mong the works denounced by the earliest English reviewers of Poems and Ballads, First Series (1866) are the medievalist poems "Laus Veneris," "The Leper," and "St. Dorothy."1 But the volume contains many other pieces-very nearly half the volume, in fact-that are also medievalist in their forms, styles, settings, sources, or subjects. Such are "A Ballad of Life," "A Ballad of Death," "A Litany," "In the Orchard," "A Cameo," "A Ballad of Burdens," "April," "August," "A Christmas Carol," "The Masque of Queen Bersabe," "The Two Dreams," "Madonna Mia," "After Death," and, of course, the ballads "The King's Daughter," "May Janet," "The Sea-Swallows," and "The Bloody Son." That Swinburne conceived this book as one that would appeal especially to contemporary currents of interest in medievalism is clear from the title of the American edition, Laus Veneris and Other Poems,2, which emphasizes as the volume's centerpiece a work that complexly and gracefully brings together Swinburne's historicist,[54/55] erotic, formal, and spiritual preoccupations. Examples of his Romantic antiquarianism, as well as his understanding of the complex relations between poetry and history, appear throughout the collection. Like some late-twentieth-century historical thinkers, Swinburne perceived the extent to which the writing of history is a creative act: ultimately the historian is an artist and mythmaker.3 But Swinburne's medievalist poems in the 1866 volume demonstrate further that poets must be seen, finally, as authentic historians. He makes this point primarily by manipulating various levels of historical framing in the depiction of disparate love relationships.
More fully than any of the other medievalist pieces in Poems and Ballads, First Series, "Laus Veneris," "The Leper," and "St. Dorothy" exemplify the ways in which the volume's radical ideology evolves from interactions among Swinburne's historicist, erotic, and formal concerns. In these works, the young poet plays variations upon historically contrary attitudes toward the relations between Christianity and erotic passion, between the orthodox and "satanic" faiths. Each poem is iconoclastic: either passion triumphs over orthodox Christianity as a form of devotion; or, more complexly, erotic passion becomes identified, as the poem develops, with the art that describes it. The poem thus becomes an aestheticist document. In this latter case, the beauty of a beloved woman is gradually overshadowed by the beauty of the sensations she generates in her lover or biographer, and[55/56] these sensations are, in turn, superseded by the ideal beauty of the artistic vehicle that embodies them. The beauty of the poem recapitulates, transmutes, and makes permanent the beauty of otherwise ephemeral erotic sensations. Such is one important achievement of "Laus Veneris," "The Leper," and "St. Dorothy," and it reinforces their radically subversive, prophetic functions as well as their effects as romantic tragedies in monologue and lyric forms. This representative group of medievalist poems punctuates the 1866 volume near its beginning, middle, and end, and analysis of them significantly advances our understanding of Swinburne's later treatment of tragic love in medieval settings.
In 1862, the year that "Laus Veneris" was largely composed, Swinburne began to propound his doctrine of art for art's sake in a Spectator review of Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal. "A poet's business," he asserts there, "is presumably to write good verses, and by no means to redeem the age and remould society."4 Baudelaire, he insists, properly "ventures to profess and act on the conviction that the art of poetry has absolutely nothing to do with didactic matter at all." Thus, Baudelaire's most representative poems treat "failure and sorrow . . . physical beauty and perfection of sound or scent" (Bonchurch, XIII, 419). In this respect, the French poet resembles Keats, as well as Poe and "even the sincerer side of Byron." Swinburne is nonetheless careful in this essay, just as he is in his later aestheticist criticism, to make clear that a poem shaped predominantly by aesthetic concerns may still have important implications for moral values and ethical behavior. He explains that "there is not one poem of the Fleurs du Mal which has not a distinct and vivid background of morality to it. Only, this moral side of the book is not thrust forward in the foolish and repulsive manner of a half-taught artist; the background is not out of drawing" (Bonchurch, XIII, 423). Here, as in his later essays on Blake[56/57] and Hugo, which uphold the same aestheticist values, Swinburne identifies form and beauty as the artist's primary concerns, though moral considerations are very likely to support and reinforce the poet's purely aesthetic aims. But, as always, his notions of morality are iconoclastic and revolutionary rather than conventional. Concerned ultimately with "high" forms of morality, rather than with the sexual mores that were, in his era, popularly thought to constitute a basis for all morality, he concludes that any reader "who will look for them may find moralities in plenty behind every poem of M. Baudelaire's" (Bonchurch, XIII, 423). To illustrate his point, Swinburne focuses upon Baudelaire's medievalist mode in the poem "Une Martyre." The poet, "like a medieval preacher, when he has drawn the heathen love, . . . puts sin on its right hand, and death on its left. It is not his or any artist's business to warn against evil; but certainly he does not exhort to it, knowing well enough that the one fault is as great as the other" (Bonchurch, XIII, 423). Perhaps the most important virtue of art for Swinburne is its absolute integrity — in both senses of the word. The purity and independence of art can in all ages serve as a corrective to narrow and repressive systems of morality, as well as to oppressive political systems.
Even while writing his review of Baudelaire, Swinburne was immersed in his readings of William Blake,5 and in the book that finally emerged from those readings, Swinburne presents arguments strikingly similar to those in his 1862 essay. In both of these aestheticist treatises, as well as in his later commentary in Hugo's La Legénde des siècles, Swinburne frequently turns to medieval literary prototypes or medieval topoi to fill out and illustrate his unyielding doctrine of art for art's sake.
