
By stormy turns
As many a singer's soul, if none
More bright than Burns.
[Pg 163]
And sweeter far in grief and mirth
Have songs as glad and sad of birth
Found voice to speak of wealth or dearth
In joy of life:
But never song took fire from earth
More strong for strife.
         *         *         *         *         *
Above the storms of praise and blame
That blur with mist his lustrous name,
His thunderous laughter went and came,
And lives and flies;
The war that follows on the flame
When lightning dies.

Here the homage is given with splendid energy, but with fine justice. There are other poems of homage in this book, along with denunciations, as there are on so many pages of the Songs before Sunrise and the Songs of Two Nations, in which the effect is far less convincing, as it is far less clear. Whether Mazzini or Nelson be praised, Napoleon III. or Gladstone be buffeted, little distinction, save of degree, can be discerned between the one and the other. The hate poems, it must be admitted, are more interesting, partly because they are more distinguishable, than the poems of adoration; for hate seizes upon the [Pg 164]lineaments which love glorifies willingly out of recognition. There was a finely ferocious energy in the Dirae ending with The Descent into Hell of 9th January 1873, and there is a good swinging and slashing vigour in The Commonweal of 1886. Why is it that this deeply felt political verse, like so much of the political verse of the Songs before Sunrise, does not satisfy the ear or the mind like the early love poetry or the later nature poetry? Is it not that one distinguishes only a voice, not a personality behind the voice? Speech needs weight, though song only needs wings.

I set the trumpet to my lips and blow,

said Swinburne in the Songs before Sunrise, when he was the trumpeter of Mazzini.

And yet, it must be remembered, Swinburne has always meant exactly what he has said, and this fact points an amusing contrast between the attitude of the critics thirty years ago towards work which was then new and their attitude now towards the same work when it is thirty years old. There is, in the Songs before Sunrise, an arraignment of Christianity as deliberate[Pg 165] as Leconte de Lisle's, as wholesale as Nietzsche's; in the Poems and Ballads, a learned sensuality without parallel in English poetry; and the critics, or the descendants of the critics, who, when these poems first appeared, could see nothing but these accidental qualities of substance, are now, thanks merely to the triumph of time, to the ease with which time forgets and forgives, able to take all such things for granted, and to acknowledge the genuine and essential qualities of lyric exaltation and generous love of liberty by which the poems exist, and have a right to exist, as poems. But when we are told that Before a Crucifix is a poem fundamentally reverent towards Christianity, and that Anactoria is an ascetic experiment in scholarship, a learned attempt at the reconstruction of the order of Sappho, it is difficult not to wonder with what kind of smile the writer of these poems reflects anew over the curiosities of criticism. I have taken the new book and the old book together, because there is surprisingly little difference between the form and manner of the old poems and the new. The contents of A Channel Passage are[Pg 166] unusually varied in subject, and the longest poem, The Altar of Righteousness, a marvellous piece of rhythmical architecture, is unusually varied in form. Technically the whole book shows Swinburne at his best; if, indeed, he may ever be said not to be at his best, technically. Is there any other instance in our literature of a perfection of technique so unerring, so uniform, that it becomes actually fatiguing? It has often foolishly been said that the dazzling brilliance of Swinburne's form is apt to disguise a certain thinness or poverty of substance. It seems to me, on the contrary, that we are often in danger of overlooking the imaginative subtlety of phrases and epithets which are presented to us and withdrawn from us in a flash, on the turn of a wave. Most poets present us with their best effects deliberately, giving them as weighty an accent as they can; Swinburne scatters them by the way. Take, for instance, the line:

The might of the night subsided: the tyranny kindled in darkness fell.

The line comes rearing like a wave, and has fallen and raced past us before we have[Pg 167] properly grasped what is imaginatively fine in the latter clause. Presented to us in the manner of slower poets, thus:

The tyranny
Kindled in darkness fell,

how much more easily do we realise the quality of the speech which goes to make this song.

