« PreviousContinue »
continually-particularly the earliest volume ; offend our taste sometimes by too much frankness; but delight us more frequently by some marvellous tour de force in language. The modern note is insistent, even in the classical dramas. The romantic freedom, the fine excess, the sensuous glory that Swinburne commands so easily make Maud or In Memoriam but timid exercises in comparison with his bold poems. There is no mistaking the originality of Swinburne ; so strong is that, and so rich is his expression of it, that some regard him as the poet of his time, dipping more deeply into new secrets, seeing farther into the future, than either Tennyson or Browning.
Swinburne was the friend of Rossetti, Burne-Jones, and the pre-Raphaelites ; but his nature and his ambitions were greater than theirs. To the quest for beauty he united a love of liberty which took him into far wider fields than Rossetti ever explored. He was a romantic poet in the fuller sense. He was not engulfed in the M Idle Ages, nor, like Morris, out of harmony with all modern literature. He respected, even to veneration, the genius of the romantic dramatists like Marlowe, Webster and Chapman. His knowledge of Greek literature did not exclude a generous admiration for la:er French lyrists ; and no one can doubt the influence of Shelley, Keats and Byronespecially that of Shelley—on his verse or his ideas, or both. He was therefore no slave to the particular mood in which Rossetti worked with such intensity ; but drew upon the spirit of romance wheresoever it was to be found. He was generous, indeed excessive, in his praise for these and other writers to whom he owed anything ; but he was never a mere imitator, and always enriched the hints he obtained with his own profuse and abundant originality.
It was doubtless the Greek tragedians, reinforced later by the Elizabethan dramatists and Victor Hugo, who led Swin. burne so frequently into the writing of dramas. But Swinburne was not a dramatist in the sense that Webster and Hugo were. His plays could not possibly be acted. Rich as they are in passion and in splendid poetry, they are deficient, like Browning's, in action, and that is fatal to a play. Moving situations we cannot deny them in profusion, and as plays to read most of them are very close to the verge of the Elysian fields. Atalanta in Calydon (1865), perhaps the noblest single product of Swinburne's genius, is the truest and most successful experiment in the Greek style of tragedy that our literature contains, SWINBURNE'S DRAMAS
except Milton's Samson Agonistes. The grand mood of Æschylus is not far away from us when we have yielded to the spell of this drama. The young poet had gripped the dark fatalism, the uncompromising, half-stoical defiance in which the lives of Althæa, Meleager and Atalanta were involved, and the working of the ruthless “mills of the gods" can be heard from first to last. Thus far the play is Greek in conception and in tone. But Swinburne, though he showed more restraint here than usual, was essentially a poetic orator. The speeches are sometimes too elaborate, and in the end we have an uneasy feeling that the lyrical choruses are really the great thing in the drama. All these odes are magnificent, and can only be compared in English with the best of Shelley's in Prometheus Unbound and Hellas. That which begins
“When the hounds of spring are on winter's traces is only the finest of several magnificent bursts of music. When, however, this criticism is admitted, Atalanta in Calydon, along with its companion drama in the Greek form, Erechtheus (1876), remains a splendid contribution to the poetic dramas of our literature.
It is in those dramas in which the poet lost the steadying guidance of the Greek models that Swinburne's obvious failings as a dramatist appear most clearly. The trilogy dealing with the theme of Mary Queen of Scots-Chastelard, Bothwell, Mary Stuart-written at considerable intervals between 1865 and 1881, are entirely romantic in spirit. They show-no one can deny it—an exceptional power of characterisation, especially in the poetic handling of motive and passion; there is abundant evidence of the creative imagination at work in the analysis of the dramatis persone ; but they live very largely in our minds, and we cannot allow the Mary Stuart set forth by Swinburne—to take one example-to be the Mary Stuart of history and real life. She is a wonderful creation, evolved from the poet's imagination, which is stimulated, not guided, by the facts of history. The speeches are long, and it must be admitted that the dramas are not entirely pleasant or wholly interesting reading. Ad. miring the Shakespearean drama as the highest type of English literary form, Swinburne persevered in his attempt to achieve something like it... But he lacked the self-restraint, the calm impartiality, the delicate touch which conveys often in a word or sentence more human suggestion than many of his page-long
speeches. Still, if he has not given us the particular thing he aimed at, he has given us very much in atonement for his failure, and his dramas cannot be neglected without loss.