In a pronouncement crucial to any full understanding of the interactions among erotic, psychological, literary, and even political elements in his own poetry, Swinburne asserts of his kindred spirit Blake that "to him, as to others of his kind, all faith, all virtue, all moral[57/58] duty or religious necessity, was not so much abrogated or superseded as summed up, included and involved by the one matter of art" (Bonchurch, VI, 132-33). Swinburne elaborates upon this conviction by acknowledging the existence and effective power in the world of a "kind" of person, one whose attitude toward the function of art is exactly contrary to that of Blake and Swinburne. This is "the party of those who . . . regard what certain of their leaders call an earnest life or a great acted poem (this is, material virtue or the mere doing and saying of good or instructive deeds and words), as infinitely preferable to any feat of art" (Bonchurch, VI, 135). Feats of art, for Swinburne, are primarily concerned with "the shape or style of workmanship." These contrary parties always exist and are always at odds, according to Swinburne, and "all ages which were great enough to have space for both . . . hold room for a fair fighting-field between them" (Bonchurch, VI, 135). To illustrate his point, he chooses to focus on "the medieval period in its broadest sense, not to speak of the notably heretical and immoral Albigeois with their exquisite school of heathenish verse" and on such poems as the "Court of Love" (then attributed to Chaucer), which is "absolutely one in tone and handling . . . with the old Albigensian Aucassin and all its paganism" (Bonchurch, VI, 135). The essential point here is, simply, that "priest and poet, all those times through, were proverbially on terms of reciprocal biting and striking" (Bonchurch, VI, 136); the poets, quite properly, maintained the integrity of their art, at whatever price. In Swinburne's view, then, much medieval poetry — like the work of Baudelaire and Blake — reflects the ultimately aestheticist proclivities of its authors and is therefore overtly iconoclastic, attacking the doctrines of the priesthood and therefore the accepted religious values of most readers (or auditors).6 [58/59]
In an important footnote that glosses these passages from William Blake and suggests the historical and aesthetic dimensions of all the medievalist poems of Poems and Ballads, First Series, Swinburne alludes to "the Horsel legend," upon which the most important medievalist poem in that volume is based. He does so in the course of discussing Aucassin and Nicolette, in which, as Swinburne sees the matter, the poet turns "the favorite edgetool of religious menace," the threat of damnation for sinfulness, "back with point inverted upon those who forged it." In this medieval work, "men and women of religious habit or life punished in the next world" are represented, and they are "beholding afar off with jealous regret the salvation and happiness of Venus and all her servants." For Swinburne the Tannhäuser legend, unlike Aucassin, "shows the religious or anti-Satanic view of the matter" (Bonchurch, VI, 136). "Laus Veneris," however, like Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell, undertakes to present for Swinburne's historical era the "Satanic" perspective on the Tannhäuser myth and on the historical conflict between pagan erotic values and Christian notions of sin and renunciation. "Laus Veneris" therefore becomes a psychodrama emblamatic for Swinburne of the permanent historical conflict between contrary systems of cultural values that-as in Blake's "Argument" to the Marriage-alternately dominate the world. In this respect, "Laus Veneris" is a medievalist poem parallel to Swinburne's Hellenic "Hymn to Proserpine."
In Tannhäuser's meandering monologue the reader can view Swinburne's medieval poet-lover and knight on a number of different levels simultaneously. A tension between opposed forces in his life-between opposed loyalties, for instance, or contradictory psychological impulses- informs each level of perception. The poem may thus be seen as a dramatization of the battle between Blakean contraries within the wracked mind of Tannhäuser. In the course of the poem Swinburne fully exposes the conflicts not only between Tannhäuser's passion and religion but also between his vocation as poet and his career as a knight: the one depends upon service and devotion to an ideal of love, the other upon service and devotion to Christ. Also at odds yet inextricably entangled in Tannhäuser's mind are body and soul; concepts of life and death, virtue and sin (as well as the reward of each), fruitfulness and barrenness, love and happiness, beauty and[59/60] goodness. In the poem's concluding stanzas, however, out of Tannhäuser's convoluted self-analysis, his analysis of love, his retrospection, and his resignation to the eventual torments of hell he is bound to suffer, evolves Blakean "progress": a powerful affirmation of eros that for Tannhäuser constitutes a psychological apocalypse.7 Addressing the slumbering Venus, who is at once, in the poem, a real woman, an ideal, and a myth, he asserts that there is, ultimately, "no better life than . . . / To have known love." How, he asks, shall those "that know not . . . have such bliss / High up in barren heaven?" (Poems, I, 26). He determines to cling passionately to Venus, his ideal of erotic love, to "seal upon [her] with my might" until the Last Judgment, "until God loosen over sea and land / The thunder of the trumpets of the night."
This denouement has been carefully prepared for in the body of the poem, throughout which Venus' role as a mythical and historical ideal predominates. Upon this ideal Tannhäuser guiltily projects his deepest spiritual compulsions-his proclivities to rebel against orthodoxy-as well as his physical compulsions-his erotic and aesthetic appetites. His monologue exposes precisely enough of Tannhäuser's own true value system to inspire his concluding affirmation of eros over Christian notions of agapè. The conclusion is not merely a belated rationalization, but rather a genuine statement of Satanic or Gnostic faith in the spiritual and aesthetic values that dominate troubadour,[60/61] or minnesanger, tradition. (Peters observes that Tannhäuser, "rejected by Pope Urban (and hence by Christianity)," has, by the time of his monologue, fully evolved as a "knight-artist whose sense of beautiful design and aesthetic effect [has been] enhanced rather than diminished by personal traumas" ["The Tannhäuser Theme," 26]). Thus, Tannhäuser's "entrapment" by Venus is ultimately a mode of self-willed liberation, one that is, during the monologue, merely delayed by temporary lapses of his Venerean faith, which proves in the end to be far more compatible than is Christianity with his vocations as soldier and love poet. Thus, on its most fundamental level, "Laus Veneris" is psychogenetic, depicting for Tannhäuser the evolution of true self-knowledge. The poem is an exercise in ideological epistemology. At the same time, on other overlapping levels of interpretation, it is an affirmation of historical dialectics and of the inevitably aestheticist doctrines of "the poet" generically defined by Swinburne: in the case of this poem including both Tannhäuser and the kindred poet who chooses to "record" — that is, project — his monologue.