And yet there is no doubt that Swinburne has made his own moulds of language, as he has made his own moulds of rhythm, and that he is apt, when a thought or a sensation which he has already expressed recurs to him, to use the mould which stands ready made in his memory, instead of creating language over again, to fit a hair's-breadth of difference in the form of thought or sensation. That is why, in this book, in translating a 'roundel' of Villon which Rossetti had already translated, he misses the naïve quality of the French which Rossetti, in a version not in all points so faithful as this, had been able, in some subtle way, to retain. His own moulds of language recur to him, and he will not stop to think that 'wife,' though a good word[Pg 168] for his rhyme scheme, is not a word that Villon could have used, and that

Deux estions et n'avions qu'ung cueur,

though it is perfectly rendered by Rossetti in

Two we were and the heart was one,

is turned into a wholly different, a Swinburnian thing, by

Twain we were, and our hearts one song,
One heart.

Nor is 'Dead as the carver's figured throng' (for 'Comme les images, par cueur') either clear in meaning, or characteristic of Villon in form. Is it not one of the penalties of extreme technical ability that the hand at times works, as it were, blindly, without the delicate vigilance or direction of the brain?

Of the poems contained in this new volume, the title-poem, A Channel Passage, is perhaps the finest. It is the record of a memory, fifty years old, and it is filled with a passionate ecstasy in the recollection of

Three glad hours, and it seemed not an hour of supreme and supernal joy,
Filled full with delight that revives in remembrance a sea-bird's heart in a boy.

It may be that Swinburne has praised the[Pg 169] sea more eloquently, or sung of it more melodiously, but not in the whole of his works is there a poem fuller of personal rapture in the communion of body and soul with the very soul of the sea in storm. The Lake of Gaube is remarkable for an exultant and very definite and direct rendering of the sensation of a dive through deep water. There are other sea-poems in the two brief and concentrated poems in honour of Nelson; the most delicate of the poems of flowers in A Rosary; the most passionate and memorable of the political poems in Russia: an Ode; the Elizabethan prologues. These poems, so varied in subject and manner, are the work of many years; to those who love Swinburne most as a lyric poet they will come with special delight, for they represent, in almost absolute equality, almost every side of his dazzling and unique lyric genius.

The final volume of the greatest lyrical poet since Shelley contains three books, each published at an interval of ten years: the Midsummer Holiday of 1884, the Astrophel of 1894, and the Channel Passage of 1904. Choice among them is as difficult[Pg 170] as it is unnecessary. They are alike in their ecstatic singing of the sea, of great poets and great men, of England and liberty, and of children. One contains the finest poems about the sea from on shore, another the finest poem about the sea from at sea, and the other the finest poem about the earth from the heart of the woods. Even in Swinburne's work the series of nine ballades in long lines which bears the name of A Midsummer Holiday stands out as a masterpiece of its kind, and of a unique kind. A form of French verse, which up to then had been used, since the time when Villon used it as no man has used it before or since, and almost exclusively in iambic measures, is suddenly transported from the hothouse into the open air, is stretched and moulded beyond all known limits, and becomes, it may almost be said, a new lyric form. After A Midsummer Holiday no one can contend any longer that the ballade is a structure necessarily any more artificial than the sonnet. But then in the hands of Swinburne an acrostic would cease to be artificial.

In this last volume the technique which[Pg 171] is seen apparently perfected in the Poems and Ballads of 1866 has reached a point from which that relative perfection looks easy and almost accidental. Something is lost, no doubt, and much has changed. But to compare the metrical qualities of Dolores or even of The Triumph of Time with the metrical qualities of On the Verge is almost like comparing the art of Thomas Moore with the art of Coleridge. In Swinburne's development as a poet the metrical development is significant of every change through which the poet has passed. Subtlety and nobility, the appeal of ever homelier and loftier things, are seen more and more clearly in his work, as the metrical qualities of it become purified and intensified, with always more of subtlety and distinction, an energy at last tamed to the needs and paces of every kind of beauty.


'Charles Lamb, as I need not remind you,' says Swinburne in his dedicatory epistle to the collected edition of his poems, 'wrote for antiquity: nor need you be assured that[Pg 172] when I write plays it is with a view to their being acted at the Globe, the Red Bull, or the Black Friars.' In another part of the same epistle, he says: 'My first if not my strongest ambition was to do something worth doing, and not utterly unworthy of a young countryman of Marlowe the teacher and Webster the pupil of Shakespeare, in the line of work which those three poets had left as a possibly unattainable example for ambitious Englishmen. And my first book, written while yet under academic or tutoral authority, bore evidence of that ambition in every line.' And indeed we need not turn four pages to come upon a mimicry of the style of Shakespeare so close as this:

We are so more than poor,
The dear'st of all our spoil would profit you
Less than mere losing; so most more than weak
It were but shame for one to smite us, who
Could but weep louder.

