I. Why a Classification of the Love Poems is Needed
A passing examination of A. C. Swinburne’s scandal-inspiring Poems and Ballads, First Series (1866), reveals a volume of poetry consumed with describing the experience of love. To this end, Jerome McGann summarily observes that in the “…deliberately varied love lyrics… Swinburne represents many types of love relations, from the lightest and most inconsequent… through all sorts of more serious passions, tender, frenzied, and otherwise” 1 A corresponding point is made by David G. Riede, who punctuates the driving force of Poems and Ballads more directly, remarking, “The central theme of Poems and Ballads is love, and the moral position, constantly reiterated, is that love made life more beautiful in the days before a restrictive, oppressive morality set in.”2 While the consequent point is arguably untenable for understanding the diversity of the “love relations” described in Swinburne’s “deliberately varied love lyrics,” Riede’s assertion concerning the central theme of Poems and Ballads raises a question that goes to the heart of Swinburne’s love poetry— what is the nature of the experience of love that Swinburne elaborates; and is the nature of that experience static, or does it evolve?
John Rosenberg argues that Swinburne is “the poet of love’s impossibility,” and that in Swinburne’s love poetry “[t]here is much passion, but little conjunction,” adding that, “emotion is felt but not communicated and not returned.” 3 The experience of love, under the rubric of its “impossibility,” indicates that love, for Swinburne, a point fixed in the most Northerly of the heavens. Rosenberg’s formulation implies that Swinburne conceives of love as a predestined failure, and that the poet’s experience of the failure of love is transmitted uniformly throughout all the love poems. This formulation may be a suitable assessment for certain love poems in Poems and Ballads, but Rosenberg’s critical meta-theme fails to accurately characterize or categorize a considerable number of that work’s large stock of love poems. Swinburne’s first published collection of poems is arguably as committed to a versified exploration of love in its many guises as Ovid’s Elegies, or Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella. For instance, in some of Swinburne’s love poems, love is intermittently cast in the mold of a concentrated focus of desire that ends in frustration, as in “The Triumph of Time,” or the pathological and unrequitable experience of love in “The Leper.” Yet such is not the case in other love poems, such as “A Ballad of Life,” “Rococo,” or “Dolores.” Swinburne is not consistently driving home a single moral or fatalistic point about the experience of love; rather, he is dealing with love as an evolving, yet recurring constellation of emotions and experiences. Thus, Swinburne’s treatment of love in poems such as “A Leper,” and “The Triumph of Time” can be disengaged from his treatment of love in other such poems as “A Ballad of Life,” “Rococo,” or “Dolores.” In comparison to poems where one version or another of ill-fated love is the principle theme, the three latter poems (to take a few chief examples) present the reader of Poems and Ballads with wholly distinct settings and situations in which Swinburne explores love in a dramatic fashion.
As the meta-theme of Poems and Ballads, the poems treating of love dominate both the political poetry and the poems in praise of Swinburne’s literary heroes by a considerable percentage. The volume is Swinburne’s oeuvre on love, par excellence; and as the overriding theme of Swinburne’s first volume of lyric poetry, the poems treating of love can arguably be sub-grouped according to thematic similarities. Grouping the love poems systematically highlights the four claims that Swinburne makes about love in Poems and Ballads. I propose a provisional fourfold division in which to approach the love poems individually: 1. “impossible love;”4 2. “violent love;”5 3. “light love,”6 and 4. “transforming love.”7 Each group consists of poems that, while containing a complex web of verbal and imagistic parallels to the other three groups, nevertheless constitute a thematic unit that invites the reader to consider them as an independent and cohesive sub-group, or movement, within the larger context of Poems and Ballads.
In the book, love is cast in various scenarios to dramatize key problems concerning the nature of love, and these scenarios can be categorized according to the type of problem addressed. Dividing the love poetry into four groups provides a provisional analytical map of the characteristics and themes I have chosen to treat under the four categories of love poems. These are by no means the only ones available to readers of Poems and Ballads. Nevertheless, highlighting certain characteristics and themes demonstrates how seemingly disparate poems can be easily integrated into respective categories, based on how the theme of love is handled, and a corresponding narrative drawn up in respect to Swinburne’s assertion that Poems and Ballads constitutes a single, cohesive dramatic narrative of love’s birth, death, and redemption.
II. The Love Poems and the Problem of Swinburne’s “Monodrame” Theory
What commentators have found justification to accept or deny regarding Swinburne’s “monodrame” theory comes primarily from the loose sketch that Swinburne provides in his Notes on Poems and Reviews. The “monodrame’ theory is arguably one of the least theoretically grounded points in the his reply to his earliest critics, driven, as it is, by rhetorical effusions and a spirit of righteous indignation. While considering how to respond to critics of Poems and Ballads, Swinburne, in a letter of the 28th September, 1866 to William Michael Rossetti, writes,
I should not like to bracket “Dolores” and the two following [“The Garden of Proserpine” and “Hesperia”] as you propose. I ought (if I did) to couple with them in front harness the “Triumph of Time” etc., as they express that state of feeling the reaction from which is expressed in “Dolores.” Were I to rechristen these three as trilogy, I should have to rename many earlier poems as acts in the same play.8
Rossetti changed Swinburne’s mind on the matter, as his discussion of “Dolores,” “The Garden of Proserpine,” and “Hesperia,” as a “lyrical monodrame” in Notes on Poems and Reviews bears out; Swinburne does not, however go so far as to rename any of the earlier or later poems in the book to flesh-out or fortify his conception of the three poems as constituting a “trilogy.” The phrase, “acts in the same play,” indicates that Swinburne considered more than just the latter three poems to be related, although he does not indicate which poems he has in mind, or precisely how these unnamed poems are to be grouped, phalanx-like, behind the troika.