The poem insists in a number of clear ways upon its own literary-historical dimensions. Even at the very beginning of the poem, as a preface to his own fictitious nineteenth-century work, Swinburne creates an illusion he maintains throughout the poem, of three historical stages in the literary development of the Tannhäuser legend: that of Tannhäuser himself, spoken in his monologue; of "Maistre Antoine Gaget," who is quoted in the epigraph; and of the present poet. These are, of course, only three among dozens of well-known and complementary versions of or stages in the myth's "historicization": innumerable writers have appropriated the Tannhäuser legend. The epigraph from the fictional Maistre Antoine Gaget's imaginary "Livre des grandes merveilles d'amour"-as soon as we realize the deception-betrays the shaping hand of an inventive poet who makes use of both his own and the reader's sense of history in order to regenerate a great myth of love. Swinburne's procedure here suggests that the myth itself, and the history of that myth, are both permanently available to the poetic mind for reconstitution. That is, a myth articulated at any particular historical moment implicitly contains its own previous and possible articulations, and these the poet is privileged[61/62] to extrapolate because of his special concern with preserving the beauty-the essential artistic reality-of the myth. Great myths perpetually regenerate themselves by means of such men, and the human truths they embody can never be suppressed as long as there are poets whose ultimate concern in the world is with the beautiful. In short, poets are-uniquely- historians of beauty. Thus, the epigraph here, like the "Prelude" to Tristram of Lyonesse or like Swinburne's "Thalassius," reminds us of the dialectical relationship between history and poetry. That the epigraph feigns a Renaissance recapitulation of a medieval myth now appropriated by a nineteenth-century poet reinforces our awareness that matters of literary genealogy are crucial to human "progress." This awareness is ultimately central to our perception that Tannhäuser is an unwitting iconoclast and an elect poet-lover who is nonetheless blind to his own election.
Despite his inability to understand the special role he will play in the evolution of the Venerean mythos, Tannhäuser is by no means insensitive to the history of the myth itself. Repeatedly during his monologue he reflects on the changing status of Venus worship over history, especially as it either exalts or victimizes its devotees, according to the dominion, at a given historical moment, of puritans or poets. Gazing intently upon the slumbering form of Venus very early in the poem, Tannhäuser synecdochically contrasts the defunct reign of Venus with the presently triumphant reign of Christ, and in doing so expresses his conflicting allegiances. At the same time he exposes his own dominant and irrepressible, though obsolete, affinities: "Lo, she was thus," he maintains, "when her clear limbs enticed / All lips that now grow sad with kissing Christ" (Poems, I, 11). Later, adopting the Christian view of Venus, as he does through most of the poem, Tannhäuser depicts her as an immortal belle dame sans merci whose perennial victims' "blood runs round the roots of time like rain" (Poems, I, 15 ), and he cites "the knight Adonis" as among the earliest of her victims.9 Later still, he envisions those historical devotees of beauty and love[62/63] who have surely, according to Christian doctrine, been condemned to an eternity in hell. He cites the ProvenÇal courtly lovers, the Albigeois, "the knights that were so great of hand, / The ladies that were queens of fair green land, / Grown grey and black now" (Poems, I,17) . Also among those in hell, "Trampled and trodden by the fiery feet" because of their amorous adventures, are Helen of Troy, "the marvellous mouth whereby there fell / Cities and people whom the gods loved well," and Cleopatra, who "softer than the Egyptian lote-leaf is, / The queen whose face was worth the world to kiss; / Wearing at breast a suckling snake of gold" (Poems, I, 18) . Both these queens have become exalted as mythical figures, perceptions of their power over the direction of history also increasing as their stature in myth has been enhanced by poetic treatments of them. Venus is, of course, their permanent mythical prototype, and in "praising" her, Tannhäuser the poet not only tells his own story but also becomes an important mytho-historiographer, advancing her power over the world and over perceptions of world history. Similarly, of course, Swinburne has taken on the dual role of extending and enhancing the power of Venus — that is, the values of beauty and love that she symbolizes — while similarly mythicizing and enhancing the power and historical stature of the poet-lover Tannhäuser.
After establishing the larger context for any historical perspective on the worship of Venus, Tannhäuser presents his own particular history, which has culminated in devotion to her. He relates the ecstasies of his military exploits as a knight "of Christ's choosing"; he describes his career as a famous minnesänger who "Sang of love" and its ecstasies but "knew them not" until he "one dawn . . . rode forth sorrowing . . . / Up to the Horsel." There he discovered the ideals of perfect love and perfect beauty in the voluptuous form of Venus. Entranced, upon the Horselberge, he viewed "heaps of flowers" and [63/64]
The ripe tall grass, and one that walked therein,
Naked, with her hair shed over to the knee.