A Shakespearean trick is copied in such lines as:

All other women's praise
Makes part of my blame, and things of least account
In them are all my praises.

And there is a jester who talks in a metre[Pg 173] that might have come straight out of Beaumont and Fletcher, as here:

I am considering of that apple still;
It hangs in the mouth yet sorely; I would fain know too
Why nettles are not good to eat raw. Come, children,
Come, my sweet scraps; come, painted pieces; come.

Touches of the early Browning come into this Elizabethan work, come and go there, as in these lines:

What are you made God's friend for but to have
His hand over your head to keep it well
And warm the rainy weather through, when snow
Spoils half the world's work?

And does one not hear Beddoes in the grim line, spoken of the earth:

Naked as brown feet of unburied men?

An influence still more closely contemporary seems to be felt in Fair Rosamond, the influence of that extraordinarily individual blank verse which William Morris had made his first and last experiment in, two years earlier, in Sir Peter Harpdon's End.

So many influences, then, are seen at work on the form at least of these two plays, published at the age of twenty-three. [Pg 174]Fair Rosamond, though it has beautiful lines here and there, and shows some anticipation of that luxurious heat and subtle rendering of physical sensation which was to be so evident in the Poems and Ballads, is altogether a less mature piece of work, less satisfactory in every way, than the longer and more regular drama of The Queen-Mother. Swinburne speaks of the two pieces without distinction, and finds all that there is in them of promise or of merit 'in the language and the style of such better passages as may perhaps be found in single and separable speeches of Catherine and of Rosamond.' But the difference between these speeches is very considerable. Those of Rosamond are wholly elegiac, lamentations and meditations recited, without or against occasion. In the best speeches of Catherine there is not only a more masculine splendour of language, a firmer cadence, there is also some indication of that 'power to grapple with the realities and subtleties of character and of motive' which Swinburne finds largely lacking in them. A newspaper critic, reviewing the book in 1861, said: 'We should have conceived it hardly possible to make[Pg 175] the crimes of Catherine de' Medici dull, however they were presented. Swinburne, however, has done so.' It seems to me, on the contrary, that the whole action, undramatic as it is in the strict sense of the theatre, is breathlessly interesting. The two great speeches of the play, the one beginning 'That God that made high things,' and the one beginning 'I would fain see rain,' are indeed more splendid in execution than significant as drama, but they have their dramatic significance, none the less. There is a Shakespearean echo, but is there not also a preparation of the finest Swinburnian harmonies, in such lines as these?

I should be mad,
I talk as one filled through with wine; thou God,
Whose thunder is confusion of the hills,
And with wrath sown abolishes the fields,
I pray thee if thy hand would ruin us,
Make witness of it even this night that is
The last for many cradles, and the grave
Of many reverend seats; even at this turn,
This edge of season, this keen joint of time,
Finish and spare not.

The verse is harder, tighter, more closely packed with figurative meaning than perhaps any of Swinburne's later verse. It is less[Pg 176] fluid, less 'exuberant and effusive' (to accept two epithets of his own in reference to the verse of Atalanta in Calydon). He is ready to be harsh when harshness is required, abrupt for some sharp effect; he holds out against the enervating allurements of alliteration; he can stop when he has said the essential thing.

In the first book of most poets there is something which will be found in no other book; some virginity of youth, lost with the first intercourse with print. In The Queen-Mother and Rosamond Swinburne is certainly not yet himself, he has not yet settled down within his own limits. But what happy strayings beyond those limits! What foreign fruits and flowers, brought back from far countries! In these two plays there is no evidence, certainly, of a playwright; but there is no evidence that their writer could never become one. And there is evidence already of a poet of original genius and immense accomplishment, a poet with an incomparable gift of speech. That this technical quality, at least, the sound of these new harmonies in English verse, awakened no ears to attention, would be[Pg 177] more surprising if one did not remember that two years earlier the first and best of William Morris's books was saluted as 'a Manchester mystery, not a real vision,' and that two years later the best though not the first of George Meredith's books of verse, Modern Love, was noticed only to be hooted at. Rossetti waited, and was wise.