Reviewing Swinburne’s remarks upon the dramatic character of his poems in Notes on Poems and Reviews, a number of commentators on Poems and Ballads have debated whether Swinburne’s classification of the poems “Dolores,” “Hesperia,” and “The Garden of Proserpine” can be understood as acts in a “lyrical monodrame,”9 or if Swinburne’s claim that Poems and Ballads comprises a monodrama is simply untenable. Nicholas Shrimpton claims that Swinburne’s defense of his book as a monodrama acts as “a mere subterfuge, or convenient mask, for the expression of inconveniently controversial impulses and opinions.”10 In his early estimate of Swinburne’s poems, Rossetti maintains that,
[a]n attentive perusal of the volume will, we think, disclose in it four main currents of influence and feeling … 1. the Passionately Sensuous; 2. the Classic, or Antique; 3. the Heterodox, or religiously mutinous; and 4. the Assimilative or Reproductive in point of Literary Form.11
It is notable that Rossetti places at the head of his list the category of “the Passionately Sensuous,” or in other words, that constellation of poems whose primary focus is love. With Rossetti’s review of Swinburne’s first volume possibly in mind, Samuel Chew remarks in his literary biography of Swinburne that, “No success has attended the efforts of the critics who have attempted a formal classification of the various poems: Classical, Medieval, Pre-Raphaelite, and so forth; for there is much overlapping between these categories.”12 This general feeling is echoed in Jerome J. McGann’s critical assessment of Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads:
…the only real problem with accepting the ‘monodrame’ theory… is the heterogeneous character of the book. Swinburne seems not to have made up his mind about its main focus— whether it should concentrate itself in its indirect social attack, or in a virtuoso technical display, or in dramatic autobiography.13
Most critics who have accepted Swinburne’s “monodrame” theory have merely repeated and recycled the tripartite rhetoric-driven “plot” that Swinburne gave in Notes on Poems and Reviews. Such is the case in David G. Riede’s assessment that “The last three stanzas of “Sapphics” describe the death of passion and, as in ‘Hesperia,’ the love that revives as a ghost rearisen.” Riede goes on to note that this “same basic pattern recurs persistently…,” adding,
The essential ideas underlying that dramatic pattern can now be briefly summarized. The first stage, that of passion… shows man tormented by his divided nature, by the incompatibility of soul and sense. The second represents man exhausted by passion and willing to still the battle within himself by destroying both body and soul. At this point he comes to the crucial recognition that body and soul are equal, at least insofar as both are perishable. In the final stage, the first is seen muted by the second, and it is here that art, carrying passion through death, redeems the soul. This phase provides at least a meager consolation for existence, the consolation that something of a man lives on in the record of his passion commemorated in song.”14
Riede is correct to observe a recurring thematic pattern in Poems and Ballads, but Swinburne’s claim that the three poems, “Dolores,” “The Garden of Proserpine,” and “Hesperia” form a kind of “monodrame” rests, it should be observed, on the a posteriori invention of a general hermeneutical framework first suggested to Swinburne by William Rossetti. A further complication in the “monodrame” theory is due to the fact that Swinburne only applies his hermeneutical framework to a tripartite group of poems situated near the end of a volume of verse containing a total of sixty-two poems. With the exception of the tripartite “monodrame” of “Dolores,” “The Garden of Proserpine,” and “Hesperia,” Swinburne’s “heterogeneous” collection of verse does not impose on the reader any formal framework or map of how the poems, as a unified work, are associated, or how they should generally be understood. It would appear, then, that Swinburne’s poems are vexed to explain how they should be read as a “lyrical monodrame.”
In terms of formalized structure, Swinburne’s suggestion that his Poems and Ballads contains “a more extensive monodrama,”15 and that many poems can be read as “acts in the same play” has yet to be explored in depth in critical commentary. The way in which the poems in Poems and Ballads are organized warrants a structured reading of the predominate category of poems in the book; in this case, the love poetry. The majority of love poems are either grouped into repeated subsets according to genera, topic, or the strategic placement of poems (the beginning, middle, and end of the book),16 or grouped into pairs, triads, or mini-cycles. Given the bare theoretic outlines Swinburne provides in letters and Notes on Poems and Reviews, the reader of Poems and Ballads is at liberty to construct, or otherwise sort out which “earlier poems” Swinburne may have had in mind as constituting “acts in the same play,” and what that arrangement might look like.
In Poems and Ballads, Swinburne asserts four major claims about love, which correspond to the division of the love poems into four distinct categories. From this division, a dramatic structure is generated out of the poems themselves. When placed in relevant groupings, the four categories of love poems reveal characteristic features between themselves that may not be evident in Swinburne’s original ordering of the poems.