She walked between the blossom and the grass;
I knew the beauty of her, what she was,
The beauty of her body and her sin,
And in my flesh the sin of hers, alas! (Poems, I, 22)
Tannhäuser's sense of sin here represents only a temporary and puritanically limited perspective on his capitulation to the power of beauty and the fundamental human craving for it: Venus' effect upon him is to inspire an exultant and insatiable erotic passion. He is thus seduced by both aesthetic and erotic appetites, but in his description of his "fall," his aesthetic response is primary and causal. Like his historical predecessors in the grip of Love, he has become an aesthete and, unlike many of them, a guilty hedonist. Fass also describes Tannhäuser as a hedonist and asserts, finally, that in "Laus Veneris," Swinburne "celebrates the delights of sensuality" (La Belle Dame, 188) . And Peters insists that even Tannhäuser's "Christianity . . . is sensual, suiting his characer" ("Tannhäuser Theme," 20). (Tannhäuser speaks, appropriately, in iambic pentameter quatrains; the rhyme follows the pattern of Edward FitzGerald's Rubáiyát. ) From such a perspective, Tannhäuser is for Swinburne a type of all those who are true poets by nature and thus lovers of beauty. As a memorializing poet, he alludes in his monologue to his predecessors' now mythicized fates, revealing that his value system is ultimately and paradigmatically aestheticist in its preoccupation with the inescapable effects of beauty and sensation upon mankind. Of course, the shaping historical consciousness of the poet "external" to the monologue is aestheticist in complementary ways. By means of this modern poet's evident concern with the genealogy of literature about Venus and Tannhäuser, but also by means of literary allusions sometimes outside Tannhäuser's possible frames of reference, Swinburne extends the aestheticist implications of the poem, which are founded upon Tannhäuser's experiences with love and beauty.
In "Laus Veneris," Swinburne generates from a preexisting myth an entirely new and original poetic artifact that is molded largely by his adaptation of complementary literary strains-medieval, Blakean,[63/64] and Keatsian. The influence of Morris' Arthurian and Froissartian poems, along with a number of Rossetti's works with medieval settings, is also visible in superficial ways, though "Laus Veneris" is more overtly erotic, iconoclastic, and ideological than is any medievalist poem by Morris or Rossetti. Like so many of Swinburne's early poems, this poem is to an extent imitative of their work in its atmosphere, while its form parodies medieval originals and its content is at once Blakean and Keatsian. Both despite and because of the poem's diverse sources and influences, however, "Laus Veneris" is finally unique. Formally, the work is a type of inverted and extended medieval alba. This poetic form is superimposed upon medieval materials reshaped by Swinburne's understanding of Blake's philosophy of history and Blake's theory of contraries; in the poem Swinburne also appropriates Keatsian erotic aestheticism. Shaping the poem in addition to these influences, however, are Swinburne's own attraction to a kind of erotic militarism and, more important, his obsession with the suffocating, sadomasochistic sensations of passion.
Blake's influence upon the dialectical patterns of historical thought and upon the dialectical psychological patterns of the monologue are already clear, as are Swinburne's perceptions of Blake as a kindred aesthete. Moreover, the major medieval elements of "Laus Veneris" are obvious. They include Tannhäuser's careers as knight and minnesänger, his apparent participation in the Crusades, his unpropitious pilgrimage to the pope, his Catholic view of sexual morality, and his frequently chivalric language. But Swinburne enhances these elements in subtle ways, both formal and substantive, that make the poem organically medievalist. The poem's form as an inverted and extended alba requires a lyric lament over the imminent parting of lovers at dawn. Yet, just as Tannhauser eventually turns against orthodox Christianity and just as the poem becomes thematically an attack upon the religious tyrannies that victimize Tannhäuser, so Swinburne extends the contrariousness of his general procedures and turns the form of the poem against its originary conventions. This poem is, until the last four stanzas, a lament that Tannhäuser cannot finally part from his beloved; and in its concluding lines it becomes a complexly tragic affirmation of eternal union with the beloved. Further, with the lovers underground throughout the poem, cycles of night and day here are parodically replaced by Tannhäuser's references to the linear[65/66] progress of mankind's history that culminates in the apocalypse, the ultimate dawn. But in that "dawn" as envisaged by Tannhäuser, the light of the sun-usually dreaded by the alba's speaker-is replaced by the more dreadful glow of hell's flames. Such variations on the alba form draw the reader's attention to matters of aesthetics that are corollary to Tannhäuser's personal obsession with beauty and to his artistic vocation.
Like the poem's form, the psychology of its central character appears to be deeply medieval, especially in the conflict between Tannhäuser's professed orthodox values and his subversive, anti-orthodox affinities. Peters observes that "no matter how symbolic Tannhäuser becomes as a vehicle for Swinburne's religious ideas, he remains a creature of the Middle Ages" ("Tannhäuser Theme," 23). Tannhäuser, in fact, represents microcosmically the opposition between Gnostic Albigensian and orthodox faiths in the thirteenth century, when the historical Tannhäuser lived. Swinburne's clear perception of this conflict is, of course, skewed in the same directions that are apparent in Denis de Rougement's reconstruction of twelfth- and thirteenth-century Catharist history. Both writers associate the heretics with the religion of love that dominates troubadour and related strains of European poetry. Thus, Tannhäuser's psychological bifurcation appears as a mirror of the opposition between poet-lovers and priests, which Swinburne believed prevailed during Tannhäuser's age. Such a reinterpretation of medieval history is precisely parallel, as a matter of the poem's thematic substance, to Swinburne's revisionist use of the alba form. Again, the effect is to draw attention to matters of artistry and artistic license in the present poet's attempt to reshape historical materials in order to produce a fully integrated poem, one concerned not only with psychology and ideology but, more fundamentally, with the creation of beauty at all levels of representation. These levels include the external poet's shaping of his materials, Tannhäuser's depictions of Venus as an exquisitely beautiful woman, of love and battle as predominantly visceral experiences, and even of Love as Cupid, a poetic emblem standing "hard by [Venus'] head / Crowned with gilt thorns and clothed with flesh like fire, / . . . wan as foam blown up the salt burnt sands" (Poems, I, 12).
