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On Sir Thomas Browne, Francis Bacon, & Michel de Montaigne

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The claims of Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) and Francis Bacon (1561-1626) to seats among the moderns can hardly be denied– Montaigne is the heir of Sextus Empiricus, Bacon the father of Descartes and the modern experiment. Together, skepticism and the experimental method align as the twin pole stars of modern science. Sir Thomas Browne (1602-1682), a writer and thinker of unique power and extreme sensibility, occupies a more dubious position in relation to modernity. This is in spite of the fact that he outlived Bacon by sixty-four years, that he knew, at least partially, the writings of both Bacon and Montaigne, and was himself a contributor to several divisions of science and scholarly learning. He was also ever conversant with the latest advances in the sciences, as well as possessed of an intimate knowledge of the classics.

For Sir Thomas, Heaven was the abode of the mystic as well as the natural philosopher; but on earth, neither science nor the physician could change the destiny of any man, nor do anything to alter or destroy the truths of his mystic, apocalyptic faith. It is in this light that we must approach with caution the writings of Browne; particularly in those moments when he derides the Scholastics, seems to echo Montaigne, or speaks the language of Bacon and the Cartesians. The rejection of authority– be it the Divine Right of princes, the Ptolemaic system of the cosmos, or Aristotle’s concept of soul– was the common road traveled by those who made the so-called scientific revolution in the 17th century. Francis Bacon famously claimed that the Ancient natural philosophers had actually contributed little to the inquiry into the secrets of nature through their method, which Bacon styled “anticipations of nature.” If nature is not purpose-driven, if “soul” is not specific to anything, then nature is a machine made of parts that are separable and re-organizable. Like Galen’s medicine, or Pliny’s history, Aristotle’s theories of teleology and psychology, exhaustively elaborated through the period of the Middle Ages, faced its final opposition in the 17th century. Yet it was not on account of a rejection of religious faith and devotion that the change from Ancient to modern science came about, but through the division of the two spheres, faith and natural philosophy, into two vast categories of things relevance to the human condition.

In Montaigne, Bacon, and Browne, the arguments for the rejection of authority of the Ancients, and authority in general, come down to the notion that the hitherto unrealized worth of experience and experiment relieves contemporary intellectual life of its burden of gratitude and dogmatic adherence to the writings and opinions of the Ancients. Yet Browne’s rejection of Ancient authority, and authority in general, does not extend beyond what any sober-minded scholar might object to in the writings of an historian with a penchant for interjecting folklore into his narrative. On the other hand, derision of the authority of the Ancients is arguably a necessary component of the idiosyncratic style in Montaigne’s Essays — indeed, the belittling of authority, be it ancient or modern, religious or political, is the primary way to elevate the “self,” the “I,” to a new level of confessional authority, which is synonymous with autonomy. Bacon’s rejection of authority lends itself to his aphoristic style, which, in its “interpretive” lack of systematization, makes a mockery of Aristotle and the Scholastics for prematurely “anticipating nature” in their vast, artificially constructed systems. Thus, Montaigne, Bacon and Browne invoke the theme of the rejection of the authority of the Ancients to differing ends. In the final analysis, the rejection of authority is not so much a thematic parallel between the three writers, but rather a tendency in intellectual life distinguishing the 16th and 17th centuries from the Medieval era, when the writings of the Ancients were still being assimilated and commented upon.

The similarity of Browne’s writings to those of Montaigne and Bacon coincides in terms of a muscular skepticism.  The main differences lie in Browne’s deference to the authority of religion. The authority of religion is arguably the meta-element in the thought of Browne; it is according to the precepts of religion that the world of ideas and opinions are entirely subordinated in his writings. This fideistic dimension is not a main characteristic found in Montaigne or Bacon’s writings, even though both frankly and regularly confess their lifelong devotion to the Christian religion. Allegiance, however, does not dictate the subject of their respective inquiries, whether it is the self or nature. Thus, by applying the fideistic distinction, some characteristic differences can be isolated between the thought of Browne and the early-modern thought of Bacon. In so doing, a more general concluding distinction can be drawn, and that is to identify an intellectual characteristic that differentiates the intellectual attitude of fully fledged modernity, such as we find it in the writings of Montaigne, from an attitude that points back to an earlier time in pre-modern intellectual life, such as we find it in the writings of Browne.

I. Science and Faith: Browne and Bacon

Browne recognizes in the precepts and dogmas of Christianity an absolute and final authority on all matters pertaining to man’s existence. It is perhaps on this characteristic head that Browne’s position is the most easily distinguished from the respective positions of Montaigne and Bacon. Browne never wavers in his application of his religious position to whatever the subject of his writings may be. On the other hand, Montaigne and Bacon vary from one work to the next in regard to the presence or absence of religion in the treatment of their respective subjects; they are resolute only on the point of obedience to the will of the Christian church. On the other hand, fideism begins and ends Browne’s argument — the ever-present memento mori and the consuming totality of an eternal God serve as a backdrop and a foil to the mutable aspirations and vanities of mankind.

The impotence of philosophy to lend support to faith or serve as the handmaid to theology is a notion that follows thoroughly in the wake of the activities and writings of Luther and Calvin. Following a notion found in the thought of both Luther and Calvin, Browne proposes that the Christian faith should be subjected to all the tribunals of history, as well as the scrutiny of science and philosophy, so that there might not be a single doctrine left intact or standing before the hubris of man, who pretends to the measurement of all things:

“As for those wingy mysteries in divinity, and airy subtleties in religion, which have unhinged the brains of better heads, they never stretched the pia mater of mine. Methinks there be not impossibilities enough in religion for an active faith: the deepest mysteries ours contains have not only been illustrated, but maintained, by syllogism and the rule of reason. I love to lose myself in a mystery; to pursue my reason to an O altitudo! ‘Tis my solitary recreation to pose my apprehension with those involved enigmas and riddles of the Trinity — incarnation and resurrection. I can answer all the objections of Satan and my rebellious reason with that odd resolution I learned of Tertullian, Certum est quia impossibile est.”

Certain contemporary critics of Religio Medici mistook Browne’s purpose of examining his religious opinions for a work of theology, yet in this fragment, Browne expressly abjures theologizing in his exclamation of “O altitudo!” The conditions of rationality set down by logic and syllogistic reasoning are not conducive to an active faith, which naturally repulses any rational explanation of faith’s irrational mysteries — rational thought is destructive and antithetical to the truths of faith. When, for example, the existence of God and the immortality of the soul can be proven through reason alone, faith ceases to act as knowledge without proof, and instead becomes certain knowledge. Religion, according to both the Reformers and to Browne, squanders its raison d’être, which is to say its veracity, when the truths of faith are changed to rationally acquired truths — the realm of faith is by definition irrational when opposed to the kingdom of reason, which is governed by empirical and logical norms. The authority of religion, based on the sovereignty of faith as opposed to the sovereignty of reason, must at least keep philosophy accountable, or enmity between the truths of faith and the truths of reason could give rise to the paradoxical possibility of the “double truth.”