The plays of Swinburne, full as they are of splendid poetry, and even of splendid dramatic poetry, suffer from a lack of that 'continual slight novelty' which great drama, more than any other poetical form, requires. There is, in the writing, a monotony of excellence, which becomes an actual burden upon the reader. Here is a poet who touches nothing that he does not transform, who can, as in Mary Stuart, fill scores of pages with talk of lawyers, conspirators, and statesmen, versifying history as closely as Shakespeare versified it, and leaving in the result less prose deposit than Shakespeare left. It is perhaps because in this play he has done a more difficult thing than in any other that the writer has come to prefer this to any other of his plays; as men in general prefer a triumph over difficulties to a triumph. A[Pg 178] similar satisfaction, not in success but in the overcoming of difficulties, leads him to say of the modern play, The Sisters, that it is the only modern English play 'in which realism in the reproduction of natural dialogue and accuracy in the representation of natural intercourse between men and women of gentle birth and breeding have been found or made compatible with expression in genuine if simple blank verse.' This may be as true as that, in the astounding experiment of Locrine, none of 'the life of human character or the life-likeness of dramatic dialogue has suffered from the bondage of rhyme or has been sacrificed to the exigences of metre.' But when all is said, when an unparalleled skill in language, versification, and everything that is verbal in form, has been admitted, and with unqualified admiration; when, in addition, one has admitted, with not less admiration, noble qualities of substance, superb qualities of poetic imagination, there still remains the question: is either substance or form consistently dramatic? and the further question: can work professedly dramatic which is not consistently dramatic in substance and form be accepted[Pg 179] as wholly satisfactory from any other point of view?

The trilogy on Mary Queen of Scots must remain the largest and most ambitious attempt which Swinburne has made. The first part, Chastelard, was published in 1865; the last, Mary Stuart, in 1881. And what Swinburne says in speaking of the intermediate play, Bothwell, may be said of them all: 'I will add that I took as much care and pains as though I had been writing or compiling a history of the period to do loyal justice to all the historic figures which came within the scope of my dramatic or poetic design.' Of Bothwell, the longest of the three plays—indeed, the longest play in existence, Swinburne says: 'That ambitious, conscientious, and comprehensive piece of work is of course less properly definable as a tragedy than by the old Shakespearean term of a chronicle history.' Definition is not defence, and it has yet to be shown that the 'chronicle' form is in itself a legitimate or satisfactory dramatic form. Shakespeare's use of it proves only that he found his way through chronicle to drama, and to take his work in the chronicle play as a model is[Pg 180] hardly more reasonable than to take Venus and Adonis as a model for narrative poetry. But, further, there is no play of Shakespeare's, chronicle or other, which might not at least be conceived of, if not on the stage of our time, at least on that of his, or on that of any time when drama was allowed to live its own life according to its own nature. Can we conceive of Bothwell even on the stage which has seen Les Burgraves? The Chinese theatre, which goes on from morning to night without a pause, might perhaps grapple with it; but no other. Nor would cutting be of any use, for what the stage-manager would cut away would be largely just such parts as are finest in the printed play.

There is, in most of Swinburne's plays, some scene or passage of vital dramatic quality, and in Bothwell there is one scene, the scene leading to the death of Darnley, which is among the great single scenes in drama. But there is not even any such scene in the whole of the lovely and luxurious song of Chastelard or in the severe and strenuous study of Mary Stuart. There are moments, in all, where speech is as simple,[Pg 181] as explicit, as expressive as speech in verse can be; and no one will ever speak in verse more naturally than this:

Well, all is one to me: and for my part
I thank God I shall die without regret
Of anything that I have done alive.

These simple beginnings are apt indeed to lead to their end by ways as tortuous as this:

Indeed I have done all this if aught I have,
And loved at all or loathed, save what mine eye
Hath ever loathed or loved since first it saw
That face which taught it faith and made it first
Think scorn to turn and look on change, or see
How hateful in my love's sight are their eyes
That give love's light to others.

But, even when speech is undiluted, and expresses with due fire or calmness the necessary feeling of the moment, it is nearly always mere speech, a talking about action or emotion, not itself action or emotion. And every scene, even the finest, is thought of as a scene of talk, not as visible action; the writer hears his people speak, but does not see their faces or where or how they stand or move. It is this power of [Pg 182]visualisation that is the first requirement of the dramatist; by itself it can go no further than the ordering of dumb show; but all drama must begin with the ordering of dumb show, and should be playable without words.

