[The following excerpt from The Victorian Age in Literature is based on Project Gutenberg's EBook #18639, which Karina Aleksandrova, Juliet Sutherland and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net produced.George P. Landow formatted the text and added links to other material in the Victorian Web]
It is natural, in the matter of Victorian moral change, to take Swinburne as the next name here. He is the only poet who was also, in the European sense, on the spot; even if, in the sense of the Gilbertian song, the spot was barred. He also knew that something rather crucial was happening to Christendom; he thought it was getting unchristened. It is even a little amusing, indeed, that these two Pro-Italian poets almost conducted a political correspondence in rhyme. Mrs. Browning sternly reproached those who had ever doubted the good faith of the King of Sardinia, whom she acclaimed as being truly a king. Swinburne, lyrically alluding to her as "Sea-eagle of English feather," broadly hinted that the chief blunder of that wild fowl had been her support of an autocratic adventurer: "calling a crowned man royal, that was no more than a king." But it is not fair, even in this important connection, to judge Swinburne by Songs Before Sunrise. They were songs before a sunrise that has never turned up. Their dogmatic assertions have for a long time past stared starkly at us as nonsense. As, for instance, the phrase "Glory to Man in the Highest, for man is the master of things"; after which there is evidently nothing to be said, except that it is not true. But even where Swinburne had his greater grip, as in that grave and partly just poem Before a Crucifix, Swinburne, the most Latin, the most learned, the most largely travelled of the Victorians, still knows far less of the facts than even Mrs. Browning. The whole of the poem, “Before a Crucifix,” (text) breaks down by one mere mistake. It imagines that the French or Italian peasants who fell on their knees before the Crucifix did so because they were slaves. They fell on their knees because they were free men, probably owning their own farms. Swinburne could have found round about Putney plenty of slaves who had no crucifixes: but only crucifixions.
When we come to ethics and philosophy, doubtless we find Swinburne in full revolt, not only against the temperate idealism of Tennyson, but against the genuine piety and moral enthusiasm of people like Mrs. Browning. But here again Swinburne is very English, nay, he is very Victorian, for his revolt is illogical. For the purposes of intelligent insurrection against priests and kings, Swinburne ought to have described the natural life of man, free and beautiful, and proved from this both the noxiousness and the needlessness of such chains. Unfortunately Swinburne rebelled against Nature first and then tried to rebel against religion for doing exactly the same thing that he had done. His songs of joy are not really immoral; but his songs of sorrow are. But when he merely hurls at the priest the assertion that flesh is grass and life is sorrow, he really lays himself open to the restrained answer, "So I have ventured, on various occasions, to remark." When he went forth, as it were, as the champion of pagan change and pleasure, he heard uplifted the grand choruses of his own Atalanta, in his rear, refusing hope.
The splendid diction that blazes through the whole of that drama, that still dances exquisitely in the more lyrical Poems and Ballads, makes some marvellous appear ances in Songs Before Sunrise, and then mainly falters and fades away, is, of course, the chief thing about Swinburne. The style is the man; and some will add that it does not, thus unsupported, amount to much of a man. But the style itself suffers some injustice from those who would speak thus. The views expressed are often quite foolish and often quite insincere; but the style itself is a manlier and more natural thing than is commonly made out. It is not in the least languorous or luxurious or merely musical and sensuous, as one would gather from both the eulogies and the satires, from the conscious and the unconscious imitations. On the contrary, it is a sort of fighting and profane parody of the Old Testament; and its lines are made of short English words like the short Roman swords. The first line of one of his finest poems [“Hymn to Proserpine“], for instance, runs, "I have lived long enough to have seen one thing, that love hath an end." In that sentence only one small "e" gets outside the monosyllable. Through all his interminable tragedies, he was fondest of lines like —
"If ever I leave off to honour you
God give me shame; I were the worst churl born.
The dramas were far from being short and dramatic; but the words really were. Nor was his verse merely smooth; except his very bad verse, like "the lilies and languors of virtue, to the raptures and roses of vice," which both, in cheapness of form and foolishness of sentiment, may be called the worst couplet in the world's literature. In his real poetry (even in the same poem) his rhythm and rhyme are as original and ambitious as Browning; and the only difference between him and Browning is, not that he is smooth and without ridges, but that he always crests the ridge triumphantly and Browning often does not —
"On thy bosom though many a kiss be,
There are none such as knew it of old.
Was it Alciphron once or Arisbe,
Male ringlets or feminine gold,
That thy lips met with under the statue
Whence a look shot out sharp after thieves
From the eyes of the garden-god at you
Across the fig-leaves."
Look at the rhymes in that verse, and you will see they are as stiff a task as Browning's: only they are successful. That is the real strength of Swinburne — a style. It was a style that nobody could really imitate; and least of all Swinburne himself, though he made the attempt all through his later years. He was, if ever there was one, an inspired poet. I do not think it the highest sort of poet. And you never discover who is an inspired poet until the inspiration goes.
With Swinburne we step into the circle of that later Victorian influence which was very vaguely called Æsthetic. Like all human things, but especially Victorian things, it was not only complex but confused. Things in it that were at one on the emotional side were flatly at war on the intellectual.
Chesterton, G (ilbert) K(eith). The Victorian Age in Literature. London: Butterworth: 1913. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1913.
Last modified 3 January 2011