In his Advancement of Learning, Bacon circumscribes the truths of faith without questioning the Scriptural authority from whence those truths issue. He does so in order to demonstrate that theology has nothing to add to natural philosophy, and certainly nothing to add to the investigation of empirical nature though methodic experiment. All observable phenomena stand outside the compass of divine knowledge for two reasons: there is no ascent from particular things and principles to universal things, or the first principles of science; second, knowledge of such things as the soul and its immortality cannot be acquired through knowledge of empirical particulars — the former species of knowledge is given through apocalypse, the latter through experience. Moreover, according to Bacon, the “light of nature” declares the existence of God to be self-evident because a creator is necessary to explain the existence of the material world; but the natural light is predictably silent on such things as the immortality of the soul and miracles. Through the light of nature, the knowledge of the existence of God is impressed on the understanding; hence, if nature can be explained by science without recourse to the miraculous or the divine, one has merely to accept the explanations of science, which do not require a miracle.

In the Religio Medici, Browne maintains a similar opinion on the self-evident nature of the existence of God; but rather than exclude God from participation in “the ordinary course of nature” (viz., laws of nature), “the effects of nature” are in every sense the “works of God, whose hand and instrument she only is; and therefore, to ascribe his actions unto her is to devolve the honor of the principle agent upon the instrument.” The difference between Bacon and Browne then, in respect to the authority of religion is, to take the case of Browne first, the function of religion as a totality beyond which nothing has meaning or reference. Science, history, and philosophy are all subsumed under the purposive ends of divinity, and employed as instrumental or artful servants. Divinity breaks in on Browne as he reviews his opinions touching hermeneutics, literally interrupting the flow of his discourse with, “thus I teach my haggard and unreclaimed reason to stoop unto the lure of faith,” and, “this, I think, is no vulgar part of faith, to believe a thing not only above, but contrary to, reason, and against the arguments of our proper senses.” Bacon, on the other hand, seeks to neither supplant religion with science nor make science accountable to religious principles — rather, he seeks to free scientific inquiry from any consideration of religion. Bacon’s programme of dividing disciplines in order that each may proceed in the most efficacious way requires that arts that were formerly joined, such as the “three knowledges; divine philosophy, natural philosophy, and human philosophy, or humanity,” pursue their respective ends individually, and draw their conclusions uninhibitedly.

The Baconian experimental method narrows the scope of what can be legitimately investigated by science, viz., the method begins and ends with the evidence of empirical phenomena.
While Browne’s approach to science in Pseudodoxia Epidemica includes experiment, induction is held to serve as nothing more than a corrective to man’s ignorance of phenomena — Browne is a castigator of false opinion sans the concern for generating a method or principles whereby science, or the inquiry into phenomena, will ultimately be freed from the bonds of superstition. In Religio Medici, Browne cavils about the same difficult doctrines that innumerable commentators have caviled on, but then invites the “gentle reader” to laugh with him at the folly of those who take such quibbles too seriously by holding the indubitability of the Scriptures too lightly. We find that Browne affects a similar pose in the empiricism of his scientific writings. The care for knowledge gained through the senses should be worn on the shoulders like a light mantle, to be cast off when the infallible truths of Scripture contradicts the fallible judgments men make of their experience. In his panoramic view of the charnel house of human history, Browne the Christian, and Browne the secular physician and scientist keep uncertain, even antagonistic company. Nature, as Browne writes in Religio Medici, is the work of God, and man cannot comprehend how the Creator works, save analogically, nor can he appropriate the tools of the Creator to achieve his own ends. Medicine is an artifice, and as such acts as a kind of mimesis of the infinite artificer; yet the application of medicine’s purgative and restorative powers, according to Browne, while beneficial to the cure of bodily infirmity, is adversative to the cure of souls. Medicine, according to this view, is antithetical to the plans of the Creator, as it necessarily works towards a greater human good, rather than as a means of serving a purpose in a transcendent teleological design that excludes individual human interests and desires. Browne has a different prescription for addressing the seeming irreconcilable differences of faith and reason, which is for each to keep to its respective place so as not to unnecessarily undermine the tenets of the one, while illegitimately raising the claims of the other.

II. Browne and Modernity

Browne is a paradoxical figure, but not in the same sense as Montaigne, who both refuses and accepts whichever category he is put into. The paradoxical nature of Browne is part and parcel of the age in which he lived, which is best understood in terms of irregularity rather than contradiction. The 17th century did not abide the kinds of impassible — which is to say, fashionable — cultural distinctions enjoyed in our current age between religion and science, the sacred and the secular, the state and the individual, &c. Certainly there were other sets of cultural distinctions particular to Browne’s time, but these are no longer operatives in our time.
Browne is ultimately an ambiguous figure, and is, to a certain (though not measurable) degree, representative of the paradoxical age in which he lived. Science lived in tolerable domesticity with religion; empiricism held rationalism at bay with its principle of bon sens; one could entertain Cartesian reductionist notions of thought and extension and still be a loyal Aristotelian. Browne may present himself in the guise of the scourge of vulgar and popular error, but he is never willing to sacrifice his religious faith, or even suggest such a desperate outrage to promote man’s self-important ends, or mix the tenants of faith with the necessarily imperfect principles of the natural sciences. Rather, Browne’s singular principle of the inevitability of the grave, and the eternal life to come, stands above rational judgment altogether, and does not waver or equivocate at any turn — hence, this may be justly set down as Browne’s “Archimedean point,” the negative principle with which all positive knowledge must be reckoned. But death does not admit of any “sic et non,” or any logical conveniences like the universal or particular affirmation or negation. The study of life and death, Brown writes in the Epistle Dedicatory to Thomas Le Gros in his Hydriotaphia or Urn Burial, makes up the daily operation of men such as themselves. The locus of their enquiry is the whole of the earth, for as such, it is but a vast tomb. The ax, spade and brush are but tools for exhuming the curious relics of man, the rational animal, whose dual essence gives him over to the ceremonialization of his own transience, yet whose fondest wish is but to continue in existence, and perpetually evade the extinction that mortal destiny carries with it. Funeral customs are geographically and chronologically particular things, but “the end of all, the poppied sleep” that gives occasion for so much variation in man’s funerary practices, is an ultimate and universal phenomenon. Browne’s Platonism is borne out by his persistent opposition of the fleeting to the eternal. The sensuous curtain of the phenomenal world, according to Browne, is a deception and a cheat when considered superficially, or as its own end. The immutable truths of the existence of a Creator that is both transcendent and participatory in the created order, and an immortal human soul, are necessary foundations for any kind of inquiry into the truth of things. In Browne’s writings, it is this particular combination of objective fact and religious devotion — les extrêmes qui se touchent — that renders the scope of his writings at once wider and narrower than the scope of Montaigne in the Essays, and Bacon in his scientific treatises. For instance, Browne’s objective inquiry on funerary urns rapidly gives way to a lengthy meditation on the gloomy spectacle of other men’s relics, ashes, or tombs, as the case may be. His most well known writings, the Urn Burial and Religio Medici, consist mainly of sustained digressions on his preferred themes of God, the mysteries of the faith, and mortality and immortality; but perhaps this is so only because his subjects inevitably relieve themselves of their particularities in the ubiquitous lap of the Creator.