III. Poems of “Transforming Love”
The poems classed under “transforming love” are the only poems in the division that are either directly or indirectly organized around a single person: Lucretia Estensis Borgia.17 The poems in this category include: “A Ballad of Life,” “A Ballad of Death,” and “Love and Sleep.” In addition to the three Lucretia Borgia pieces from Poems and Ballads, First Series, we include two extant poems by Swinburne on Lucretia Borgia not contained in the 1866 collection, but known to date from the period that the rest of the poems in the volume were composed: “By the Sea-Side,” and the sonnet, “Ah face & hands & body beautiful.”18 Grouping these poems together is justified by the unusual, almost miraculous attributes Swinburne consistently attributes to the figure of Lucretia Borgia. It is evident that the speaker (granting the supposition that it is consistently the same speaker) in the Borgia poems perceives her as a Christ-figure; she is “righteous,” fashioned like no other woman, and “more than peace” are “the passage of her days.” To this end, in his “A Ballad of Death,” Swinburne reinvents the “historical” Lucretia Borgia in order to rewrite the scene surrounding the nativity of Christ, even adding veiled allusions to the crucifixion (“spikenard bruised for a burnt-offering”) to round out his portrayal of her as an effective surrogate for Christ:
Even she whose handmaiden was Love— to whom
At kissing times across her stateliest bed
Kings bowed themselves and shed
Pale wine, and honey with the honeycomb,
And spikenard bruised for a burnt-offering;
Even she between whose lips the kiss became
As fire and frankincense;
Whose hair was as gold raiment on a king,
Whose eyes were as the morning purged with flame,
Whose eyelids as sweet savour issuing thence.19
According to Swinburne’s conception of Lucretia Borgia, she is a mediator between the certainty of the death of the living, and the death of love, intervening on behalf of man’s fallen body rather than man’s fallen or corrupted soul.
In his poem, “A Ballad of Life,” the respective personifications of fear, shame and lust are made to say, “I am Pity that was dead,” “I am Sorrow comforted,” and “I am Love.” These indemnified transformations do not find any echo in Swinburne’s representative poem of hope from his trilogy, “Hesperia.” Like “The Garden Of Proserpine,” “Hesperia” is a-historical, even a-temporal, and completely the product of Swinburne’s own mythopoetic enterprise. On the other hand, the poems concerning or addressed to Lucretia Borgia are firmly anchored, by inclusion of an historical personage, in 16th century Italy. Even the form of verse Swinburne chose to employ in “A Ballad of Life” and “A Ballad of Death”— the Italian canzone— is significant of the historical backdrop of the poems. Yet Swinburne’s vision of Lucretia Borgia is based on the romanticism of Blake, and has very little to do with her as an historical person. Swinburne re-invents the historical Lucretia Borgia, thus synthesizing historical biography and Blakean mytho-romanticism. The miraculous redemption of fear, shame and lust at the hands of the mytho-historical Lucretia Borgia do not return pity, sorrow, and love to the realm of “the beyond,” to the inaccessible status of the “thing-in-itself.” The virtues Swinburne embodies in the person of Lucretia Borgia radiate from her, and they cannot properly exist for the poet outside of her type, symbol, or otherwise in her absence. Let the second to last stanza of “A Ballad of Life” provide a representative example of the first group:
Then I said: Now assuredly I see
My lady is perfect, and transfigureth
All sin and sorrow and death,
Making them fair as her own eyelids be,
Or lips wherein my whole soul’s life abides;
Or as her sweet white sides
And bosom carved to kiss.
Now therefore, if her pity further me,
Doubtless for her sake all my days shall be
As righteous as she is.20
In this fragment, love is neither illustrative of an unachievable union of the lover with his beloved, nor a conventionalized romantic love in which both participants delight in the transformation undergone by virtue of the power of their mutual affection. Rather, this stanza, and indeed the whole of the poem in question, describes a quasi-hierophany in which the sacred, manifested in the perfection and righteousness of Lucretia Borgia, miraculously alters shame to “Sorrow comforted,” lust to love, and converts “All sin and sorrow and death” to their opposite values. The power of her beauty and her song causes the personifications of shame, fear, and lust to become “as men raised up among the dead,” and their “fair cheeks made red/ With child’s blood come again.”21 The tone of “A Ballad of Life” has a gospel quality to it; but in the stead of the miracles of Christ, Swinburne places the miracles of Lucretia Borgia.
Contra the union of lover’s souls in the Platonic system, it is the union of bodies, or the possibility of some form of commerce with the physical embodiment of beauty, that Swinburne emphasizes in his Borgia poems. As Swinburne never tires of repeating, the heart wears out; expectations are frustrated, and it is not the love of souls that survives in the fluctuating world of appearances, but the mingling of the fleshly senses with the object of desire.22 In his sonnet, “Ah face & hands & body beautiful,” a number of parallels to “A Ballad of Life” and “A Ballad of Death” are evident, making this poem a fit companion piece to the latter two poems. Even though she is not named, given the significant parallels in terms of the perfections that Swinburne attributes to the woman in his sonnet, it is reasonably certain that he again had his half-mystical, half-bestial conception of Lucretia Borgia in mind. Swinburne inverts the Platonic ontology of “forms” in order to “naturalize,” or instantiate the divine in his portrait of a woman whose physical perfection and amorous virtues are a boon to her lovers, even unto the grave:
Ah face & hands & body beautiful,
Fair tender body, for my body’s sake
Are you made faultless without stain or break,
Locks close as weed in river-water cool,
A purer throat and softer than white wool,
Eyes where sleep always seems about to wake,
No dead man’s flesh feels the strong sweet ache
And that sharp amorous watch the years annul
If his grave’s grass have felt you anywhere.
Rain & the summer shadow of the rain
Are not so gentle to the feverous year
As your soft rapid kisses are to men
Felt here about my face, yea here & here,
Caught on my lips & thrown you back again.23
Once the “sharp amourous watch” of her love has been experienced, or “felt anywhere,” time cannot annul or efface the love she gives to her lovers. She is the embodiment of perfection, a quasi-hierophic figure, and thus there is no need for her lovers to look to heaven or await salvation in the hereafter, as that condition is realized in her marvelous being. Swinburne makes a skillful pun on the words flesh, grass, and grave, implying that all flesh is as grass, and that the body is itself a sort of grave that the “strong sweet ache” of love can no longer be harbored in after the body dies. According to Swinburne, the experience of the divine and its pleasures need go no further than the body. The quasi-divine experience of love both transforms one’s experience of the phenomenal world and, in so doing, fabricates a kind of permanence in a world of fleeting, mutable meanings and things.