No one doubted the fine gifts of the author of Atalanta in Calydon, but Poems and Ballads (1866) at once drew down on to the poet's head thunders of admiring applause, accompanied by the very vivid lightnings of critical disapproval. The ad. miration and the criticism were both excessive, yet both rightly based. Some of the lyrics in this volume, full of poetic power as they are, do overstep the bounds which society rightly sets to the sensuous treatment of the love-passion. These poems are defiantly, exuberantly frank, and associate Swinburne, far more than Rossetti, with “the fleshly school of poetry.” But such poems are not the only contents of the volume, nor are they in point of literary excellence the best ; and the long neglect of the volume was regrettable. For it is rich in mag. nificent examples of varied lyrical measures, used with unexampled mastery and ease. The difficult metre of the Hymn to Proserpine has been captured as firmly and surely as the restrained movement of the lines In Memory of W. S. Landor; in disliking the spirit of Laus Veneris, it is not necessary to be deaf to the pure and haunting music of Itylus or the Garden of Proser, ine. The volume was hailed as a work of exceptional promise. In spite of an immature, over-luscious exuberance, captivating to the literary enthusiasms of youth, it foretold great things in the future; it was the prelude of a long series of lyrics in a bewildering variety of metres, all managed with equal skill. From the later volumes of Poems and Ballads or from the Songs before Sunrise (1871), could be taken many examples worthy to stand in a world-collection of lyric poems.
"I hid my heart in a nest of roses,
Out of the sun's way, hidden apart;
Under the roses I hid my heart.
Why would it sleep not? why should it start,
What made sleep flutter his wings and part?
" Lie still, I said, for the wind's wing closes,
And n.ild leaves muffle the keen sun's dart ;
And the wind is unquieter yet than thou art.
* By kind permission of Mr. Theodore Watts-Dunton.
Does a thought in thee still as a thorn's wound smart ?
What bids the lids of thy sleep dispart?
It never was writ in the traveller's chart,
It never was sold in the merchant's mart.
The swallows of dreams through its dim fields dart,
No hound's note wakens the wildwood hart,
To sleep for a season and hear no word
Only the song of a secret bird." The variety of subject is as astonishing as the variety of metre ; no subject that Swinburne touched did he fail to make splendid with his resounding harmonies. Love, in every aspect ; nature, especially in her tempestuous moods of storm or sunset-colour; liberty, especially that of a people in which its germ was about to burst into reality : these were his most inspiring themes. He might be called an erotic poet, if we forgot his foam-fretted shores and gorgeous skies; he might be deemed a morbid sensualist, if we gave no ear to his passionate welcomes to new Italy, his devotion to the high soul of Mazzini. The intricate skill which wove The Century of Roundels is matched by the artless beauty of his “ Cradle songs." For fulness of lyrical range, indeed, he has had no equal among our poets. Shelley was a sweeter singer, with a purer and simpler voice ; but he cannot match the orchestral grandeur of Swinburne's greater odes.
In Tristram of Lyonesse (1882) and the Tale of Balen (1896), Swinburne tried his hand upon the Arthurian legends, and entered into successful competition with Matthew Arnold and Tennyson. He has given his own atmosphere to the two familiar stories, and the former is an impressive example of smooth and fluent heroic couplets adapted to narrative purposes. The mediæval atmosphere is decidedly more pronounced than that of the essentially modern poems of Arnold and Tennyson. But for all that, Swinburne was not a thorough-going mediævalist. He was attracted by its romance, its colour, its chivalric tone ; he was out of touch with its feudal spirit and its religious sentiment. He admired its freedom and tolerated its
licence, but could not submit to fetters, whether forged by feudalism or by the Catholic Church. Here he parted from Rossetti and the other pre-Raphaelites ; for this reason Tristram of Lyonesse is not entirely successful in recapturing the mediæval spirit. Yet it is a great poem, with many lines as good as :
“ The pale strong flame of jealous thought, that glows
More deep than hope's green bloom or love's enkindled rose."
Atalanta in Calydon was dedicated to the memory of the old republican, Walter Savage Landor, lately dead. Throughout his life Swinburne was as stern a republican as the friend whom he unstintedly admired. Some of his noblest poems are inspired by his political faith. His music was always at the call of those peoples who were “rightly struggling to be free.” The Song of Italy (1867) celebrates his devotion to the great Italian ideal in magnificent verse, and the Songs before Sunrise ring with denunciations of tyranny in all its forms. The struggle for freedom drew his poetic gift out of the rut of “art for art's sake," and threw it into healthy contact with real life. His passion took on a healthier and more manly tone. No charge of effeminacy or sensuality could be made against poems of the quality of Super Flumina Babylonis. Not Shelley himself has given a fuller or purer or more melodious expression to the spirit of liberty than we find in Swinburne. The title of the volume characterises the whole spirit of the poet. He is consciously the singer before the dawn. He is awaiting the sunrise of the day which has not yet broken. The future enthralls him-fills him with his grandest inspirations. He is in revolt on all hands against the shackles of the present. His words fly on wings of fire when his large dreams of the future possess him. It is this quality that has made him a light and a beacon for many ardent minds.
Great poet as we must allow Swinburne to be, however, he has written enough prose to make an ordinary man's reputation. He is a rare example of a poet who is also a competent critic. The main feature of his critical studies is his enthusiastic eloquence in praise of all good work in literature. He has written with distinction about Shakespeare, the Elizabethan dramatists, Blake, and other writers. His prose is rich and forcible, abundant (if not redundant) in adjectives-many of them in the superlative degree ; its main fault is that it is pitched