On A. C. Swinburne’s Poems & Ballads & the Theory of the Monodrama

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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.

1 Jerome J. McGann, Swinburne: An Experiment in Criticism, (The University of Chicago Press, Chicago/London, 1972), p.225.

2 David G. Riede, Swinburne: A Study in Romantic Mythmaking (University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1978),

3 “This Stoicism of the heart, which falls short of bitterness on the one hand, and the sentimentality of unregistered regret on the other, is the defining note of Swinburne’s love poetry… Swinburne has mistakenly acquired the reputation as an erotic poet; he is rather the poet of love’s impossibility. Perhaps this is why, even in his most sensual verses, one feels a particular innocence, just as in his most moving love poetry one feels a profound barrenness…” (Swinburne: Selected Poetry and Prose, edited and introduced by John D. Rosenberg.

4 The poems, in no particular order, considered as relevant to this category run as follows:“The Triumph of Time,” “A leave-Taking,” “Hemaphroditus,” “Satia Te Sanguine,” “In the Orchard (Provencal Burden),” “The Leper,” “Rondel” (“These many years…”), “Song Before Death (from the French),” “Rondel” (“Kissing her hair…”), “Before the Mirror,” “Erotion,” “April (from the French),” “The Year of Love.”

5 The poems, in no particular order, considered as relevant to this category run as follows:“Dolores,” “Anactoria,” “Faustine,” “Phaedra,” “Laus Veneris,” “A Cameo,” “Les Noyades.”

6 The poems, in no particular order, considered as relevant to this category run as follows:“Rococo,” “A Match,” “Stage Love,” “A Ballad of Burdens,” “Before Parting,” “Fragoletta,” “Felise,” “An Interlude,” “Before Dawn.”

7 For the five poems considered as relevant to this category, as well as discussion of the basis for their inclusion in the present consideration of Swinburne’s monodrama, see section IV below.

8 A.C. Swinburne, The Swinburne Letters, edited by Cecil Y. Lang, 6 volumes (Yale University Press and Oxford University Press, New Haven and London, 1959-62), vol. 1, p. 197. Brackets mine.

9 Cf., A. C. Swinburne, “Notes on Poems and Reviews,” in Swinburne Replies, edited by Clyde Kenneth Hyder (Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, New York, 1966), p. 23.

10 Nicholas Shrimpton, “Swinburne and the Dramatic Monologue,” in The Whole Music of Passion: New Essays on Swinburne, edited by Rickky Rooksby and Nicholas Shrimpton (Scolar Press, England, 1993), p. 53. Shrimpton’s article supplies a useful summation of previous opinions both for and against Swinburne’s claim for the dramatic character of his poems.

11 William Michael Rossetti, Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads, in Clyde K. Hyder, Swinburne: The Critical Heritage (Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1970; reprinted 1995), p. 62. Brackets mine.

12 Samuel C. Chew, Swinburne (Archon Books, Hamden Connecticut, 1966), p. 80.

13 Jerome J. McGann, Swinburne: An Experiment in Criticism, p. 208. Cf. A. C. Swinburne, “Notes on Poems and Reviews,” in Swinburne Replies, where Swinburne himself refers to the collection of poems in Poems and Ballads, First Series, as “heterogeneous” (p. 91). It should be noted that McGann, while discussing the theme of unattainable women in Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads, First Series, seems to accept the “monodrame” theory: “For the fact is that Swinburne’s work is dominated from the start by a cast of characters which make up the monodrama of Poems and Ballads, First Series” (p. 216).

14 David G. Riede, Swinburne: A Study in Romantic Mythmaking, pp. 70-71.

15 Nicholas Shrimpton, “Swinburne and the Dramatic Monologue,” in The Whole Music of Passion: New Essays on Swinburne, p. 57.

16 Julian Baird rightly observes that, “Since Swinburne placed the paired “A Ballad of Life” and “A Ballad of Death” at the beginning of Poems and Ballads, there is a strong possibility that he intended them as thematically prefatory to his major poetic concerns in the volume as a whole” (“Swinburne, Sade, and Blake: The Pleasure-Pain Paradox,” in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 9, numbers 1-2, pp. 49-76, Spring-Summer, 1971, West Virginia University ), p. 56.

17 “Lucretia Estensis Borgia (1480-1519) was the daughter of Rodrigo de Borgia, Pope Alexander IV (1431-1503), and was born before her father became pope in 1492. She was used as a political pawn by her father and by her brother, Cesare (1476-1507), and was married three times, the last time to Alfonso de Este, the ruler of Ferrara. In her later years she was know for her piety and her patronage of arts and letters; but in her earlier life she is reputed to have been guilty of sexual license and even incest with her father and two brothers” (quoted from A.C. Swinburne, Poems and Ballads & Atalanta in Calydon, edited with an introduction and annotation by Morse Peckham((The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., Indianapolis and New York, 1970), p. 5).

18 These two poems date, respectively, from 1859-60, and from the early 1860’s.

19 Lines 61-70.

20 Lines 61-70.

21 Lines 58, 59-60.

22 Cf. Julian Baird, “Swinburne, Sade, and Blake: The Pleasure-Pain Paradox,” in Victorian Poetry: “There is… no doubt that Swinburne was fascinated by Lucretia Borgia and her court, and that she became for him a Blakean symbol of the holiness of the things of the flesh,” p. 57.

23 Algernon Charles Swinburne, Major Poems and Selected Prose, edited by Jerome McGann and Charles L. Sligh (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2004), p. 411.