In his sonnet, “Love and Sleep,” the image of the perfect lover is taken up even more directly:
Lying asleep between the strokes of night
I saw my love lean over my sad bed,
Pale as the duskiest lily’s leaf or head,
Smooth-skinned and dark, with bare throat made to bite,
Too wan for blushing and too warm for white,
But perfect-coloured without white or red.
And her lips opened amorously, and said—
I wist not what, saving one word— Delight.
And all her face was honey to my mouth,
And all her body pasture to mine eyes;
The long lithe arms and hotter hands than fire,
The quivering flanks, hair smelling of the south,
The bright light feet, the splendid supple thighs
And glittering eyelids of my soul’s desire.
Coming to the speaker’s “sad bed,” the object of his desire completely satisfies him with the sight and enjoyment of her body. Love is not innocent in this poem, as words and phrases such as “bite,” “Too wan for blushing,” and “hotter hands than fire” make clear. Swinburne’s ironically idealized conception of love as being brought to perfection in strictly a corporeal sense is a complete antithesis to any conception of love that exalts the love souls over the love of bodies. Swinburne produces a fantasy world in the Borgia poems that, according to Baird, hearkens within certain limits back to “a lost golden age,” somewhat after the fashion of Blake’s Songs of Innocence.24 Swinburne’s visionary reverse-apotheosis of Lucretia Borgia as a corporealized, rather than a spiritualized saint is reducible to a particularity of his own mythopoetic enterprise.
IV. Poems of “Impossible Love”
As a negative corollary to the poems of “transforming love,” the poems representative of “love’s impossibility” explore the event of love failing between people. They also trace the moral and psychological consequences that come with love’s defeat at the hands of fate, time, and death. In this second group of poems, Swinburne displays less of a tendency toward mythologizing the object of his desire, which characteristic features prominently in some of his other poems, and instead deploys throughout the poems of “impossible love” certain devices and conceits originating in French Troubadour lyric poetry. As Antony H. Harrison observes regarding Swinburne’s creative relationship to the Medieval Troubadours, “Like the troubadours, Swinburne defines passion as a source of suffering…,” with only the prospect of total freedom allowing “a release from the material sufferings of life.” Harrison further observes a connection between suffering and total freedom, noting that, “Achieving freedom from a cruel or unattainable lady (the archetype in troubadour poetry) requires precisely what achieving freedom from cruel tyrants necessitates: self-immolation.” 25 While Harrison’s estimation tends to ascribe perhaps too much in Swinburne’s love poetry to the influence of Courtly Love and the French Troubadours,26 the connection is nevertheless invaluable for understanding Swinburne’s astonishing homage to courtly love taken to its horrifying, logical extreme in his poem, “The Leper”:
Six months, and now my sweet is dead
A trouble takes me; I know not
If all were done well, all well said,
No word or tender deed forgot…
Six months, and I sit still and hold
In two cold palms her cold two feet.
Her hair, half grey half ruined gold,
Thrills me and burns me in kissing it.
Love bites and stings me through, to see
Her keen face made of sunken bones.
Her worn-off eyelids madden me,
That were shot through with purple once.27
Swinburne’s use of phrases such as “half grey half ruined gold,” underscore the indeterminacy of even the body’s relationship to death, indicating a sort of lacuna between the “reality” of life and the “reality” of death.28 Colors, emotions, indeed any object of sense perception are all constantly in a state of metamorphosizing into some other color, emotion, or type of object other than the object-as-such that the senses present to the mind, until the whole perception of reality is renovated at the end:
I am grown blind with all these things:
It may be now she hath in sight
Some better knowledge; still there clings
The old question. Will not God do right?29
This might be taken to mean that the grounds of existence are illusory and deceptive, after the fashion of Heraclitus, but Swinburne’s conception is different. For Swinburne, the grounds of existence are not determined by absolutist dualities like life and death. He envisions life and death as being added to, subtracted from, multiplied, and divided according to an inscrutable calculus, with life ever shading into death, and death forever shading into life:
I vex my head with thinking this.
Yea, though God always hated me,
And hates me now that I can kiss
Her eyes, plait up her hair to see…
God, that makes time and ruins it
And alters not, abiding God,
Changed with disease her body sweet,
The body of love wherein she abode…
Yea, though God hateth us, he knows
That hardly in a little thing
Love faileth of the work it does
Till it grow ripe for gathering.
Swinburne’s piling of adjectives in “The Leper,” such as “Thrills me and burns me,” and “Love bites and stings me,” erect an insuperable barrier between the one desiring and the object of desire. One never experiences the thrill of love itself; the simulacrum of love burns, bites, and stings. Given that love as such can only be experienced through a simulacrum, the unattainable/attainable love that the scribe extends to the leprosy-stricken woman itself becomes another version of “half grey half ruined gold,” always sensibly grading into pity, hate, fear, or frustration. The love of the scribe for his patient is as pathological as her condition. The phrase, “To do the service God forbids,” indicates two acts on the part of the scribe— one, sacrilegious, and the other, a perversion of the proper relationship between man and wife. God forbids the clerk to nurse the leper because He has inflicted her for her illicit affair with a knight; but in spite of God, the scribe hides her out of sight from all who have rejected her, including God, in a “wattled house.” He incurably loves the thing that God hates, and his unfailing devotion to her is, in every sense, a satanic parody of the traditional marriage contract. He loves her in sickness and in health, and cleaves to her as a degraded and obscene version of husband and wife; and yet not even while she is alive, but after she is dead. This can be the only meaning of, “And she is dead now, and shame put by.”