It was once said by William Morris that Swinburne's poems did not make pictures. The criticism was just, but mattered little; because they make harmonies. No English poet has ever shown so great and various a mastery over harmony in speech, and it is this lyrical quality which has given him a place among the great lyrical poets of England. In drama the lyrical gift is essential to the making of great poetic drama, but to the dramatist it should be an addition rather than a substitute. Throughout all these plays it is first and last and all but everything. It is for this reason that a play like Locrine, which is confessedly, by its very form, a sequence of lyrics, comes more nearly to being satisfactory as a whole than any of the more 'ambitious, conscientious, and comprehensive' plays. Marino Faliero, though an episode of history, comes into somewhat the same[Pg 183] category, and repeats with nobler energy the song-like character of Chastelard. The action is brief and concentrated, tragic and heroic. Its 'magnificent monotony,' its 'fervent and inexhaustible declamation,' have a height and heat in them which turn the whole play into a poem rather than a play, but a poem comparable with the 'succession of dramatic scenes or pictures' which makes the vast lyric of Tristram of Lyonesse. To think of Byron's play on the same subject, to compare the actual scenes which can be paralleled in both plays, is to realise how much more can be done, in poetry and even in drama, by a great lyric poet with a passion for what is heroic in human nature and for what is ardent and unlimited in human speech, than by a poet who saw in Faliero only the politician, and in the opportunities of verse only the opportunity for thin and shrewish rhetoric pulled and lopped into an intermittent resemblance to metre.

The form of Locrine has something in common with the form of Atalanta in Calydon, with a kind of sombre savagery in the subject which recurs only once, and[Pg 184] less lyrically, in Rosamund, Queen of the Lombards. It is written throughout in rhyme, and the dialogue twists and twines, without effort, through rhyme arrangements which change in every scene, beginning and ending with couplets, and passing through the sonnet, Petrarchan and Shakespearean, ottava rima, terza rima, the six-line stanza of crossed rhymes and couplet, the seven-line stanza used by Shakespeare in the Rape of Lucrece, a nine-line stanza of two rhymes, and a scene composed of seven stanzas of chained octaves in which a third rhyme comes forward in the last line but one (after the manner of terza rima) and starts a new octave, which closes at the end in a stanza of two rhymes only, the last line but one turning back instead of forward, to lock the chain's circle. No other English poet who ever lived could have written dialogue under such conditions, and it is not less true than strange that these fetters act as no more than a beating of time to the feet that dance in them. The emotion is throughout at white heat; there is lyrical splendour even in the arguments: and a child's prattle, in nine-line stanzas[Pg 185] of two rhymes apiece, goes as merrily as this:

That song is hardly even as wise as I—
Nay, very foolishness it is. To die
In March before its life were well on wing,
Before its time and kindly season—why
Should spring be sad—before the swallows fly—
Enough to dream of such a wintry thing?
Such foolish words were more unmeet for spring
Than snow for summer when his heart is high:
And why should words be foolish when they sing?

Swinburne is a great master of blank verse; there is nothing that can be done with blank verse that he cannot do with it. Listen to these lines from Mary Stuart:

She shall be a world's wonder to all time,
A deadly glory watched of marvelling men
Not without praise, not without noble tears,
And if without what she would never have
Who had it never, pity—yet from none
Quite without reverence and some kind of love
For that which was so royal.

There is in them something of the cadence of Milton and something of the cadence of Shakespeare, and they are very Swinburne. Yet, after reading Locrine, and with Atalanta and Erechtheus in memory, it is difficult not to wish that Swinburne had[Pg 186] written all his plays in rhyme, and that they had all been romantic plays and not histories. Locrine has been acted, and might well be acted again. Its rhyme would sound on the stage with another splendour than the excellent and well-sounding rhymes into which Mr. Gilbert Murray has translated Euripides. And there would be none of that difficulty which seems to be insuperable on the modern stage: the chorus, which, whether it speaks, or chants, or sings, seems alike out of place and out of key.