24 Julian Baird, “Swinburne, Sade, and Blake: The Pleasure-Pain Paradox,” in Victorian Poetry, p. 56.

25 Antony H. Harrison, Swinburne’s Medievalism: A Study in Victorian Love Poetry (Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge and London, 1988), p. 30. For Harrison’s erudite discussion of the influence of French Troubadour lyric poetry in the poems of Swinburne, see pp. 26-36.

26 Ibid., “Nearly all Swinburne’s major poems reveal the courtly influence through their radical emphasis on the interrelatedness not only of passion and politics but also of all actions, all ideals, all life,” p. 31.

27 Lines 69-72; 93-96; 101-108.

28 Cf. “Hemaphroditus”: “Where between sleep and life some brief space is…” (line 15).

29 Lines 137-140.

30 The Latin root of “confuse” derives from “confound,” which means to pour or mix together.

31 Lines 1-14.

32 “Fully understood, Swinburne’s description of hedonistic lust is, in fact, a death wish, for if the desire is fulfilled, the strife of desire ended, it is accomplished only because the soul has been destroyed. The only way in which sexual desire can be quelled in life is by complete mergence of the lovers, and this is achieved only in “Hemaphroditus.” But the resulting satiety, though beautiful, is beautiful as objects are beautiful. Hemaphroditus is a “thing of barren hours”… it is a sterile object… in which all productive striving has been stilled…” (David G. Riede, Swinburne: A Study in Romantic Mythmaking, p. 57). Italics in original.

33 Lines 20-22.

34 Cf. “Dolores,” lines 153-160:

For the crown of our life as it closes

Is darkness, the fruit thereof dust;

No thorns go as deep as a rose’s,

And love is more cruel than lust.

Time turns the old days to derision,

Our loves into corpses or wives;

And marriage and death and division

Make barren our lives.

35 “Hemaphroditus,” lines 17-19.

36 Swinburne’s poems of “vicious love” are the primary poems in which women are aggrandized and mythologized.

37 Lines 97-104.

38 Lines 171-181.

39 Lines 29, 30.

40 Lines 145-152.

41 Line 32.

42 Line 154.

43 Lines 69-71.

44 Lines 75-76.

45 “Stage Love,” lines 9-12.

46 “Hesperia,” line 57.

47 “A Forsaken Garden,” line 44. Cf. the following relevant stanza from “The Triumph of Time”:

And I play not for pity of these; but you,

If you saw with your soul what man am I,

You would praise me at least that my soul all through

Clove to you, loathing the lives that lie;

The souls and lips that are bought and sold,

The smiles of silver and kisses of gold,

The lapdog loves that whine as they chew,

The little lovers that curse and cry ( lines 241-248).

48 Lines 5-8. My emphasis.

49 “A Forsaken Garden,” line 54.

50 “Rococo,” lines 17-24.

51 Juliette is, of course, the name of de Sade’s heroine in the novel Juliette. Although it is a well-known fact that Swinburne was a reader of de Sade’s writings, there is not enough internal evidence in “Rococo” to ascribe to the Juliette of Swinburne’s poem the identity of de Sade’s iconic heroine.

52 “Stage Love,” lines 77-81.

53 Lines 49-56.

54 Lines 79-80.

The Soul of Shakespeare’s 94th Sonnet

il_fullxfull.340648227Man possesses many attributes and abilities in common with other living things, but the attribute distinguishing man from all other things, and which he shares in common with god, is a rational principle. We will endeavor to state in detail the connection between Aristotle’s postulate of a rational principle in man and why the life lived in accord with the highest virtue, theoria, is the most elevated expression of this faculty of rationality.

Aristotelian man has within him the capacity to strive for and achieve virtue in his own life. Man’s nature is not entirely fixed or determined by outside forces, and so he necessarily has the capacity to alter his nature; man is not born ‘stuffed with all honorable virtues,’ to use Shakespeare’s phrase, but must be habituated to the life of virtue. Man can either be habituated into activities that go against his nature, or excise from himself habits that are beneath his nature. It is possible for man to form fresh habits in accord with what is most dominant in man, that being logos, for man possesses, in varying degrees of efficacy, the faculty of reason (cf. NE 1296),1 which makes this alteration possible. To speak of alterations in man’s behavior is to speak of the progress of virtue, and Aristotle treats this progression at length in the Nicomachean Ethics. Yet Aristotle disarmingly concludes the Nicomachean Ethics with a discussion of virtue in its totality by crowning the project of the life of practical virtue with the conception of the contemplative life, which, at first pass, is a palpably strange way to conclude, since the life of contemplation stands outside the realm of everyday action (i.e., practical virtue), and is, in a sense, virtue sans action.

What is commonly required for the implementation of the cardinal virtues, things such as ready money, power, opportunity, &c., are viewed not as a means to the man who would contemplate truth, but rather as hindrances. Why is this so? Aristotle tells us, ‘the man who is contemplating the truth’ (NE 1106) may only do so once he has put aside virtuous deeds and the many things needed to carry out such deeds. He may choose to do virtuous deeds, or he may not, and the choice is occasioned by the presence or absence of other men in the life of a philosopher. When the man who desires to contemplate truth excises himself from the diversions of his affairs, or the houses of his friends, or, hypothetically, when the possibility for action and production are taken away from him, all that remains for him is thought—logical being (for the only logical entity is thought).

The life of contemplation is not a life of dainty indolence and languor, but is necessarily very difficult and solitary, and Aristotle sums up his conception authoritatively:

[W]e…must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything…[i]t would be strange, then, if he [man in a broad sense] were to choose not the life of his self but that of something else (NE 1105).

The rigors of the contemplative life resolve themselves into the rigors of logic. Aristotle demands indisputability from his first principles and seeks indemonstrable premises on which to found his rational investigation of the world. Therefore, the method of rational contemplation must be an enumeration of logical inferences if the results are to be meaningful. Intuition, or some other species of mental instinct, will not do for Aristotle, since intuition is derived from particular and individual thought processes, and is most likely contingent on the individual thinker. For Aristotle, the form of the syllogism is the form taken by the activity of contemplation. The syllogism presupposes a rational ordering of the kosmos, and one contemplates this rational order with the instrument of logic as the nimble instrument of the human mind wields it. There is no mistake in Aristotle’s decision to name his logical treatises the Organon. The logical treatises, it can be said, epitomize his conception of what is produced by, and gained through, the life of contemplation:

[F]or if the gods have any care for human affairs…it would be reasonable both that they should delight in that which was best and most akin to them (i.e., reason) and that they should reward those who love and honor this most (NE 1108).

