Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Henry James > Text of Swinburne's Essays

An essay by Henry James

Swinburne's Essays

Title:     Swinburne's Essays
Author: Henry James [More Titles by James]

A review of Essays and Studies, by Algernon Charles Swinburne. London: Chatto & Windus, 1875. Originally published in The Nation, July 29, 1875.


Mr. Swinburne has by this time impressed upon the general public a tolerably vivid image of his literary personality. His line is a definite one; his note is familiar, and we know what to expect from him. He was at pains, indeed, a year ago to quicken the apprehension of American readers by an effusion directed more or less explicitly to themselves. This piece of literature was brief, but it was very remarkable. Mr. Emerson had had occasion to speak of Mr. Swinburne with qualified admiration and this circumstance, coming to Mr. Swinburne's ears, had prompted him to uncork on the spot the vials of his wrath. He addressed to a newspaper a letter of which it is but a colourless account to say that it embodied the very hysterics of gross vituperation.

Mr. Swinburne has some extremely just remarks about Byron's unamenableness to quotation, his having to be taken in the gross. This is almost equally true of our author himself; he must be judged by all he has done, and we must allow, in our judgment, the weight he would obviously claim for it to his elaborate tribute to the genius of Mr. Emerson. His tone has two distinct notes--the note of measureless praise and the note of furious denunciation. Each is in need of a correction, but we confess that, with all its faults, we prefer the former. That Mr. Swinburne has a kindness for his more restrictive strain is, however, very obvious. He is over-ready to sound it, and he is not particular about his pretext.

Some people, he says, for instance, affirm that a writer may have a very effective style, yet have nothing of value to express with it. Mr. Swinburne demands that they prove their assertion. "This flattering unction the very foolishest of malignants will hardly, in this case (that of Mr. D. G. Rossetti), be able to lay upon the corrosive sore which he calls his soul; the ulcer of ill-will must rot unrelieved by the rancid ointment of such fiction." In Mr. W. M. Rossetti's edition of Shelley there is in a certain line, an interpolation of the word "autumn." "For the conception of this atrocity the editor is not responsible; for its adoption he is. A thousand years of purgatorial fire would be insufficient expiation for the criminal on whose deaf and desperate head must rest the original guilt of defacing the text of Shelley with this most damnable corruption."

The essays before us are upon Victor Hugo, D. G. Rossetti, William Morris, Matthew Arnold as a poet, Shelley, Byron, Coleridge, and John Ford. To these are added two papers upon pictures--the drawings of the old masters at Florence and the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1868. Mr. Swinburne, in writing of poets, cannot fail to say a great many felicitous things. His own insight into the poetic mystery is so deep, his perception in matters of language so refined, his power of appreciation so large and active, his imagination, especially, so sympathetic and flexible, that we constantly feel him to be one who has a valid right to judge and pass sentence. The variety of his sympathies in poetry is especially remarkable, and is in itself a pledge of criticism of a liberal kind. Victor Hugo is his divinity--a divinity whom indeed, to our sense, he effectually conceals and obliterates in the suffocating fumes of his rhetoric. On the other hand, one of the best papers in the volume is a disquisition on the poetry of Mr. Matthew Arnold, of which his relish seems hardly less intense and for whom he states the case with no less prodigious a redundancy of phrase.

Matthew Arnold's canons of style, we should have said, are a positive negation of those of Mr. Swinburne's, and it is to the credit of the latter's breadth of taste that he should have entered into an intellectual temperament which is so little his own. The other articles contain similar examples of his vivacity and energy of perception, and offer a number of happy judgments and suggestive observations. His estimate of Byron as a poet (not in the least as a man--on this point his utterances are consummately futile) is singularly discriminating; his measurement of Shelley's lyric force is eloquently adequate; his closing words upon John Ford are worth quoting as a specimen of strong apprehension and solid statement. Mr. Swinburne is by no means always solid, and this passage represents him at his best:--

"No poet is less forgettable than Ford; none fastens (as it were) the fangs of his genius and his will more deeply in your memory. You cannot shake hands with him and pass him by; you cannot fall in with him and out again at pleasure; if he touch you once he takes you, and what he takes he keeps his hold of; his work becomes a part of your thought and parcel of your spiritual furniture for ever; he signs himself upon you as with a seal of deliberate and decisive power. His force is never the force of accident; the casual divinity of beauty which falls, as though direct from heaven, upon stray lines and phrases of some poets, fails never by any such heavenly chance on his; his strength of impulse is matched by his strength of will; he never works more by instinct than by resolution; he knows what he would have and what he will do, and gains his end and does his work with full conscience of purpose and insistence of design. By the might of a great will seconded by the force of a great hand he won the place he holds against all odds of rivalry in a race of rival giants."

On the other hand, Mr. Swinburne is constantly liable on this same line to lapse into flagrant levity and perversity of taste; as in saying that he cannot consider Wordsworth "as mere poet" equal to Coleridge as mere poet; in speaking of Alfred de Musset as "the female page or attendant dwarf" of Byron, and his poems as "decoctions of watered Byronism"; or in alluding jauntily and en passant to Gautier's Mademoiselle de Maupin as "the most perfect and exquisite book of modern times."

