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An essay by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch

Mr. Swinburne's Later Manner

Title:     Mr. Swinburne's Later Manner
Author: Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch [More Titles by Quiller-Couch]

May 5, 1894. Aloofness of Mr. Swinburne's Muse.

There was a time--let us say, in the early seventies--when many young men tried to write like Mr. Swinburne. Remarkably small success waited on their efforts. Still their numbers and their youth and (for a while also) their persistency seemed to promise a new school of poesy, with Mr. Swinburne for its head and great exemplar: exemplar rather than head, for Mr. Swinburne's attitude amid all this devotion was rather that of the god than of the priest. He sang, and left the worshippers to work up their own enthusiasm. And to this attitude he has been constant. Unstinting, and occasionally unmeasured, in praise and dispraise of other men, he has allowed his own reputation the noble liberty to look after itself. Nothing, for instance, could have been finer than the careless, almost disdainful, dignity of his bearing in the months that followed Tennyson's death. The cats were out upon the tiles, then, and his was the luminous, expressive silence of a sphere. One felt, "whether he received it or no, here is the man who can wear the crown."

And Her Tendency towards Abstractions.

It was not, however, the aloofness of Mr. Swinburne's bearing that checked the formation of a Swinburnian school of poetry. The cause lay deeper, and has come more and more into the light in the course of Mr. Swinburne's poetic development--let me say, his thoroughly normal development. We can see now that from the first such a school, such a successful following, was an impossibility. The fact is that Mr. Swinburne has not only genius, but an extremely rare and individual genius. The germ of this individuality may be found, easily enough, in "Atalanta" and the Ballads; but it luxuriates in his later poems and throughout them--flower and leaf and stem. It was hardly more natural in 1870 to confess the magic of the great chorus, "Before the beginning of years," or of "Dolores," than to embark upon the vain adventure of imitating them. I cannot imagine a youth in all Great Britain so green or unknowing as to attempt an imitation of "A Nympholept," perhaps the finest poem in the volume before me.

I say "in Great Britain;" because peculiar as Mr. Swinburne's genius would be in any country, it is doubly peculiar as the endowment of an English poet. If there be one quality beloved above others by the inhabitants of this island, it is concreteness; and I suppose there never was a poet in the world who used less concreteness of speech than Mr. Swinburne. Mr. Palgrave once noted that the landscape of Keats falls short of the landscape of Shelley in its comparative lack of the larger features of sky and earth; Keats's was "foreground work" for the most part. But what shall be said of Shelley's universe after the immense vague regions inhabited by Mr. Swinburne's muse? She sings of the sea; but we never behold a sail, never a harbor: she sings of passion--among the stars. We seem never to touch earth; page after page is full of thought--for, vast as the strain may be, it is never empty--but we cannot apply it. And all this is extremely distressing to the Briton, who loves practice as his birthright. He comes on a Jacobite song. "Now, at any rate," he tells himself, "we arrive at something definite: some allusion, however small, to Bonny Prince Charlie." He reads--

"Faith speaks when hope dissembles;
Faith lives when hope lies dead:
If death as life dissembles,
And all that night assembles
Of stars at dawn lie dead,
Faint hope that smiles and trembles
May tell not well for dread:
But faith has heard it said."

"Very beautiful," says the Briton; "but why call this a 'Jacobite Song'?" Some thorough-going admirer of Mr. Swinburne will ask, no doubt, if I prefer gush about Bonny Prince Charlie. Most decidedly I do not. I am merely pointing out that the poet cares so little for the common human prejudice in favor of concreteness of speech as to give us a Jacobite song which, for all its indebtedness to the historical facts of the Jacobite Risings, might just as well have been put in the mouth of Judas Maccabæus.

Somebody--I forget for the moment who it was--compared Poetry with Antæus, who was strong when his feet touched Earth, his mother; weaker when held aloft in air. The justice of this criticism I have no space here to discuss; but the difference is patent enough between poetry such as this of Herrick--

"When as in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
The liquefaction of her clothes."

Or this, of Burns--

"The boat rocks at the pier o' Leith,
Fu' loud the wind blaws frae the ferry,
The boat rides by the Berwick-law,
And I maun leave my bonny Mary."

Or this, of Shakespeare--

"When daisies pied, and violets blue,
And lady smocks all silver-white,
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
Do paint the meadows with delight."

Or this, of Milton--

"the broad circumference
Hung on his shoulders like the moon, whose orb,
Through optic glass the Tuscan artist views
At evening from the top of Fesolé,
Or in Valdarno...."

And such lines as these by Mr. Swinburne--

"The dark dumb godhead innate in the fair world's life
Imbues the rapture of dawn and of noon with dread,
Infects the peace of the star-shod night with strife,
Informs with terror the sorrow that guards the dead.
No service of bended knee or of humbled head
May soothe or subdue the God who has change to wife:
And life with death is as morning with evening wed."

Take Burns's song, "It was a' for our right-fu' King," and set it beside the Jacobite song quoted above, and it is clear at once that with Mr. Swinburne we pass from the particular and concrete to the general and abstract. And in this direction Mr. Swinburne's muse has steadily marched. In his "Erechtheus" he tells how the gods gave Pallas the lordship of Athens--

"The lordship and love of the lovely land,
The grace of the town that hath on it for crown
But a headband to wear
Of violets one-hued with her hair."

Here at least we were allowed a picture of Athens: the violet crown was something definite. But now, when Mr. Swinburne sings of England, we have to precipitate our impressions from lines fluid as these:--

"Things of night at her glance took flight: the
strengths of darkness recoiled and sank:
Sank the fires of the murderous pyres whereon wild
agony writhed and shrank:
Rose the light of the reign of right from gulfs of
years that the darkness drank."


"Change darkens and lightens around her, alternate
in hope and in fear to be:
Hope knows not if fear speak truth, nor fear whether
hope be not blind as she:
But the sun is in heaven that beholds her immortal,
and girdled with life by the sea."

I suspect, then, that a hundred years hence, when criticism speaks calm judgment upon all Mr. Swinburne's writings, she will find that his earlier and more definite poems are the edge of his blade, and such volumes as "Astrophel" the heavy metal behind it. The former penetrated the affections of his countrymen with ease: the latter followed more difficultly through the outer tissues of a people notoriously pachydermatous to abstract speech. And criticism will then know if Mr. Swinburne brought sufficient impact to drive the whole mass of metal deep.

A Voice chanting in the Void.

At present in these later volumes his must seem to us a godlike voice chanting in the void. For, fit or unfit as we may be to grasp the elusive substance of his strains, all must confess the voice of the singer to be divine. At once in the range and suppleness of his music he is not merely the first of our living poets, but incomparable. In learning he has Robert Bridges for a rival, and no other. But no amount of learning could give us 228 pages of music that from first to last has not a flaw. Rather, his marvellous ear has taken him safely through metres set by his learning as so many traps. There is one metre, for instance, that recurs again and again in this volume. Here is a specimen of it:--

"Music bright as the soul of light, for wings an eagle,
for notes a dove,
Leaps and shines from the lustrous lines wherethrough
thy soul from afar above
Shone and sang till the darkness rang with light whose
fire is the fount of love."

These lines are written of Sir Philip Sidney. Could another man have written them they had stood even better for Mr. Swinburne. But we are considering the metre, not the meaning. Now the metre may have great merits. I am disposed to say that, having fascinated Mr. Swinburne, it must have great merits. That I dislike it is, no doubt, my fault, or rather my misfortune. But undoubtedly it is a metre that no man but Mr. Swinburne could handle without producing a monotony varied only by discords.

[The end]
Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch's essay: Mr. Swinburne's Later Manner