The character of the unmoved mover in Aristotle’s writings both initiates and completes the human life of contemplation. For, taking god as the archetype of thought, the contemplator of truth endeavors to imitate the divine by exercising in himself what is divine. The Greek concept of mimesis, I believe, is entirely applicable to how Aristotle conceives the method and the means of the contemplative life. To call the contemplator a mimic of god is to call a spade a spade, since god is the ultimate exemplar of such an existence. In examining the attributes god possesses, Aristotle is seeking a template for the life of contemplation that other like-minded people can understand and apply. Some of the attributes of god mimicked in the human activity of contemplation are as follows: god as the ergon (function) of theoria—the intelligible striving to appreciate the intelligible, or god taking god as the object of thought; further, god neither suffers nor undergoes affection, but is unmoved, impervious, insusceptible, &c. All of these qualities of god are commensurate with the activity of god, which, as Aristotle points out, is contemplative (NE 1107). Therefore, just as god, and the activity of god, is entirely self-sufficient and self-contained, so too is the activity of contemplation, in which there is no need for ready money, power, or opportunity. The human activity of contemplation is akin to this divine apathae, and, as Aristotle explains, this imperviousness to affection is appropriate to the degree to which humans participate in nous, viz., the understanding and grasping of eternal truths.

In Aristotle’s provisional discussion of the rational principle of man in book one of the Nicomachean Ethics, the germ of his later discussions of happiness and the contemplative life can be seen in the brief allusion he makes to the human good. This human good he calls ‘an activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete’ (NE. 943, emphasis added). The aim of Aristotle’s provisional discussion of the rational principle is the way in which it is implicitly linked to the highest good, viz., the activity of god, which, as we have seen, is thought. The link between the activities of man and god is forged by the principle of self-sufficiency, which Aristotle defines as ‘that which when isolated makes life desirable and lacking in nothing; and such we think happiness to be…’ (NE 942). Aristotle goes on to point out that,

[W]e think it [self-sufficiency] the most desirable of all things, without being counted as one good thing among others—if it were so counted it would clearly be made more desirable by the addition of even the least of goods…[h]appiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action (Ibid).

An important addition to Aristotle’s conception of the contemplative life, and with which he concludes the passage just cited, is the claim that happiness entails an end of action. This only makes sense if the life of practical virtue is crowned by the contemplative life. In the life of practical virtue, the improvement of man’s actions and behaviors is the goal; but the final aim of the project is one of inactivity and solitude. The end of action expressed and carried out in the contemplative life is singular to the rest of Aristotle’s virtues, all of which all presuppose some means, some action, to the fulfillment of its end, be it power, ready money, or opportunity. All of the virtues are discursive, save for the activity of contemplation, which is self-contained, and for this reason is the highest good, as Aristotle calls it. Yet we should take notice that the contemplative life is, nevertheless, co-constitutive with the life of practical virtue, and is not possible outside of a specific type of social environment, viz., an environment in which excellence of soul amongst citizens is not the exception but, more likely, the rule. The contemplative life is a product of the highest forms of human society, but no society is built, conversely, from such a foundation as the type of individual who is a scholar or philosopher.

The source for this criterion of self-sufficiency as the highest good is found in Aristotle’s conception of the divine, which only the life of contemplation among the virtues approximates. Only objects of thought and desire are unmoved movers—they are the motivating force behind the multiplicity of activities in the world. God is the primary and ultimate object of thought and desire. God moves (but is himself unmoved) because he is loved: man ceases to move and becomes like god when he reasons. This, then, is why the activity that most nearly approximates the activity of the divine is itself called the highest good and naturally puts an end to action. Recall what Aristotle writes regarding the activity of god, the semblance of which is reflected in man:

Now if you take away from a living being action, and still more production, what is left but contemplation? Therefore the activity of god, which surpasses all others in blessedness, must be contemplative; and of human activities, therefore, that which is most akin to this must be most of the nature of happiness (NE 1107).

The man who contemplates the truth is nevertheless not self-sufficient to the same degree as god, but needs, in addition, what Aristotle refers to as ‘external prosperity.’ The extent to which a man must be prosperous to live the life of contemplation necessarily involves possessing the necessary resources to maintain health, &c. Aristotle points out that virtuous activity, especially the act of contemplation, is possible with a minimum of the accoutrements needed to continue in existence:

[W]e must not think the man who is to be happy will need many things or great things, merely because he cannot be supremely happy without external goods; for self-sufficiency and action do not involve excess (Ibid).

It is reasonable to conclude from this that self-sufficiency belongs more properly to the life of contemplation then to the virtues (the life of action)—but in either case excess has no part in the modifying and building up of what is best or most dominant in man’s nature, i.e., reason. Now recall what was mentioned earlier regarding the trait Aristotle assigns to god’s nature, namely, neither suffering nor undergoing any affection. What place can such a quality occupy in the life lived according to practical virtue, which is necessarily one of action? Indeed, Aristotle celebrates the wide variety of qualities present in man, and qualities of which man is capable of achieving through practical virtue, but nevertheless, what is most prominent in man’s nature is the rational principle, and the exercise of this attribute tends toward one thing, and that is the unmoved, self-sufficient divine.

Thus far we have but articulated a skeleton of what the contemplative life involves, in that it approximates the nature of god—perhaps this rudimentary anatomy can be fleshed out further if we deck it in the raiment of poetry. Examining Shakespeare’s 94th sonnet, we get a sense of what the life of contemplation participating in the divine means. Certain philosophic commentators have claimed this 94th sonnet to be a sort of reflecting-pool for quasi-Nietzschian ideas of self-sufficiency and the experience of life as an end in itself.2 Be that as it may, it can be argued that the poem is more fittingly read as a compliment to Aristotle’s conception of the contemplative life, especially since the poem is demonstrably Aristotelian in its vocabulary and thoroughly Elizabethan, rather than Nietzschian, in its poetic conceits. Here, then, is the piece itself:

They that have the power to hurt and will do none,

That do not do the thing they most do show,

Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,

Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:

They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces

And husband nature’s riches from expense,

They are the lords and owners of their faces,

Others, but stewards of their excellence.