In Poems and Ballads, the poem “Hemaphroditus” is the example par excellence of Swinburne’s conception of love as an experience of both psychic and physical confusion.30 In the opening stanza, Swinburne underscores the disparities inherent in the nature of love itself, be it in the vanity of desire, the smoldering fire of delight, or the lack of equality between the object of desire and the one desiring:
Lift up thy lips, turn round, look back for love,
Blind love that comes by night and casts out rest;
Of all things tired thy lips look weariest,
Save the long smile that they are wearied of.
Ah sweet, albeit no love be sweet enough,
Choose of two loves and cleave unto the best;
Two loves at either blossom of thy breast
Strive until one be under and one above.
Their breath is fire upon the amorous air,
Fire in thine eyes and where thy lips suspire:
And whosoever hath seen thee, being so fair,
Two things turn all his life and blood to fire;
A strong desire begot on great despair,
A great despair cast out by strong desire.31
What has been thought of as Swinburne’s answer to the hardship love imposes upon existence— the joining of two humans into one being— is untenableon closer examination. 32 According to Swinburne, even the complete fusion of the lover with the beloved does not make an end in itself: “Yet from them something like as fire is shed/ That shall not be assuaged till death be dead,/ Though neither life nor sleep can find out this.”33 In this fragment, Swinburne’s conception of life as ever shading into death, and death forever shading into life is apparent— nothing comprises an end-in-itself because there is no basis or validity, empirical or otherwise, to the ontological principle of the “thing-in-itself”; hence, the fusion of two lovers into one body can not beget a unified being, only an indeterminate, divided, and irreproducible mode of being— somewhat akin to the life of a flame and a wick. As a specimen of psychic and physical confusion, “Hemaphroditus” is an “impossible love” precisely in the sense that, even though the unrequited Salmacis is granted her wish by being united bodily with Hemaphroditus, the creature that comes of this strange union retains the genitals of a man and the breasts of a woman. Being neither man nor woman, neither divine nor human, Hemaphroditus is “a thing of barren hours” after the metamorphosis. Swinburne’s phrase, “the fruitful feud of hers and his,” is deceptive in this context because he is not referring to romantic love between men and women as “fruitful” in the sense of biological reproduction,34 as some commentators have read it; rather, Swinburne is comparing requited love, or love with the possibility of requiting— “Turning the fruitful feud of hers and his”— against unrequitable love— “To the waste wedlock of a sterile kiss…”35
As was pointed out before, Swinburne does not so much tend to mythologize women in his poems of “impossible love,”36 as he tends to spin one version or another of the very indeterminacy of the foundations of love. Love, as such, is unattainable, unrequitable, and ultimately a form of solipsism— to experience the burn, bite, or sting of love for another is an incommunicable inward experience. “The Triumph of Time” is illustrative of this, particularly the famous lines,
Yea, hope at highest and all her fruit,
And time at fullest and all his dower,
I had given you surely, and life to boot,
Were we once made one for a single hour.
But now, you are twain, you are cloven apart,
Flesh of his flesh, but heart of my heart…
And deep in one is the bitter root,
And sweet for one is the lifelong flower.37
The object of the speaker’s love, having been an object of his love, is no longer possessed even of herself, but is “cloven in twain” as a result of loving and having been loved. This speaks to something particularly Swinburnian about the character of love. As an experience of the ineffable involving the whole person, love, like poetry, according to Swinburne, has the power to alter material as well as spiritual circumstances. One’s very being, through the act of loving, is no longer fully one’s own, but is partly become, for better or worse, the possession of another, as in the lines, “But now, you are twain, you are cloven apart,/ Flesh of his flesh, but heart of my heart.” This conception of love as self-alienation implicitly extends to Swinburne’s republican poetry as well, where tyranny of any kind is viewed as a cleaving in two of the physical and spiritual body of man. Thus, even on a psychic level, love is ultimately a form of tyranny in the sense that the willing/unwilling act of cleaving in order to give some measure of oneself over to another ambiguates and confuses two otherwise distinct beings.
In “The Triumph of Time,” Swinburne compares love as an experience of self-alienation and indeterminacy with love as an experience of the divine and the ideal. Take for instance the following stanza:
I had grown pure as the dawn and the dew,
You had grown strong as the sun or the sea.
But none shall triumph a whole life through:
For death is one, and the fates are three.
At the door of life, by the gate of breath,
There are worse things waiting for men than death;
Death could not sever my soul and you,
As these have severed your soul from me.
The speaker allies himself with his beloved in the most elemental terms: dawn, dew, sun, and sea. She is the sun of his dawn, and she is the sea of which he is as drops of dew in. Yet in spite of their connection on the most fundamental of levels, the fates have intervened and severed their love irreparably:
Yea, hope at highest and all her fruit,
And time at fullest and all his dower,
I had given you surely, and life to boot,
Were we once made one for a single hour.
But now, you are twain, you are cloven apart,
Flesh of his flesh, but heart of my heart;
And deep in one is the bitter root,
And sweet for one is the lifelong flower.
In the above stanza, Swinburne depicts love as an experience of self-alienation and indeterminacy, and draws a contrast with love as an experience of the divine and the ideal through a brief recounting of the story of the Medieval troubadour poet, Jaufre Rudel. Rudel, having heard marvelous accounts of the Countess of Tripoli, fell in love with her sight unseen, and voyaged to meet her, but suddenly died before he arrived at her city. Upon being brought ashore, the singer miraculously revived long enough to kiss the woman with whom he had fallen in love, and then expired forever. Swinburne responds to this story of the ideal in love by comparing his troublesome experience of love to that of his fellow poet who he admonishes to “Give thanks for life, and the loves and lures,” and to
Rest, and be glad of the gods; but I,
How shall I praise them, or how take rest?