Such emblems remind us, of course, of similar medievalist tendencies in the poetry of Keats, especially his odes. In "Laus Veneris,"[66/67]Swinburne echoes such tendencies and adapts several of Keats's other aestheticist practices as well.12 While Swinburne relies upon the medieval backgrounds of his poem primarily for its form and subjects, and upon Blake primarily for its ideology, Swinburne repeatedly alludes to Keats (though perhaps unconsciously) in ways that reinforce his own voluptuous style and display the complex psychology of the poet-lover and aesthete, Tannhäuser, who is inextricably ensnared in a pain-pleasure complex that leaves him always on the verge of wholly languishing in sensation.
The poem begins, appropriately, with a paraphrase of the conclusion to Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale": "Asleep or waking is it?" In "Laus Veneris" this question refers, however, not to the speaker, but rather to the object of his aesthetic and erotic passions. Throughout the first half of the poem Tannhäuser strives repeatedly to project upon Venus the image of a relentless Keatsian belle dame sans merci. Psychologically, the attempt is an effort of puritanistic rationalization, in order to escape responsibility for his hedonism and his fate; but it is also a perversely pleasurable act of self-flagellation that reinforces Tannhäuser's deep desire to accept and enjoy a life inescapably devoted to beauty and love. Halfway through the poem he generalizes about love on the basis of his bittersweet experiences with his mythic and celebrated femme fatale. Once again personifying Love, Tannhäuser compares pursuing her to tracking a panther, "hidden in deep sedge and reeds," with her "rare scent." Suddenly the hunter
Is snapped upon by the sweet mouth and bleeds,
His head far down the hot sweet throat of her —
So one tracks love, whose breath is deadlier,
And lo, one springe and you are fast in hell. (Poems, I, 20)[67/68]
But it is an erotically and aesthetically gratifying hell, rich with sensation; it is the cave in the Horselberge, the domain of Venus the archetypal belle dame. The repeated use of vivid sensory images and sonorous language, here and throughout the poem, contagiously communicates Tannhauser's erotic and aesthetic appetites and instills in the susceptible reader a desire also to pursue "underground" pleasures. Tannhäuser's monologue thus serves what is, for Swinburne, a moral function: it initiates the reader into the ideal realm of erotic aestheticism and thus liberates him from repressive moral and religious values, as many of the other works in Poems and Ballads, First Series do.
As "Laus Veneris" proceeds, and it becomes clear that Venus, the putative belle dame sans merci, is static and unresponsive- indeed, a virtual symbol, like Love at her side-Tannhäuser's own state of mind becomes increasingly the focus of his attention. He goes considerably further than the admission by the speaker in the "Ode to a Nightingale" that he is "half in love with easeful Death." To resolve the anguish created by the conflict within him between love and religion, Tannhäuser craves the anodyne of death. He does so, however, in voluptuous images that undercut his death wish and betray it as an appetite for beautiful sensation purified of guilt and anguish. Stunned by the beauty of Venus when he looks upon her, he laments that for her "mouth's sweet sake" his "soul is bitter": his "limbs quake / . . . as their heart's vein whose heart goes nigh to break" (Poems, I, 16). Using Keatsian language and image patterns, he pleads,
Ah God, that sleep with flower-sweet finger-tips
Would crush the fruit of death upon my lips;
Ah God, that death would tread the grapes of sleep
And wring their juice upon me as it drips. (Poems, I, 16)
Lush sensual passages like this one punctuate "Laus Veneris," but they are descriptive of Venus or her victims or Tannhäuser's own passions rather than his quest for oblivion. In fact, Tannhäuser's craving for death largely gives way after the first third of the poem to his savoring of sensations associated with passion and thus with Venus' beauty. These culminate in reminiscences upon his return to her after vainly seeking Pope Urban's absolution for his "sin." Shocked once again by the ineffable beauty of Venus-"more beautiful than God" — [68/69] he remembers how "she laid hold upon me," and "her mouth / Clove unto mine as soul to body doth." He details Venus' gorgeous "smells," including the "perfume . . . swart kings tread underfoot / For pleasure when their minds wax amorous" (Poems, I, 25). Such imagery in its general character and its specific prosodic techniques recalls passages from "The Eve of St. Agnes" and Lamia. But more than this, its dominance in the last half of the poem indicates within "Laus Veneris" as a whole a Keatsian movement from a quest for oblivion in death to a luxuriant affirmation of beauty for its own sake, an affirmation parallel to the one that structures the "Ode on Melancholy."
This movement reveals once again that Swinburne in "Laus Veneris" is working at a number of complex levels simultaneously-psychological, moral, mythic, historical, and aesthetic. Yet it is finally the aestheticist concerns that unify all the others. Swinburne appears to write this poem and his other medievalist poems because of their subjects' historically distant tragic beauty. This concern of a nineteenth-century poet with aestheticizing events in the lives of medieval characters who were real or mythical or even wholly invented by Swinburne results usually from the relentless attraction figures from the great age of romance are traditionally depicted as feeling toward sensational experiences of the beautiful in love. Love of all descriptions for Swinburne presented the possibility of enjoying such experiences with the greatest possible intensity. Telling the usually tragic stories of medieval lovers — as Dante, Petrarch, Chaucer, and the troubadours had done — allowed Swinburne, at his poems' most important level of meaning, to propagate in beautiful and passionate poetry his unyielding belief in the preeminent value of beauty and sensation. In his view, the poet's "moral" function in the world, finally, is to uphold that value central to human experience and, through the beauty of his own creations, to liberate readers from systems of belief that interfere with the pursuit and desire of beauty — what Walter Pater was to describe as "passion" that yields the "fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness." (Pater, The Renaissance, 190.)