The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,

Though to itself it only live and die,

But if that flower with base infection meet,

The basest weed outbraves his dignity:

For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;

Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.3

Shakespeare’s sonnet is best understood when set beside Aristotle’s conception of the life of contemplation. In not doing the thing he most does show, or is most capable of doing, the philosopher deliberately puts an end to the life he has led in the realm of practical virtue—a life he is entirely able to continue pursuing, were he to choose to do so. Yet he does not choose that life, but rather, another, the life of contemplation. In doing so, and doing so excellently, he rightly inherits heaven’s graces and moves others while remaining himself as stone. The man who would contemplate the truth, the philosopher, is the man ‘dearest to the gods;’ and insofar as he approaches god through the exercise of the faculty of reason (which in its utmost purity and enduringness neither suffers nor undergoes affection), does he give ‘delight’ to god for honoring ‘what is most akin’ to god’s nature. Further, the philosopher husbands the riches of nature from expense, viz., he rightly manages, through the practice of the highest virtue, the rewards of contemplative activity garnered from nature; viz., nature in the sense of the first principles underlying the accidents, not the accidents themselves (recall that Aristotle requires indemonstrable premises as a basis for scientific knowledge). Occupying this unique position, which Aristotle affirms is not available to every man, earns the philosopher the title of lord and owner of his face, or the rightful possessor of the enduring intellectual and virtuous qualities akin to the nature of god, and subsequently ‘most of the nature of happiness.’

That this kind of life is not inhuman or even superhuman, but as Aristotle writes, simply not available to every man, is our premise, and we must search the works of the past for examples of those who voluntarily adopted this life, having first been habituated into the excellences of virtue in a manner similar to what is described by Aristotle, then take flight from the world of deeds and affairs and actions like so many thieves, carrying off with them the rich spoils of their excellent characters, into the cloistered cell or lavish home, wherewith the retiring life of a solitary and studious existence is taken up. Indeed, such individuals are uncommon, but every age has a few in it that, through the pains and discomforts of study and seclusion, truly advance not only their own knowledge, but move and advance, so to speak, the entire age in a way similar to the movement of vast armies conquering lands and territories; save for the fact that the philosopher’s achievement is not subject to the vicissitudes of states or rulers, and so endures, resting on its own laurels, and always regarded as an amazement and wonder to the inhabitants of posterity, who see in the greatest of the philosopher’s thought both newness and evidence of what the best men are capable of, should the times be so generous and forgiving as to let such men come into being.

1 All citations in parentheses are from Richard Mckeon, ed., The Basic Works of Aristotle (Random House, 1941).

2 Walter Kaufmann, From Shakespeare to Existentialism (Princeton University Press, 1959), cf. pp 5-8.

3 Alfred Harbage, ed., The Complete Pelican Shakespeare (Viking Penguin, 1969), p. 1468.

Milton’s Early Poem, “The Hymn”

Image

I.
It was the winter wild,
While the Heav’n-born child,
All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies;
Nature in awe to him
Had doffed her gaudy trim,
With her great Master so to sympathize:
It was no season then for her
To wanton with the Sun, her lusty paramour.
II
Only with speeches fair
She woos the gentle air
To hide her guilty front with innocent snow,
And on her naked shame,
Pollute with sinful blame,
The saintly veil of maiden white to throw,
Confounded, that her Maker’s eyes
Should look so near upon her foul deformities.
III
But he, her fears to cease,
Sent down the meek-eyed Peace:
She, crowned with olive green, came softly sliding
Down through the turning sphere,
His ready harbinger,
With turtle wing the amorous clouds dividing;
And waving wide her myrtle wand,
She strikes a universal peace through sea and land.
IV
No war or battle’s sound
Was heard the world around;
The idle spear and shield were high uphung;
The hooked chariot stood
Unstained with hostile blood;
The trumpet spake not to the armed throng;
And kings sate still with awful eye,
As if they surely knew their sovran Lord was by.
V
But peaceful was the night
Wherein the Prince of Light
His reign of peace upon the earth began:
The winds with wonder whist,
Smoothly the waters kist,
Whispering new joys to the mild Ocean,
Who now hath quite forgot to rave,
While birds of calm sit brooding on the charmed wave.
VI
The Stars with deep amaze
Stand fixed in steadfast gaze,
Bending one way their precious influence;
And will not take their flight,
For all the morning light,
Or Lucifer that often warned them thence,
But in their glimmering orbs did glow,
Until their Lord himself bespake, and bid them go.
VI
And though the shady gloom
Had given day her room,
The Sun himself withheld his wonted speed,
And hid his head for shame,
As his inferior flame
The new-enlightened world no more should need:
He saw a greater Sun appear
Than his bright throne or burning axle-tree could bear.
VIII
The shepherds on the lawn,
Or ere the point of dawn,
Sate simply chatting in a rustic row;
Full little thought they than
That the mighty Pan
Was kindly come to live with them below:
Perhaps their loves, or else their sheep,
Was all that did their silly thoughts so busy keep;
IX
When such music sweet
Their hearts and ears did greet,
As never was by mortal finger strook,
Divinely warbled voice
Answering the stringed noise,
As all their souls in blissful rapture took:
The air such pleasure loth to lose,
With thousand echoes still prolongs each heav’nly close.
X
Nature, that heard such sound
Beneath the hollow round
Of Cynthia’s seat, the Airy region thrilling,
Now was almost won
To think her part was done,
And that her reign had here its last fulfilling:
She knew such harmony alone
Could hold all heav’n and earth in happier union.
XI
At last surrounds their sight
A globe of circular light,
That with long beams the shame-faced Night arrayed;
The helmed Cherubim
And sworded Seraphim
Are seen in glittering ranks with wings displayed,
Harping in loud and solemn quire,
With unexpressive notes to Heav’n’s new-born Heir.
XII
Such music (as ’tis said)
Before was never made,
But when of old the sons of morning sung,
While the Creator great
His constellations set,
And the well-balanced world on hinges hung,
And cast the dark foundations deep,
And bid the welt’ring waves their oozy channel keep.
XIII
Ring out ye crystal spheres!
Once bless our human ears
(If ye have power to touch our senses so)
And let your silver chime
Move in melodious time,
And let the bass of Heav’n’s deep organ blow;
And with your ninefold harmony
Make up full consort to th’angelic symphony.
XIV
For if such holy song
Enwrap our fancy long,
Time will run back and fetch the age of gold,
And speckled Vanity
Will sicken soon and die,
And leprous Sin will melt from earthly mould;
And Hell itself will pass away,
And leave her dolorous mansions to the peering Day.
XV
Yea, Truth and Justice then
Will down return to men,
Orbed in a rainbow; and, like glories wearing,
Mercy will sit between,
Throned in celestial sheen,
With radiant feet the tissued clouds down steering;
And Heav’n, as at some festival,
Will open wide the gates of her high palace hall.
XVI
But wisest Fate says no:
This must not yet be so;
The Babe lies yet in smiling infancy,
That on the bitter cross
Must redeem our loss,
So both himself and us to glorify:
Yet first to those ychained in sleep,
The wakeful trump of doom must thundcr through the deep,
XVII
With such a horrid clang
As on Mount Sinai rang
While the red fire and smould’ring clouds outbrake:
The aged Earth, aghast
With terror of that blast,
Shall from the surface to the centre shake,
When at the world’s last session,
The dreadful Judge in middle air shall spread his throne.
XVIII
And then at last our bliss
Full and perfect is,
But now begins; for from this happy day
Th’old Dragon under ground,
In straiter limits bound,
Not half so far casts his usurped sway,
And, wrath to see his kingdom fail,
Swinges the scaly horror of his folded tail.
XIX
The Oracles are dumb;
No voice or hideous hum
Runs through the arched roof in words deceiving.
Apollo from his shrine
Can no more divine,
With hollow shriek the steep of Delphos leaving.
No nightly trance or breathed spell
Inspires the pale-eyed priest from the prophetic cell.
XX
The lonely mountains o’er,
And the resounding shore,
A voice of weeping heard and loud lament;
From haunted spring, and dale
Edged with poplar pale,
The parting Genius is with sighing sent;
With flow’r-inwoven tresses torn
The Nymphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn.
XXI
In consecrated earth,
And on the holy hearth,
The Lars and Lemures moan with midnight plaint;
In urns and altars round,
A drear and dying sound
Affrights the flamens at their service quaint;
And the chill marble seems to sweat,
While each peculiar power forgoes his wonted seat.
XXII
Peor and Baalim
Forsake their temples dim,
With that twice-battered god of Palestine;
And mooned Ashtaroth,
Heav’n’s queen and mother both,
Now sits not girt with tapers’ holy shine;
The Libyc Hammon shrinks his horn;
In vain the Tyrian maids their wounded Thammuz mourn.
XXIII
And sullen Moloch, fled,
Hath left in shadows dread
His burning idol all of blackest hue:
In vain with cymbals’ ring
They call the grisly king,
In dismal dance about the furnace blue.
The brutish gods of Nile as fast,
Isis and Orus, and the dog Anubis, haste.
XXIV
Nor is Osiris seen
In Memphian grove or green,
Trampling the unshower’d grass with lowings loud;
Nor can he be at rest
Within his sacred chest,
Naught but profoundest Hell can be his shroud:
In vain with timbreled anthems dark
The sable-stoled sorcerers bear his worshipped ark.
XXV
He feels from Juda’s land
The dreaded Infant’s hand,
The rays of Bethlehem blind his dusky eyn;
Nor all the gods beside
Longer dare abide,
Not Typhon huge ending in snaky twine:
Our Babe, to show his Godhead true,
Can in his swaddling bands control the damned crew.
XXVI
So when the Sun in bed,
Curtained with cloudy red,
Pillows his chin upon an orient wave,
The flocking shadows pale
Troop to th’infernal jail,
Each fettered ghost slips to his several grave,
And the yellow-skirted fays
Fly after the night-steeds, leaving their moon-loved maze.
XXVII
But see, the Virgin blest
Hath laid her Babe to rest:
Time is our tedious song should here have ending.
Heav’n’s youngest-teemed star,
Hath fixed her polished car,
Her sleeping Lord with handmaid lamp attending;
And all about the courtly stable,
Bright-harnessed Angels sit in order serviceable.