The tragic anecdote which Swinburne has told in Rosamund, Queen of the Lombards, is told with a directness and conciseness unusual in his dramatic or lyric work. The story, simple, barbarous, and cruel—a story of the year 573—acts itself out before us in large clear outlines, with surprisingly little of modern self-consciousness. The book is a small one, the speeches are short, and the words for the most part short too; every speech tells like an action in words; there is scarcely a single merely decorative passage from beginning to end. Here and there the lines become lyric, as in

[Pg 187]
Thou rose,
Why did God give thee more than all thy kin,
Whose pride is perfume only and colour, this?
Music? No rose but mine sings, and the birds
Hush all their hearts to hearken. Dost thou hear not
How heavy sounds her note now?

But even here the lyrical touch marks a point of 'business.' And for the most part the speeches are as straightforward as prose; are indeed written with a deliberate aim at a sort of prose effect. For instance:

God must be
Dead. Such a thing as thou could never else
That concerns not thee nor me. Be thou
Sure that my will and power to serve it live.
Lift now thine eyes to look upon thy lord.

Compare these lines with the lines which end the fourth act:

I cannot slay him
Canst thou slay thy bride by fire? He dies,
Or she dies, bound against the stake. His death
Were the easier. Follow him: save her: strike but once.
[Pg 188]
I cannot. God requite thee this! I will.
And I will see it. And, father, thou shalt see.

In both these instances one sees the quality which is most conspicuous in this play—a naked strength, which is the same kind of strength that has always been present in Swinburne's plays, but hitherto draped elaborately, and often more than half concealed in the draperies. The outline of every play has been hard, sharp, firmly drawn; the characters always forthright and unwavering; there has always been a real precision in the main drift of the speeches; but this is the first time in which the outlines have been left to show themselves in all their sharpness. Development or experiment, whichever it may be, this resolute simplicity brings a new quality into Swinburne's work, and a quality full of dramatic possibilities. All the luxuriousness of his verse has gone, and the lines ring like sword clashing against sword. These savage and simple people of the sixth century do not turn over their thoughts before[Pg 189] concentrating them into words, and they do not speak except to tell their thoughts. Imagine what even Murray, in Chastelard, a somewhat curt speaker, would have said in place of Almachildes's one line, a whole conflict of love, hate, honour, and shame in eight words:

I cannot. God requite thee this! I will.

Dramatic realism can go no further than such lines. The question remains whether dramatic realism is in itself an altogether desirable thing, and whether Swinburne in particular does not lose more than he gains by such self-restraint.

The poetic drama is in itself a compromise. That people should speak in verse is itself a violation of probability; and so strongly is this felt by most actors that they endeavour, in acting a play in verse, to make the verse sound as much like prose as possible. But, as it seems to me, the aim of the poetic drama is to create a new world in a new atmosphere, where the laws of human existence are no longer recognised. The aim of the poetic drama is beauty, not truth; and Shakespeare, to take the supreme example, is great, not because he[Pg 190] makes Othello probable as a jealous husband, or gives him exactly the words that a jealous husband might have used, but because he creates in him an image of more than human energy, and puts into his mouth words of a more splendid poetry than any one but Shakespeare himself could have found to say. Fetter the poetic drama to an imitation of actual speech, and you rob it of the convention which is its chief glory and best opportunity. A new colour may certainly be given to that convention, by which a certain directness, rather of Dante than of Shakespeare, may be employed for its novel kind of beauty, convention being still recognised as convention. No doubt that is really Swinburne's aim, and to have succeeded in it is to show that he can master every form, and do as he pleases with language. And there are passages in the play, like this one, which have a fervid colour of their own, fully characteristic of the writer who has put more Southern colouring into English verse than any other English poet:

This sun—no sun like ours—burns out my soul.
I would, when June takes hold on us like fire,
The wind could waft and whirl us northward: here
[Pg 191]
The splendour and the sweetness of the world
Eat out all joy of life or manhood. Earth
Is here too hard on heaven—the Italian air
Too bright to breathe, as fire, its next of kin,
Too keen to handle. God, whoe'er God be,
Keep us from withering as the lords of Rome—
Slackening and sickening toward the imperious end
That wiped them out of empire! Yea, he shall.