There is not room under all the sky
For me that know not of worst or best,
Dream or desire of the days before,
Sweet things or bitterness, any more.
Love will not come to me now though I die,
As love came close to you, breast to breast.
The speaker has ceased to believe in the ideal of love, or that love will ever be a substantive part of life, on account of his love disappointment. As a result of this breaking of trust, all moral categories have also been effaced in the mind of the speaker— if love does not exist, than neither does hatred, nor good or evil. As Dostoevsky writes in The Brothers Karamazov, “if there is no God, than everything is permitted,” and according to Swinburne, if love does not exist, or only its simulacrum exists, then God is either evil, or impotent, or both, and this effectively does away with the existence of God and morality.
V. Poems of “Vicious Love”
As an instinctive corollary to the poems of “impossible love,” this third category of poems maps the trajectory of love turned vicious on account of its failure. Both Swinburne’s foes and accomplices in these poems are women of titanic stature, sometimes referred to by critics as Swinburne’s “fatal women.” In a number of these poems, the respective speakers openly declare themselves in rebellion against the hypocritical institutions of God, religion, and morality. The implicit connection to love is that God, religion, and morality make up the bedrock for the family, the home, and civilization in general. Further, according to the Christian worldview, God, religion, and morality are all founded on the principle that God is loving, and that the invisible code of morality and the visible church are the repositories of God’s love on earth. Yet God, religion, and morality have all failed because love qua love is either unrealizable in the phenomenal world, or is simply doomed by fate to fail. Under these circumstances, love, or its simulacrum, becomes an instrument of torture, after the fashion of the insatiable agony of Tantalus. Swinburne’s conception of love as an instrument of torture in a world not governed by a providential god is especially evident in his poem, “Anactoria,” where the speaker, Sappho, reviles God and attributes to Him the cause of every misery and evil in the world:
Is not his incense bitterness, his meat
Murder? his hidden face and iron feet
Hath not man known, and felt them on their way
Threaten and trample all things and every day?
Hath he not sent us hunger? who hath cursed
Spirit and flesh with longing? filled with thirst
Their lips who cried unto him? who bade exceed
The fervid will, fall short the feeble deed,
Bade sink the spirit and the flesh aspire,
Pain animate the dust of dead desire,
And life yield up her flower to violent fate?38
Swinburne’s Sappho is the fatalism of Lucretius personified, and in Swinburne’s hands she becomes a figure of almost an omnipresent magnitude, herself a fate of sorts. The rebuking words of God to Job from the whirlwind are recast by Swinburne as a blasphemous parody of the Christian conception of theodicy, and put into the mouth of Sappho. Swinburne accomplishes, in effect, a reverse-theodicy, as it is God who must justify His ways to His accuser, Sappho. As God tortures Sappho, so does Sappho in return, in a perverse mimesis of God, hurt and envisage vexing Anactoria “with amourous agonies,” and shaking life at her lips, and leaving it “there to ache.”39 Because Sappho is tortured by her insatiable love of Anactoria, she longs to “find grievous ways” to torture and slay her in revenge. In the world of Swinburne’s “Anactoria,” cruelty is love, and love is cruelty. Sappho’s lover, Anactoria, tells her she is cruel, and Sappho replies,
Cruel? but love makes all that love him well
As wise as heaven and crueller than hell.
Me hath love made more bitter toward thee
Than death toward man; but were I made as he
Who hath made all things to break them one by one,
If my feet trod upon the stars and sun
And souls of men as his have alway trod,
God knows I might be crueller than God.40
Even the death of Anactoria would not satisfy Sappho’s lust for cruelty; she would extend her lover’s suffering unto the point of “Intolerable interludes, and infinite ill.”41 Sappho’s lust for cruelty indicates that she knows that the answer to “The mystery of the cruelty of things”42 in the kosmos is that the underlying first principle of creation is unbounded cruelty and evil, which are the cosmological accomplices of time and fate. In Swinburne’s “Anactoria,” the frustration of desire is the primary cause of human suffering, because it blindly seeks to be satisfied, regardless of the expense. This conception of desire shows remarkably well in Swinburne’s sonnet entitled “A Cameo”:
There was a graven image of Desire
Painted with red blood on a ground of gold
Passing between the young men and the old,
And by him Pain, whose body shone like fire,
And Pleasure with gaunt hands that grasped their hire.
Of his left wrist, with fingers clenched and cold,
The insatiable Satiety kept hold,
Walking with feet unshod that pashed the mire.
The senses and the sorrows and the sins,
And the strange loves that suck the breasts of Hate
Till lips and teeth bite in their sharp indenture,
Followed like beasts with flap of wings and fins.
Death stood aloof behind a gaping grate,
Upon whose lock was written Peradventure.
In the scheme of this nightmarish world, the first twelve lines provide the key to the lock upon which is written “Peradventure.” Stripped of its imagery, the question the poem poses is, what is the nature of desire, and desire’s will? The answer to the fable of “A Cameo” is that “insatiable Satiety,” or desire, ever holds out the ironic promise of “Peradventure,” or intimating that there is always somehow a chance of coming upon an immutable source of satisfaction. The subsequent irony to this is that even the hope of satiating desire with love is an impossibility in a world where God, who is the sole guarantor of love, does not exist.