To note, however, the points at which Mr. Swinburne's judgment hits the mark, or the points at which it misses it, is comparatively superfluous, inasmuch as both of these cases seem to us essentially accidental. His book is not at all a book of judgment; it is a book of pure imagination. His genius is for style simply, and not in the least for thought nor for real analysis; he goes through the motions of criticism, and makes a considerable show of logic and philosophy, but with deep appreciation his writing seems to us to have very little to do.

He is an imaginative commentator, often of a very splendid kind, but he is never a real interpreter and rarely a trustworthy guide. He is a writer, and a writer in constant quest of a theme. He has an inordinate sense of the picturesque, and he finds his theme in those subjects and those writers which gratify it. When they gratify it highly, he conceives a boundless relish for them; they give him his chance, and he turns-on the deluge of his exorbitant homage. His imagination kindles, he abounds in their own sense, when they give him an inch he takes an ell, and quite loses sight of the subject in the entertainment he finds in his own word-spinning. In this respect he is extraordinarily accomplished: he very narrowly misses having a magnificent style. On the imaginative side, his style is almost complete, and seems capable of doing everything that picturesqueness demands. There are few writers of our day who could have produced this description of a thunderstorm at sea. Mr. Swinburne gives it to us as the likeness of Victor Hugo's genius:--

"About midnight, the thundercloud was full overhead, full of incessant sound and fire, lightening and darkening so rapidly that it seemed to have life, and a delight in its life. At the same hour, the sky was clear to the west, and all along the sea-line there sprang and sank as to music a restless dance or chase of summer lightnings across the lower sky: a race and riot of lights, beautiful and rapid as a course of shining Oceanides along the tremulous floor of the sea. Eastward, at the same moment, the space of clear sky was higher and wider, a splendid semicircle of too intense purity to be called blue; it was of no colour nameable by man; and midway in it, between the stars and the sea, hung the motionless full moon; Artemis watching with serene splendour of scorn the battle of Titans and the revel of nymphs from her stainless and Olympian summit of divine indifferent light. Underneath and about us, the sea was paved with flame; the whole water trembled and hissed with phosphoric fire; even through the wind and thunder I could hear the crackling and sputtering of the water-sparks. In the same heaven and in the same hour there shone at once the three contrasted glories, golden and fiery and white, of moonlight, and of the double lightning, forked and sheet; and under all this miraculous heaven lay a flaming floor of water."

But with this extravagant development of the imagination there is no commensurate development either of the reason or of the moral sense. One of these defects is, to our mind, fatal to Mr. Swinburne's style; the other is fatal to his tone, to his temper, to his critical pretensions. His style is without measure, without discretion, without sense of what to take and what to leave; after a few pages, it becomes intolerably fatiguing. It is always listening to itself--always turning its head over its shoulders to see its train flowing behind it. The train shimmers and tumbles in a very gorgeous fashion, but the rustle of its embroidery is fatally importunate.

Mr. Swinburne is a dozen times too verbose; at least one-half of his phrases are what the French call phrases in the air. One-half of his sentence is always a repetition, for mere fancy's sake and nothing more, of the meaning of the other half--a play upon its words, an echo, a reflection, a duplication. This trick, of course, makes a writer formidably prolix. What we have called the absence of the moral sense of the writer of these essays is, however, their most disagreeable feature. By this we do not mean that Mr. Swinburne is not didactic, nor edifying, nor devoted to pleading the cause of virtue. We mean simply that his moral plummet does not sink at all, and that when he pretends to drop it he is simply dabbling in the relatively very shallow pool of the picturesque.

A sense of the picturesque so refined as Mr. Swinburne's will take one a great way, but it will by no means, in dealing with things whose great value is in what they tell us of human character, take one all the way. One breaks down with it (if one treats it as one's sole support) sooner or later in æsthetics; one breaks down with it very soon indeed in psychology.

We do not remember in this whole volume a single instance of delicate moral discrimination--a single case in which the moral note has been struck, in which the idea betrays the smallest acquaintance with the conscience. The moral realm for Mr. Swinburne is simply a brilliant chiaroscuro of costume and posture. This makes all Mr. Swinburne's magnificent talk about Victor Hugo's great criminals and monstrosities, about Shelley's Count Cenci, and Browning's Guido Franchesini, and about dramatic figures generally, quite worthless as anything but amusing fantasy. As psychology it is, to our sense, extremely puerile; for we do not mean simply to say that the author does not understand morality--a charge to which he would be probably quite indifferent; but that he does not at all understand immorality. Such a passage as his rhapsody upon Victor Hugo's Josiane ("such a pantheress may be such a poetess," etc.) means absolutely nothing. It is entertaining as pictorial writing--though even in this respect as we have said, thanks to excess and redundancy, it is the picturesque spoiled rather than achieved; but as an attempt at serious analysis it seems to us, like many of its companions, simply ghastly--ghastly in its poverty of insight and its pretension to make mere lurid imagery do duty as thought.

[The end]
Henry James's essay: Swinburne's Essays