XXVIII

But see, the Virgin blest
Hath laid her Babe to rest:
Time is our tedious song should here have ending.
Heav’n’s youngest-teemed star,
Hath fixed her polished car,
Her sleeping Lord with handmaid lamp attending;
And all about the courtly stable,
Bright-harnessed Angels sit in order serviceable.

The Gods In Exile: Milton, Swinburne, & Alienated Culture

Dionysius the Areopagite, named in the book of “Acts” as one of those Athenians who believed when they heard Paul preach on Mars Hill, comes down to the modern age as one of the examples of early Christianity’s triumph over pagan religion.  The history of the dissolution and eventual abrogation of pagan religion is readily traced in the writings of Arnobius of Sicca,1 St. Augustine, and later, the writings of the Ecclesiastics throughout the Middle Ages.  If the accounts in the “Gospels” are taken to be records of historical fact, the true advent of Christianity is marked by the nativity of Christ, and the later polemics stand as mere publicity rather than documents forging the birth of the new religion as such.  At the scene of the nativity, then, the gods, rites, and indeed the entire edifice of pagan religion cease to have cosmological validity, even if its gods and rites continued for some time afterward to be observed.

The pagan cult of nature, which included deified elements, and heavenly bodies, are shown in Milton’s “Hymn” to be mere servants that attend the infant Christ’s nativity “Untill their Lord himself bespake, and bid them go” (76).2   It is worth noting that the news of what “now begins,” viz., the accession of Christ to the seat of His earthly kingdom, is, in Milton’s poem, not first heard in the Near East, but in Greece.  The priests and oracles at Delphi are now mute prophets, and both Apollo and the crowd of woodland nymphs alike shriek, weep, lament, and sigh as their shrines, groves, and temples are profaned and made worthless at a stroke (cf. stanzas XVIII-XXI).  Next, the deities of the Near East, Peor, Baalim, Ashtaroth, and the rest, “Forsake their Temples dim” (198) and flee away.  Likewise, the “brutish gods of Nile,” Isis, Orus, Anubis and Osirus, are put to flight at the advent of the Incarnation.  “The dredded Infants hand” (222) passes the final sentence over them all, and the “flocking shadows pale” retire “to th’infernall jail” or “several grave” (33-35).  The reverse-apotheosis is complete; the worship of the pantheon, even if prolonged in history, is hollow; the prayers, offerings, and rituals nullified; and the immortal nature of the gods extinguished by “The rayes of Bethlehem” (223).

Milton’s “Hymn” depicts a downward ontological movement: Christ assumes the form of man and comes into the world of time and space from the timeless, ethereal region of heaven; and the pagan divinities of the air and the earth go down into “th’infernall jail,” or a kind of earthly hell.  The dismantling of divinity in Milton’s poem, and his vision of the gods of antiquity processing from the seat of immortality to assume a shadowy, tenuous existence, indicates that the high gods are now little better than mortal men, suspended between the poles of being and non-being.  The “infernall jail,” like unto a living grave, is precisely the terms by which mortality is shaped, whether it is the body-imprisoned soul of man, or the changeless, deathless gods imprisoned in a mutable world of ceaseless change.  An ontological shift occurs in the god’s nature as such; and man’s understanding of himself and his relation to the divine consequently undergoes a profound transformation to match.  The “infernall jail” to which the gods are condemned by the infant Christ can be interpreted in a Christian context to be the world itself, which is fallen from a sinless, perfect state to one “Pollute with sinful blame” (41), and full of “foul deformities” (44); or in other words, the dwelling of fallen humanity.