VI. Poems of “Light Love”
In his poem modeled after the illustrious ballads of Villon, Swinburne’s “A Ballad of Burdens” begins in each stanza with an itemization of the pleasures characteristic of “every man’s desire,” namely, fair women, bought kisses, sweet speeches, long living, and bright colours, respectively. These things are “burdened” in that their respective endings in the ashes of death are as interchangeable as the refrain at the end of each stanza:
The burden of much gladness. Life and lust
Forsake thee, and the face of thy delight;
And underfoot the heavy hour strews dust,
And overhead strange weathers burn and bite;
And where the red was, lo the bloodless white,
And where truth was, the likeness of a liar,
And where day was, the likeness of the night;
This is the end of every man’s desire.43
This poem has a function akin to that of a charnel-house anatomy lesson, with Swinburne surgically dividing the skin from the skeleton underneath to reveal the antithesis of every example of desire that he raises: fair cheeks made grey, kisses put up for hire, sweet speeches that resound in no one’s memory, and the bright face of youth grown hoary and old. The poem has a moral as acerbic to the pleasures of life as that of the “Ecclesiastes” of Scripture, repeating the same point in variation— hence the title of “burden”— throughout the poem: “For life is sweet, but after life is death./ This is the end of every man’s desire.”44 The last two lines are punctuated as though complete in themselves, with a full stop coming between them, as if Swinburne means to punctuate the insuperable barrier of unquenchable desire and death that comes between every man and the object of his passion. The manner in which Swinburne addresses the frustration of not only love, but every form of desire in “A Ballad of Burdens” makes as good of an introduction to the poems treating of “light love” as it does for a conclusion; and indeed “A Ballad of Burdens” can be situated parenthetically in relation to any of the poems treating of “light love,” since in each case, the inference-styled maxim Swinburne offers is the same: “For life is sweet, but after life is death./ This is the end of every man’s desire.” Because the object of desire is partly indiscriminate to the character of the life of pleasure, the heart desires what is desirable, which, in reductionist terms, can be cashed out as the desiring of the experience and sensations of desire as such.
In contrast to the emphasis of the blindness of human desire in the poems treating of “light love” stand the poems of “impossible love,” in which all of the discrete characteristics of desire are gathered together and focally concentrated through a lens at a single object; this, in the final analysis is, for Swinburne, the fulcrum of “impossible love.” The fulcrum upon which “impossible love” operates makes, on the other hand, a stark contrast to love as “a jest,” a drama of seduction, or an erotic mimetic activity that indifferently exploits the ever-present stereotypes of gender roles, as is the case in Swinburne’s poem “Stage Love”:
Time was chorus, gave them cues to laugh or cry;
They would kill, befool, amuse him, let him die;
Set him webs to weave to-day and break to-morrow,
Till he died for good in play, and rose in sorrow.45
By juxtaposing two relevant fragments from poems that fall outside of the scope of the present essay, namely “Hesperia,” and “A Forsaken Garden,” with the poem “Stage Love,” the contrast between the theme of “impossible love” in poems such as “The Leper” and “The Triumph of Time,” and the theme of “light love” may be further developed.
First the lines from the latter two poems: “For desire is a respite from love, and the flesh not the heart is her fuel…”;46 and, “…men that love lightly may die— but we?”47 These lines stand in stark contrast to the relevant fragment from “Stage Love”:
Pleasure with dry lips, and pain that walks by night;
All the sting and all the stain of long delight;
These were things she knew not of, that knew not of her,
When she played at half a love with half a lover.48
In the former fragment from the poem “Hesperia,” Swinburne explicitly asserts a distinction between love and desire, and makes a corresponding second distinction between the passions of the soul and the passions of the body. In the latter fragment from “A Forsaken Garden,” Swinburne contrasts the loves that live for an hour and die, against the loves that would be as “deep as a grave,”49 if such a thing were possible. Again, there is an implicit contrast made against the passions of the soul and the passions of the body in the fragment from “A Forsaken Garden.” One half of Swinburne’s two-part distinction applies well to his poem “Stage Love,” where an unnamed woman is disabused of the notion that the transitory commerce between bodies will not only never outlast the grave, but is, by definition, incomplete to the degree to which naked desire is easily distinguished from love, as labor from respite. Hence the relevant contrast between the lines, “…men that love lightly may die— but we?”, and, “When she played at half a love with half a lover.”
By way of a final specimen from Swinburne’s poems of “light love,” his masterly exercise in romantic negligibility, “Rococo,” gives a picture of the dealings between lovers whose relationship is shallow and transitory as the gaudy, gilded ornaments of Rococo art:
Time found our tired love sleeping,
And kissed away his breath;
But what should we do weeping,
Though light love sleep to death?