The atmosphere of the play is that of June at Verona, and the sun's heat seems to beat upon us all through its brief and fevered action. Swinburne's words never make pictures, but they are unparalleled in their power of conveying atmosphere. He sees with a certain generalised vision—it might almost be said that he sees musically; but no English poet has ever presented bodily sensation with such curious and subtle intensity. And just as he renders bodily sensation carried to the point of agony, so he is at his best when dealing, as here, with emotion tortured to the last limit of endurance. Albovine, the king, sets bare his heart, confessing:

The devil and God are crying in either ear
One murderous word for ever, night and day,
Dark day and deadly night and deadly day,
Can she love thee who slewest her father? I
Love her.

[Pg 192]

Rosamund, his wife, meditating her monstrous revenge, confesses:

I am yet alive to question if I live
And wonder what may ever bid me die.
.         .         .         .         There is nought
Left in the range and record of the world
For me that is not poisoned: even my heart
Is all envenomed in me.

And she recognises that

No healing and no help for life on earth
Hath God or man found out save death and sleep.

The two young lovers, caught innocently in a net of intolerable shame, can but question and answer one another thus:

Hast thou forgiven me?
I have not forgiven

And at the end Narsetes, the old councillor, the only one of the persons of the drama who is not the actor or the sufferer of some subtle horror, sums up all that has happened in a reflection which casts the responsibility of things further off than to the edge of the world:

Let none make moan. This doom is none of man's.

[Pg 193]

As in the time of the great first volume of Poems and Ballads, Swinburne is still drawn to

What fools God's anger makes of men.

He has never been a philosophical thinker; but he has acquired the equivalent of a philosophy through his faithfulness to a single outlook upon human life and destiny. And in this brief and burning play, more than in much of his later writing, I find the reflection of that unique temperament, to which real things are so abstract, and abstract things so coloured and tangible; a temperament in which there is almost too much poetry for a poet—as pure gold, to be worked in, needs to be mingled with alloy.

There is, perhaps, no more terrible story in the later history of the world, no actual tragedy more made to the hand of the dramatist, than the story of the Borgias. In its entirety it would make another Cenci, in the hands of another Shelley, and another Censor would prohibit the one as he prohibits the other. We are not permitted to deal with some form of evil on the stage. Yet what has Shelley said?

[Pg 194]

There must be nothing attempted to make the exhibition subservient to what is vulgarly termed a moral purpose. The highest moral purpose aimed at in the highest species of the drama is the teaching the human heart, through its sympathies and antipathies, the knowledge of itself.

A great drama on the story of the Borgias could certainly have much to teach the human heart in the knowledge of itself. It would be moral in its presentation of the most ignobly splendid vices that have swayed the world; of the pride and defiance which rise like a strangling serpent, coiling about the momentary weakness of good; of that pageant in which the pagan gods came back, drunk and debauched with their long exile under the earth, and the garden-god assumed the throne of the Holy of Holies. Alexander, Cæsar, Lucrezia, the threefold divinity, might be shown as a painter has shown one of them on the wall of one of his own chapels: a swinish portent in papal garments, kneeling, bloated, thinking of Lucrezia, with fingers folded over the purple of his rings. Or the family might have been shown as Rossetti, in one of the loveliest, most cruel, and most significant of his pictures, has[Pg 195] shown it: a light, laughing masquerade of innocence, the boy and girl dancing before the cushioned idol and her two worshippers.