Medieval backgrounds and a medieval setting in "The Leper" function in ways significantly different from those apparent in "Laus Veneris"[69/70] but for the same ultimate purpose.14 Like that poem placed near the beginning of Poems and Ballads, "The Leper," which is almost in the middle of the volume, draws attention to the aestheticist implications of its own medievalism, which are rendered by a focus upon the speaker's anguished recognition that any genuine fulfillment of his passion is irretrievably lost to him. The psychology of guilty hedonism that occupies "Laus Veneris" is supplanted in "The Leper" by an exploration of pathetic, failed love. In telling of his love for a beautiful woman who has become a leper and died, the poem's speaker attempts to understand his own encroaching despair that is unassuaged by any pleasures of sensual indulgence. He is only sporadically content with possessing his once beautiful beloved, at least in death, and, before that, during an affliction that had caused all other people to spurn her. Finally, the ideological shock value of the poem exposes Swinburne's iconoclasm and his aestheticism just as forcefully as "Laus Veneris" does. In many other respects, however, "The Leper" serves as an antithesis of "Laus Veneris."
Unlike Tannhäuser, the speaker in "The Leper" from the outset accepts God's repudiation of him — "God always hated me" (Poems, 1, ll9) — and he feels no guilt for his behavior. Rather, he revels in his continuing attentions to his beloved. "Sometimes," he explains,
when service made me glad
The sharp tears leapt beween my lids,
Falling on her, such joy I had
To do the service God forbids. (Poems, I, 122)
Indeed, the "poor scribe" who speaks this monologue is not primarily concerned, as Tannhäuser is, with himself, his present pleasure and his fate, but with his ministry to the woman he loves, and beyond that-both before and after her death-with nurturing an ideal of love that transcends whatever erotic gratification he might derive[70/71] from it. Rather than feeling victimized, as Tannhäuser does, he feels blessed despite his sacrilege. The psychological crisis central to the poem derives only from his fear that he has failed fully to supplant the leper's previous lover in her heart. At the beginning of the first and sixth stanzas, the scribe enunciates the premise upon which he has always based his actions: "Nothing is better, I well think, / Than love" (Poems, I, 119). The ideal of love itself is for him "more sweet and comelier / Than a dove's throat strained out to sing" (Poems, I, 121) . Yet, he finally admits that "all this while I tended her, / I know the old love held fast his part," and he acknowledges that "the old scorn" she had felt for him as a man of lower social station "waxed heavier, / Mixed with sad wonder, in her heart" (Poems, I, 123). His anguish at this realization is all the more intense because of his devotion to what must finally be seen as a spiritual ideal of love and because of his unyielding belief in its transcendent value.
The scribe's experience of love thus counterbalances Tannhäuser's in its selflessness and its spirituality. His love does have aesthetic and erotic components, but they are matters of memory and fantasy rather than distraction and obsession, as they are for Tannhäuser. In fact only once, in stanzas fifteen through seventeen, does the scribe dwell at length on erotic pleasures, and these are largely vicarious. Here he simultaneously envies and disparages the knight who had
Felt her bright bosom, strained and bare,
Sigh under him, with short mad cries
Out of her throat and sobbing mouth
And body broken up with love. (Poems, I, 121)
Yet "he inside whose grasp all night / Her fervent body leapt or lay" eventually "Found her a plague to spurn away" (Poems, I, 121). The erotic pleasures this knight presumably enjoyed with the leper well before her illness approach the ecstasies Tannhäuser insists he has learned from Venus, but they have always been unavailable to the humble scribe of this poem, who is no voluptuary, or poet, or-until now-figure of literature and myth.
Also different from "Laus Veneris" is Swinburne's approach in "The Leper" to the issue of historicity. He does not introduce this poem, as he does "Laus Veneris," by quoting as an epigraph a fictive source, which from the start suggests that we become aware of the full artistic significance of the poem's historical genealogy. But Swinburne does[71/72] cite an alleged historical source for "The Leper" at the end of the poem: the Grandes Chroniques de France (1505). The title is an ironic invention, for this hardly "great" love story is raised to significance only by its present author, who pretends to rescue it from oblivion.(See Hyder, "Medieval Backgrounds," 1282-83.) This source serves three distinct purposes. Most important, it asserts that the perpetual battle between the mentalities of priest and poet (the "scribe" himself) occurred at every level of society during the age of most important rivalry between orthodox religion and the religion of love. The citation also verifies the poem's underlying premise that love of every type and manifestation is the perennially richest aspect of life and therefore the greatest subject of poetry (and Grandes Chroniques). Finally, the deception of the invented source demonstrates that poetry as a mode of discourse is uniquely self-authenticating. By citing a source at the end of this particular poem, rather than at its beginning, Swinburne takes advantages of the skepticism about the poem's events that would likely develop among his contemporary readers. The iconoclastic repercussions are twofold: the reader is shocked not only at the outrageously macabre nature and anti-orthodox morality of the events described but also (and again ironically) at their apparent historical veracity. Thus Swinburne exploits his own and all readers' assumed interest in history to advance the cause of art, especially its absolute autonomy and its ability to generate myths that supersede history because of the intense emotional responses they elicit. Although "The Leper" balances sympathy and judgment, as do most dramatic monologues, our memory of the scribe who speaks here is all the more indelible because of Swinburne's note.16 If the strategy is successful, this poem, like "Laus Veneris," confirms that the reifications of art not only become a part of our larger reality but also subtly alter its constitution. Swinburne's historical consciousness and the fictions he creates insistently to support it in his medievalist poems force the reader to confront this truth in ways that monologues[72/73] by his contemporaries often do not. The ultimate result of this confrontation is our awareness-Romantic and philosophically idealist — that art can, in fact, shape reality. Beauty is truth of the highest order.