We have drained his lips at leisure,
Till there’s not left to drain
A single sob of pleasure,
A single pulse of pain.50
One might maintain that “leisure” is the keynote of this poem. As both the source of licentious love’s opportunity and the cause of its boredom, the leisure-based duration of the “light love” shared between the speaker and a woman named Juliette does not extend beyond a mere three days time.51 In this poem, licentious love is treated as momentary and forgettable, even to the extent that the name of Juliette’s “first lover” must be recovered by “remembrance,” which word implies a certain strain upon her faculty of recollection. Insofar as love inhabits a world of pleasure and swiftly passing fancy, lovers as such are forgettable and forgotten. In “Rococo,” love in any permanent sense is impossible, but only because “light love” is not worth the trouble of investment to begin with. Indeed, one commits one’s body (but never one’s heart) to an experience that depends for its continuation on the presence of lovers and mistresses as unreliable and untrustworthy as the selective reality the memory assiduously presents to itself:
Light love’s extinguished ember,
Let one tear leave it wet
For one that you remember
And ten that you forget.52
Swinburne’s poems of “light love” reflect the moral and psychological aporia of Poems and Ballads. The edifice of memory is broken down, which is in effect the shattering of personal identity; and in the place of the self stands desire, naked, blind, and insatiable. The status of love has been dramatically reduced from the positive enjoyment of pleasure and love, to love as cruelty, bound to the fatalistic inevitability of love’s failure. The lovers in “Stage Love” are memorable only insofar as they were cruel. Swinburne effaces the dualities of joy/sorrow and pain/pleasure by confusing joy with sorrow, and pleasure with pain in the ubiquitous realm of unappeasable desire, which is the only abiding principle in the “heaven we twain have known”:
The snake that hides and hisses
In heaven we twain have known;
The grief of cruel kisses,
The joy whose mouth makes moan;
The pulse’s pause and measure,
Where in one furtive vein
Throbs through the heart of pleasure
The purpler blood of pain.53
VII. Conclusion: Swinburne’s Monodrama of Love
Reading the love poems in Poems and Ballads as associated orchestrated movements gives a fresh perspective on the book because the successive stages through which love evolves are not readily apparent in Swinburne’s arrangement of the poems. Thus, poems such as “Anactoria” silently comment on and critique such seemingly unrelated poems, such as “A Ballad of Life,” or “Rococo.” Even though Rossetti rightly points out that there is generally much overlapping between the poems, the dialogue between Swinburne’s love poems, and their allusions to one another, become muted and convoluted in a critical apparatus of categories such as the “classic,” “heterodox,” or “reproductive.” Love may arguably be the central concern of Poems and Ballads, but the dramatic movement of the love poems would simply not register very strongly, or would become a sidetrack in the context of a broader critical spectrum. The common critical focal points of Swinburne’s anti-theism, or his republicanism, or his views of sexuality, are all topics that bear on what Swinburne has to say regarding love, and vice-versa. Yet, in the world of Poems and Ballads, it is love and desire that, like Aristotle’s unmoved mover, propels the evolution of human belief and activity. As Swinburne writes of the ubiquitous conjunction of love and life in his poem, “Before Dawn,” “…all who find him lose him,/ But all have found him fair.”54
The advantage of categorizing the love poems and reading them as a monodrama over Swinburne’s monodrama of “Dolores,” “The Garden of Proserpine,” and “Hesperia,” is that reading the love poems as a monodrama throws Swinburne’s conception of love in sharper relief. In his love poems, Swinburne makes distinct ontological statements about the nature of love, such as that love is cruelly ideal, disillusioning, and ideally cruel. In his Notes on Poems and Reviews, Swinburne tells us that his tripartite monodrama traces the transient conditions of one spirit; but in Poems and Ballads taken as a whole, a wider net of ideas is cast. The poems may or may not theoretically be the words and internal dialogue of a single voice, but in any case, that voice is making important claims about ontology and cosmology through the magnifying lens of love.
Though not as bewilderingly varied in dramatic situations as, for instance, the love poetry of John Donne, Swinburne’s love poetry is full of aporias built out of a small number of different climactic situations wherein love operates, respectively, as an occult power that can transform the very character of existence itself, or love is tragically taken away, or indulged in to the point of excess, or found to be fleeting and hollow. The experience of love is never static, but subject to the ravages of time and fate. Love qua love always remains out of reach of the respective poem’s persona, because Swinburne holds that, in man’s experience, any attempt to formulize or otherwise arrest the evolution of love only uncovers the limitations of desire, and reveals an experiential horizon still further off. This is the essence of Swinburne’s anti-historical doctrine of continual change without progress, from which experience of the diverse conditions of love are not exempted. According to Swinburne, man’s experience of love is not an experience of love as such; if it were, such an experience would amount, in philosophical terms, to actively experiencing a potentiality, which conflates the subject with the object, thereby universalizing all experience. Rather, man’s experience of the potentiality of love is the experience of the act of loving snatched, like fire, from out of the “multitudinous monotony of things.” Swinburne’s love poems constitute a four-part series of evolving stages and scenes that ultimately constitute a unified meta-drama within the book as a whole
Now Swinburne’s tripartite monodrama can be reformulated according to the four-part theme of love. Swinburne’s Borgia poems constitute a beginning within the symbolic crosscurrents of the monodrama of love, and stand as a harbinger or intimation of the unattainable ideal and the impossible in love. Swinburne’s Borgia poems are the perfect and positive reflection of all of the other negative, indeterminate and imperfect states love passes through in the drama of the poems. The poems of “impossible love” confuse the amorous ideal world of the Borgia poems with the themes of loss, grieving, and disappointment. The psychological transition from the Borgia poems to the poems of “impossible love” involves a shift in the worldview of the speaker from idyllic hedonism to an opaque nihilism. If love exists at all, it only exists as a form of humiliation, or as a perversion in the order of nature. Poems such as “Anactoria” and “A Cameo” give further support to Swinburne’s nihilistic conception of love. In addition to lending support, the poems of “vicious love” introduce the themes of anti-theism and anti-morality. Under this equation, love does not fail by chance, but is in reality doomed by fate to fail, and becomes an instrument of torture. The only way to be rid of love as an instrument of torture is to give desire sovereignty over love. The poems of “light love” treat of the conditions of the heart that has worn out, and the beliefs and ideals that have been consumed by long experience. This set of poems constitutes the terminal point in the monodrama of love in Poems and Ballads. The stages of idealism, nihilism, and violent hedonism have been passed through, and the speaker in the poems of “light love” is now accomplished in the sport of love, playing out his part as lover/tormenter in a cosmos that neither abides nor can contain any moral principle or providential god. In the final analysis, Swinburne’s conception of love contains no answers, and no doctrine; it is founded on the paradox of pleasure and pain, fueled by insatiate desire. Plying the deadened senses with the extremes of sensation is the only confirmation that life is still occurring, and that time has not yet triumphed.