Swinburne in The Duke of Gandia has not dealt with the whole matter of the story—only, in a single act of four scenes, with the heart or essence of it. The piece is not drama for the stage, nor intended to be seen or heard outside the pages of a book; but it is meant to be, and is, a great, brief, dramatic poem, a lyric almost, of hate, ambition, fear, desire, and the conquest of ironic evil. Swinburne has written nothing like it before. The manner of it is new, or anticipated only in the far less effectual Rosamund, Queen of the Lombards; the style, speech, and cadence are tightened, restrained, full of sullen fierceness. Lucrezia, strangely, is no more than a pale image passing without consciousness through some hot feast-room; she is there, she is hidden under their speech, but we scarcely see her, and, like her historians, wonder if she was so evil, or only a scholar to whom learned men wrote letters, as if to a pattern of virtue. But in the father and son live a flame and a cloud, the flame rising steadily to beat back and consume the cloud.[Pg 196] It is Cæsar Borgia who is the flame, and Alexander the Pope who fills the Vatican and the world with his contagious clouds. The father, up to this moment, has held all his vices well in hand; he has no rival; his sons and his daughter he has made, and they live about him for their own pleasure, and he watches them, and is content. Now one steps out, the circle is broken; there is no longer a younger son, a cardinal, but the Duke of Gandia, eldest son and on the highest step of the Pope's chair. It is, in this brief, almost speechless moment of action, as if the door of a furnace had suddenly been thrown open and then shut. One scene stands out, only surpassed by the terrible and magnificent scene leading up to the death of Darnley—a scene itself only surpassed, in its own pitiful and pitiless kind, by that death of Marlowe's king in the dungeons of Berkeley Castle, which, to all who can endure to read it, 'moves pity and terror,' as to Lamb, 'beyond any scene ancient or modern.' And only in Bothwell, in the whole of Swinburne's drama, is there speech so adequate, so human, so full of fear and suspense. Take, for instance, the [Pg 197]opening of the great final scene. The youngest son has had his elder brother drowned in the Tiber, and after seven days he appears calmly before his father.

Alex. Thou hast done this deed.
Cæsar. Thou hast said it.
Alex. Dost thou think
To live, and look upon me?
Cæsar. Some while yet.
Alex. I would there were a God—that he might hear.
Cæsar. 'Tis pity there should be—for thy sake—none.
Alex. Wilt thou slay me?
Cæsar. Why?
Alex. Am I not thy sire?
Cæsar. And Christendom's to boot.
Alex. I pray thee, man,
Slay me.
Cæsar. And then myself? Thou art crazed, but I
Alex. Art thou very flesh and blood?
Cæsar. They say,
Alex. If the heaven stand still and smite thee not,
There is no God indeed.
Cæsar. Nor thou nor I
Alex. I could pray to God that God might be,
Were I but mad. Thou sayest I am mad: thou liest:
I do not pray.

[Pg 198]

There, surely, is great dramatic speech, and the two men who speak face to face are seen clearly before us, naked to the sight. Yet even these lines do not make drama that would hold the stage. How is it that only one of our greater poets since the last of Shakespeare's contemporaries, and that one Shelley, has understood the complete art of the playwright, and achieved it? Byron, Coleridge, Browning, Tennyson, all wrote plays for the stage; all had their chance of being acted; Tennyson only made even a temporary success, and Becket is likely to have gone out with Irving. Landor wrote plays full of sublime poetry, but not meant for the stage; and now we have Swinburne following his example, but with an unexampled lyrical quality. Why, without capacity to deal with it, are our poets so insistent on using the only form for which a special faculty, outside the pure poetic gift, is inexorably required?

A poet so great as Swinburne, possessed by an ecstasy which turns into song as instinctively as the flawless inspiration of Mozart turned into divine melody, cannot be questioned. Mozart, without a special[Pg 199] genius for dramatic music, wrote Die Zauberflöte to a bad libretto with as great a perfection as the music to Don Giovanni, which had a good one. The same inspiration was there, always apt to the occasion. Swinburne is ready to write in any known form of verse, with an equal facility and (this is the all-important point) the same inspiration. Loving the form of the drama, and capable of turning it to his uses, not of bending it to its own, he has filled play after play with music, noble feeling, brave eloquence. Here in this briefest and most actual of his plays—an act, an episode—he has concentrated much of this floating beauty, this overflowing imagination, into a few stern and adequate words, and made a new thing, as always, in his own image. It is the irony that has given its precise form to this representation of a twofold Satan, as Blake might have seen him in vision, parodying God with unbreakable pride. The conflict between father and son ends in a kind of unholy litany. 'And now,' cries Cæsar, fresh from murder,

Behoves thee rise again as Christ our God,
Vicarious Christ, and cast as flesh away
This grief from off thy godhead.

[Pg 200]

And the old man, temporising with his grief, answers:

Thou art subtle and strong.
I would thou hadst spared him—couldst have spared him.

And the son replies:

I would so too. Our sire, his sire and mine,
I slew him not for lust of slaying, or hate,
Or aught less like thy wiser spirit and mine.

But Cæsar-Satan has already said the epilogue to the whole representation, when, speaking to his mother, he bids her leave the responsibility of things:

And God, who made me and my sire and thee,
May take the charge upon him.


Book: Reflection on the Important Things