Swinburne and the Sound of the Sea

Swinburne at 23 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Poor Algy. His long, sonorous verse gets left on the bookshelf to collect dust these days in favor of, oh, basically anything else. Algernon Charles Swinburne’s rhymes are soft, full of imagery and classical references, and they build slowly to a swell. They are altogether too pretty and delicate for modern verse. Not to mention, what exactly is his point? The old accusation of him valuing sound over sense raises its head like a sea monster, a chimera.

Swinburne might be the opposite of modern tastes, which expect poetry’s essence to be distilled, rhyming inconsequential, with a maximum of meaning packed in a minimum of syllables. Those qualities are not in Swinburne’s verse. His poems works differently upon one, in a hypnotic way, as he gradually layers image over sound over meaning so gently and repetitively you hardly know how you have been lulled into such a trance. T.S. Eliot considers Swinburne acutely in this excerpt from The Sacred Wood, where he considers the poet’s diffuseness his genius as well as his flaw.

Ever since I’ve been here in St. Maarten, the sound of the ocean has been in my ears day in and night out. It’s what had me turning to Swinburne’s verse after forgetting it for years (that, and the fact that I am dismally low on reading material). His poetry sounds like the waves, and
according to Wikipedia the poet did as well:

“Swinburne accompanied Bell Scott and his guests, probably including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, on a trip to Tynemouth. Scott writes in his memoirs that as they walked by the sea, Swinburne declaimed the as yet unpublished ‘Hymn to Proserpine’ and ‘Laus Veneris’ in his strange intonation, while the waves ‘were running the whole length of the long level sands towards Cullercoats and sounding like far-off acclamations’.

Henry Clarke, from Selected Poems of Swinburne

Swinburne was by all accounts a strange character, arguably the first English Decadent and influenced by both de Sade and the l’art pour l’art movement. He has been accused of every sin under the sun, although some doubt the truth of the accusations.
(Oscar Wilde said of Swinburne that he was “a braggart in matters of vice, who had done everything he could to convince his fellow citizens of his homosexuality and bestiality without being in the slightest degree a homosexual or a bestializer.”) A small man, with bright red hair and an exceedingly nervous temperment, Swinburne indulged himself until he collapsed and on the brink of death was taken under strict care, from which he never left in his remaining years.

If you read aloud his tribute to Baudelaire upon the his death, you can hear the soft and diffuse sound that rules his versification:

Shall I strew on thee rose or rue or laurel,
Brother, on this that was the veil of thee?
Or quiet sea-flower moulded by the sea,
Or simplest growth of meadow-sweet or sorrel,
Such as the summer-sleepy Dryads weave,
Waked up by snow-soft sudden rains at eve?
Or wilt thou rather, as on earth before,
Half-faded fiery blossoms, pale with heat
And full of bitter summer, but more sweet
To thee than gleanings of a northern shore
Trod by no tropic feet?

For always thee the fervid languid glories
Allured of heavier suns in mightier skies;
Thine ears knew all the wandering watery sighs
Where the sea sobs round Lesbian promontories,
The barren kiss of piteous wave to wave
That knows not where is that Leucadian grave
Which hides too deep the supreme head of song.
Ah, salt and sterile as her kisses were,
The wild sea winds her and the green gulfs bear
Hither and thither, and vex and work her wrong,
Blind gods that cannot spare.

Rest here.

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