The aestheticism of "The Leper," then, unlike that of "Laus Veneris," is not to be found primarily in the poem's imagery or the sonorities of its music or the richness of its language. These are proper to depictions of the exclusively erotic passion that draws Tannhäuser to Venus, his ideal of beauty. But "The Leper" is a much simpler poem than is "Laus Veneris," even prosodically, with its more schematic rhymes and its briefer, tetrameter lines. The poem is built predominantly upon one-syllable words, rather than the rich, often Latinate and multisyllabic diction of "Laus Veneris." Also, through a careful avoidance of the sibilants, assonance, and consonance that account for the lush musical effects of "Laus Veneris," Swinburne in "The Leper" has produced a poetry that aptly reflects the purity of the speaker's simple devotion to his beloved. Appropriate to the selflessness and spiritual love the narrator feels are the less palpable but equally powerful pathos and compassion that his monologue elicits in response to his own experience as well as that of his beloved, who has been cruelly deceived by the world's vanities. Ultimately, such intense visceral responses are only reinforced by the grotesque circumstances surrounding the bizarre love relationship depicted in "The Leper" and by Swinburne's strategy of alleging the historicity of the story behind it.
Like "The Leper" and "Laus Veneris," "St. Dorothy" serves iconoclastic purposes. It subverts the precepts upon which Swinburne believed the Christian orthodoxy of his contemporaries was founded; it demonstrates the ultimate value (and the inevitable triumph) of aestheticist approaches to erotic and spiritual experience; and it validates the inescapable historiographic functions of the poet. Unlike "Laus Veneris" and "The Leper," however, "St. Dorothy" takes the form of a sequential narrative. In this poem near the end of Poems and Ballads,[73/74] First Series, Swinburne retells by means of a devout medieval narrator the story of a beautiful woman who lived in the fourth century and was martyred during the persecutions of Diocletian. According to the version of her legend that Swinburne appropriates, she was tortured and beheaded for refusing to repudiate Christianity and return to the worship of Roman gods, especially Venus. Diocletian attempted to enforce such conversions near the end of his reign. The mythology that has come to surround St. Dorothy does have its roots in historical fact, but the Passio narrating her life is full of legendary material.(New Catholic Encyclopedia, IV, 1018.) She was especially revered during the Middle Ages and a frequent subject in German and Italian paintings during the Renaissance.
Swinburne's adaptation of the legend predictably emphasizes the erotic aspects of Dorothy's persecution and the purely sensory qualities of all the characters' experiences. The poem begins with Theophilus catching sight of and falling in love with Dorothy. Traditionally described as a lawyer, Theophilus is depicted in Swinburne's poem as a wealthy man who leads "a soft life of pleasurable days" and worships Venus. When he first comes upon Dorothy, according to the obtrusive narrator of the poem, he observes that she is "Clothed softly, with sweet herbs about her hair / And bosom flowerful." Her face appears to him "more fair / Than sudden-singing April in soft lands" (Poems, I, 238). Wishing to marry Dorothy, Theophilus approaches her, asking that she join Elim in hedonistic rituals at "the church of Venus painted royally."
When Dorothy refuses Theophilus' proposition, he feels humilated and tries to be avenged by reporting the incident to "The emperor . . . One Gabulus," a lewd and blustering, sadistic voluptuary, who taunts Dorothy, skeptical of her alleged purity: "I pray thee show us something of thy love, / Since thou was maid thy gown is waxen wide" (Poems, I, 246). When she protests, the tyrant instructs his men to "draw her with steel gins," Gabulus grinning and "wagging" with delight at the prospect. Indeed, Dorothy is brutally tortured: "her soft blood . . . shed upon her feet, / And all her body's colour bruised and faint" (Poems, I, 247).
Gabulus next orders Dorothy's public execution. Just before her beheading, Dorothy is, however, once again approached by Theophilus,[74/75] who now taunts her with the prospect of death, a condition in which all men, he insists, "lie . . . aching to the blood with bitter cold" (Poems, I, 247). Dorothy retorts that only "on one side" is death "full poor of bliss." Surprisingly exposing her own sublimated but ultimately aesthetic and erotic motives for a life of renunciation in this world, she relates to Theophilus her vision of death and the afterlife. Its setting is a beautiful garden that gratifies both amorous and aesthetic desires. "On the other side," she explains, death is "good and green." Death is also a lover, and she describes the "soft flower of tender-coloured hair / Grown on his head" and his "red mouth as fair / As may be kissed with lips" (Poems, I, 248 > . Actually, his is "as God's face," and he exists "in a perfect place." The experience of death that Dorothy anticipates is exclusively sensual. Highly sensual, too, if not erotic, is the narrator's delicate description of Dorothy's beheading: "Out of her throat the tender blood full red / Fell suddenly through all her long soft hair" (Poems, I, 249).
In Swinburne's poem, as in nearly all versions of the legend, Theophilus is converted to Christianity in the end, after an angel brings him a flower-laden basket Dorothy had promised she would send from the afterworld. He is subsequently hanged for proclaiming his new faith and for witnessing "Before the king of God and love and death" (Poems, I, 251). The narrator concludes with a telling description of Theophilus' experience after death: "in his face his lady's face is sweet, / And through his lips her kissing lips are gone" ( Poems, I, 251). Events thus culminate with a paradoxically noumenal erotic vision.
Not only in this concluding passage but also throughout the poem, the appeal of Dorothy's story and of her religion for the poem's medieval narrator is predominantly erotic and aesthetic, despite her ostensibly ascetic life. Like Tannhäuser and the speaker in "The Leper," this narrator is a hedonist, albeit one who is able at once to veil and intensify his sensual proclivities by embedding them in the myth of a devout and chaste woman. The narrator conceives of his rendering of the myth as a matter of religious devotion, while it is in fact a fantasy that provides aesthetic gratifications for fundamentally erotic impulses. Ultimately for the narrator and for St. Dorothy as he portrays her, ascesis and renunciation allow for the suspension and savoring of sensation. In this respect the narrator resembles Morris' narrator in[75/76] "Concerning Geffray Teste Noire" or Theophilus himself, who, after first seeing Dorothy, "fell to fancies of her life / And soft half-thoughts that ended suddenly" (Poems, I, 238). Because the narrator permanently embodies his fantasies in richly sensory poetry, however, they do not end suddenly.