In his prose work entitled The Gods in Exile, Heinrich Heine collects specimens from Medieval lore that tell of what became of the Greek and Roman gods after “Christianity achieved supreme control of the world.”3  Prior to beginning the fable of Apollo, Heine notes that

The superstition of the people ascribed to those gods a real but cursed existence, coinciding entirely in this respect with the teaching of the Church. The latter by no means declared those ancient gods to be myths, inventions of falsehood and error, as did the philosophers, but held them to be evil spirits, who, through the victory of Christ, had been hurled from the summit of their power, and now dragged along their miserable existences in the obscurity of dismantled temples or in enchanted groves… [and] when the true Lord of the universe planted the banner of the cross on the heavenly heights, and those iconoclastic zealots, the black band of monks, hunted down the gods with fire and malediction and razed their temples, then these unfortunate heathen divinities were… compelled to take flight, seeking safety under the most varied disguises and in the most retired hiding places. Under these circumstances several, whose shrines had been confiscated, became wood-choppers and day-laborers in Germany, and were compelled to drink beer instead of nectar.4

The exile of the gods, as a recurrent theme in literature, is a kind of fabula mundi, and necessarily of interest as a profound metaphor, or rather, a meta-theme, that does the work of interpreting the vast undercurrent of the history of the overthrow of pagan religion by Christianity.  Milton’s “Hymn” strikes the modern reader as something of a late footnote to the history of the overthrow of one religious myth for another, and in Milton’s poem, as in Heine’s fantasy, the backward glance comes at two respective points in history when the threat of foreign gods to the rule of Christian culture was at best benign, if not comical as Rabelais’ topsy-turvy vision of hell was provincial.  It might also be observed that such backward glances occur, or become necessary in times of extraordinary cultural or personal individual change.  When previous paradigms shift or are transformed of necessity by cultural or natural forces, there are those whose perceptions of the world remain firmly rooted in the previous order, while others, presumably at odds with the reigning order of ideas and concepts, affect or embrace the arrival of foreign ideas or concepts.  The whole prosaic task of organizing, sorting, and classifying into a system the mass of material that comprised previous cultural identities becomes very important, as previous cultures rarely ever vanish without leaving their imprint on the cognitive modes and daily practical habits of their successors.  Both the “Hymn” of Milton, and the Gods in Exile of Heine are late illustrations of the recurring task of assimilating the pagan religious order in Europe.  No cultural paradigm shift is ever self-sustaining or immutable, but requires immense labour and constant patching-up in order for it to remain culturally relevant or viable.  As late as the 19th century, thinkers and artists at odds with Christianity, like Heine, were still craning their necks backwards in order to catch a glimpse of the “golden age” of pagan antiquity, and futilely attempting to imbibe something from the days before men came noticeably under the watch of the good shepherd and his magisterium.

A.C. Swinburne, who was a contemporary of Heine in the world of letters, is another example of this species of jealous glorification of the first-born pagan religion over the terrible child Christianity.  Swinburne’s poem, “Hymn to Proserpine,” 5 published in 1866, elucidates the remoteness of Christianity’s triumph over the gods of antiquity in the same way as Milton’s “Hymn,” and Heine’s The Gods in Exile, but from the opposite perspective.  In Swinburne’s poem, the speaker, who is an unnamed follower of the Roman goddess Proserpine, observes the passing of his religion, and the accession of the new gods marked “by the proclamation in Rome of the Christian faith.” As the setting in Swinburne’s poem makes clear, the speaker witnessing his “Gods dethroned and deceased, cast forth, wiped out in a day,” (13) is the last representative, the sole remaining adherent to the religion of the pagan divinities.  Rather than address his plea to a warlike god, the speaker in the poem calls upon the goddess of sleep, and of the underworld, and begs for the tranquility of death, for safe passage out of a world no longer recognizable— a world presided over by the eccentric promises of the Galilean:

Wilt thou yet take all, Galilean?…

More than these wilt thou give, things fairer than all these things?

Nay, for a little we live, and life hath mutable wings.

A little while and we die; shall life not thrive as it may?

For no man under the sky lives twice, outliving his day.

And grief is a grievous thing, and a man hath enough of his tears:

Why should he labour, and bring fresh grief to blacken his years?

Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath;

We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fulness of death.

Laurel is green for a season, and love is sweet for a day;

But love grows bitter with treason, and laurel outlives not May.

Sleep, shall we sleep after all? for the world is not sweet in the end;

For the old faiths loosen and fall, the new years ruin and rend. (23-40)

Milton’s “Hymn,” on the other hand, although confusing in the order of events and the time in which events occur, is apparently narrated by one present at the nativity of Christ.  The narrator is seemingly omniscient, and views events of the past, present, and future indifferently.  In any case, the narrator of the poem observes first-hand the infant Christ “wrapt in the rude manger” (3), recognizes and believes in the Incarnation, and foresees the plan for man’s redemption, even while the Redeemer is perceived to be yet a babe.  This witness, then, can accordingly be hypothesized as the first Christian, the first believer in Christ. The dichotomy set up by juxtaposing the respective speakers in Milton’s “Hymn” and Swinburne’s “Hymn to Proserpine” is of interest on account of the personal reaction to cultural forces that are either at odds or in agreement with their beliefs and desires; but in any case, beyond their control.  Both Milton and Swinburne’s poems address the exigencies of religion as a cultural phenomenon, and one that all men at once have a part in the creation and preservation of, and yet are subservient to its demands.  Heine’s The Gods in Exile is a record not only of the myths that sprang up in the wake of the demise of paganism, but also of the long-forgotten fortunes of the many adherents once devoted to the “heathen gods.”  Mythology, whether Christian or pagan, serves to illustrate how remote a thing is man’s own history from himself.  Gods once worshiped as severe and mighty are burlesqued in Milton’s “Hymn” and Heine’s essay, and Swinburne teaches a valuable lesson in cultural alienation by putting into the mouth of his speaker a bitter lament for the riches of bygone days, and disdain for the sterility of all things new and untried of time.

1 Cf., The Case Against the Pagans.

2 John Milton, The Poetical Works f John Milton, edited by the Rev. H. C. Beeching, M.A. (Oxford University Press, New York, 1935). All line and stanza numbers in reference to Milton’s “Hymn” are given in parenthetical citation in the body of the text.

3 Heinrich Heine, The prose Writings of Heinrich Heine, edited by Havelock Ellis (Walter Scott Ltd., London, 1892), p. 268.

4 Heine, pp. 268-69. Brackets mine.

5 A.C. Swinburne, The Poetical Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne (John Williams, New York, 1910), p. 25. All line and stanza numbers in reference to Swinburne’s “Hymn to Proserpine” are given in parenthetical citation in the body of the text.