Rather, Dorothy's spiritual ardor, Gabulus' sadism, and Theophilus' passion all become transmuted through the erotic aestheticism of the narrator's sensibility. In his poetic memorial to Dorothy, voluptuous sensory images and piquant sexual desire are held in balance for expansive moments that anticipate implied forms of gratification but satisfy aroused desires only by the beauty and sensations offered by the poem itself. Such is the case not only in the narrator's ineluctably erotic depiction of Theophilus' union with Dorothy in the afterlife, in his description of Dorothy's beheading, and in Dorothy's vision of the afterworld but also in various lush, synesthetic, Keatsian passages of description that punctuate the narrative. For instance, when Theophilus first sees Dorothy, some of her companions, we are told, "ground perfume out of roots / Gathered by marvellous moons in Asia." These include "Saffron and aloes and wild cassia, / Coloured all through and smelling of the sun" (Poems, I, 238). The erotic contexts of this intensely sensory passage appear unmistakably in the young girls' activity with mortar and pestle, but also and more blatantly in the pun that introduces the entire scene: through "a little lattice open down," Theophilus sees "a press of maidens' heads / That sat upon their cold small quiet beds" (Poems, I, 238). The last long descriptive passage of the poem is also charged with eroticism. In the penultimate stanza the effect of sexual symbolism and of the dense, lush evocations of sensory experience-visual, olfactory, and tactile-is powerful. The irrepressibly hedonistic narrator of this poem, who thus aesthetically transforms the originary materials he works from, is apparently blind to the identity his narrative eventually insists upon between Theophilus' Venerean religion and that of the God he believes he serves. His narrative becomes, ironically, an unwitting subversion of Christianity, endorsing through the example of its own poetic texture a devotion to beauty, to sensual experience, and to erotic love.
Swinburne's strategy is made even clearer in the poem's introductory stanza, where the narrator asserts the incontrovertible historicity of his own account of the saint's life. Here the narrator implicitly describes[76/77] himself as a poet-prophet, "wood and simple string" upon which a hedonistic God has "played music sweet as shawm-playing / To please himself with softness of all sound" (Poems, I, 237). Despite his "lowliness," the narrator claims that he has finally "waxed imperious" in the world because of his unique ability to construe the truth of past events. He is one of the "tender mouths" through whom "God's praise hath been / made perfect." A latter-day historian-poet, the narrator maintains that through him, "God hath bruised withal the sentences / And evidence of wise men" who actually witnessed the events surrounding the persecution and death of St. Dorothy. By the end of the poem it becomes clear, however, that the narrator's unique perception of the meaning of these events depends not upon the power of his religious devotion-that is, of traditional manifestations of Christian orthodoxy within him-but more fundamentally upon his controlling aesthetic sensibilities. By contrast with the dramatic monologues "Laus Veneris" and "The Leper," the authenticating historical dimensions of "St. Dorothy" are thus provided by the self-depiction of the narrator, rather than by citations to historical sources external to the text of the poem. This narrator who perceives himself as a poet, prophet, historian, and man of God is exposed, by the end of his work, as preeminently an aesthete. In this way Swinburne demonstrates his perception that extraordinarily deep moral perplexities afflicted men of the Middle Ages (and these cannot help but recall the very similar complexities victimizing men of Swinburne's own era). Swinburne also suggests that medieval poets resolved through their art the eternal feud between poet and priest, as the speaker in "St. Dorothy" does; and they do so often without recognizing the nature of their achievement, as is the case with some troubadours, romanceurs, and hagiographers. Swinburne's procedure in "St. Dorothy" further implies his belief that the religion of beauty-as it appeared in the works of Romantics like Blake and Keats, as well as poems by his contemporaries, Morris, Baudelaire, and Rossetti-is simply a modern transmutation, or, rather, an admission without hypocrisy, of the system of values that dominated many medieval ascetics. Renunciation and indulgence, asceticism and aestheticism are to be seen as contrary expressions of the same fundamental human impulse.
Ultimately, "St. Dorothy," like "Laus Veneris" and "The Leper," complexly integrates the erotic, formal, and spiritual preoccupations[77/78] central to Swinburne's radical ideology early in his career. But these poems also reflect another, less well understood but nonetheless overriding obsession throughout the poems of his 1866 volume. He discusses his own role as a historicist poet who is necessarily a participant in the unceasing feud between artist and priest. In this role he is compelled not only to interpret but also to generate the history of the struggle in which he is involved. As a Dionysian torchbearer for what in Victorian England was stridently disparaged as the devil's party, he attains legitimacy through his own insistent historical self-consciousness, as well as through the various virtues of his seductive artistry. Swinburne's strategy for thus demonstrating his prophetic vocation — his calling as a poet who is also an idealist, an iconoclast, and a social critic — is implemented with greater subtlety in his medievalist poems than in any other cohesive group of his works. Although introduced in his early poetry, the consummate purpose of this strategy is realized only in his two medievalist works of epic scope, Tristram of Lyonesse and The Tale of Balen. These poems chronicle in verse of dazzling technical virtuousity, beauty, and power diverse tragedies of love and loss fraught with hope. Such tragedies serve both to define and exalt what Swinburne perceived as the inescapable human condition.
Last modified June 2000