he central human value in Tristram is total receptivity to experience. Throughout the poem Swinburne emphasizes the need for self-abandonment, for the unrestrained indulgence of all energies and desires. By 1869 the radically libertarian values that inform his early works, including those fundamental to the poems of his 1866 volume, had matured into a coherent and systematic monistic philosophy, and Swinburne successfully embodied that philosophy in Tristram, as well as in such major late poems as "A Nympholept" (1894), "The Lake of Gaube" (1899), and his "brief epic," The Tale of Balen (1896). A Blakean openness not only to the power of love but also to experience whose vital, generative, or sensory qualities become associated with love is the most important value in these works, and such openness is a crucial aspect of Swinburne's mature philosophy. Nonetheless, he perceived that, in his version of the Tristram myth, the emphasis upon passion to express his supreme metaphysic was at once a danger and a virtue. An ability to love without inhibition constituted for Swinburne one reflection of the total receptivity to all human physical and [115/116] spiritual experience that he prized so highly. But his characters' openness to passion-the source of man's harmony with the world of organic nature-might be construed as mere "fleshliness" by readers familiar with his early, sexually charged poetic extravaganzas such as "Dolores," "Faustine," and "Anactoria." Throughout his epic, therefore, Swinburne took care to sustain a spiritual emphasis and philosophical tone while producing some of the most vivid, indeed, spectacular love poetry in the language.
In this respect Tristram supersedes such earlier works as Rosamond, Chastelard, "Anactoria," "Laus Veneris," and even Atalanta in Calydon. But in another, Swinburne's epic resembles these works. Tristram's passion, like Rosamond's, Chastelard's, Meleager's, and even Sappho's, is peculiarly selfless and compelled. Although it is actively received, it is not actively willed. As the symbol of the potion that united them insists, the love between Tristram and Irish Iseult is fated and fateful — one result of the laws that inexorably govern human (as well as natural) behavior. Resignation to those laws and thus persistent receptivity to passionate experience, in spite of the inhibitions of orthodoxy or physical obstacles to its fulfillment, are adequate reasons for salvation in the religion of love that Tristram of Lyonesse formulates and propagates.
The poem's purpose is, in every respect, unorthodox and, as Nicolas Tredell correctly insists, powerfully subversive (97-111). "Joyous Gard" begins with an invocation to Love. Swinburne will need Love's power to help him demonstrate the quintessential value to human history of Tristram and Iseult's passion-and the myth that perpetuates it:
Sweet Love, that art so bitter; foolish Love,
Whom wise men know for wiser, and thy dove
More subtle than the serpent; for thy sake
These [two lovers] pray thee for a little beam to break,
A little grace to help them, lest men think
Thy servants have but hours like tears to drink.
O Love, a little comfore, lest they fear
To serve as these have served thee who stand here. [Poems, IV, 87]
Tristram, like many of Swinburne's poems, works most often by an inversion of traditional values. And here, as in Chastelard, Rosamond, [116/117] and many of the pieces in Poems and Ballads, First Series, an aggressive openness to the passionate encounter, no matter what laws it defies, is the supreme value. Adulterous passion is idealized and all behavior that helps or augments it is sanctioned. As a result, the poem's conclusion and all the passages that emphasize Tristram's and Iseult's harmony with nature make it clear that they do not merely have "hours like tears to drink." By virtue of their passion, they earn an eternity of organic integration with the universe and of spiritual integration with living generations who inherit the value system that is embodied in their myth and that is enhanced by their fame. Their immortality is the subject of the "Prelude," and the vision presented there is contradicted in no part of the poem.
Most commentators observe that the end of Tristram's story is explicit in its beginning, that death is simply the tragic culmination of a compelled but unwilled love affair, attractive largely because of the lovers' impassioned fidelity to each other in the face of numerous obstacles. Death is the simple conclusion to their tragedy, and even Swinburne's critics cite his ostensibly straightforward observation that the lovers "quaffed/Death" when they drank the love potion. In fact, we know from the "Prelude" and from evidence throughout the poem that, for Swinburne, the opposite is true. In Tristram he employs precisely the strategy that Shelley and Blake suspected was Milton's in Paradise Lost. He uses traditionally loaded terms, especially death and sin, on two levels at once. For the reader informed by the poem's narrative commentary on events, they mean "immortality" and "virtue." For the personae of the poem and for the orthodox reader who refuses to accept the poem's explicit system of values, they are understood in the conventional way and act as an ironic commentary on the reader's or persona's lack of vision, his inability to participate without reservation in the vital life, the only true life, which the poem exalts. The "Prelude" makes these inverse values clear, and they are explicit throughout the poem. For instance, when Tristram and Iseult drink the potion, "all their life changed in them, for they quaffed / Death; if it be death so to drink and fare / As men who change and are what these twain were" (Poems, IV, 37). Obviously it is not death, but life, that they drink. The potion serves as a catalyst, allowing their "sinful" propensities to become dominant and compelling. The love-draught liberates their potential for real passion, [117/118] for love that includes and extends the courtly love values to which Tristram and Iseult adhere from the start. Early in the narrative we are told that "love upon them like a shadow sate" (Poems, IV, 14). The potion, drunk afterwards, is a symbol of the necessity, in Swinburne's doctrine of vitality, to dissolve the formalities and reticence of courtliness so that the tumultuous passions it veils and rechannels can become "naturalized." Their power uncovered, the effect of these passions is immediate:
And shuddering with eyes full of fear and fire
And heart-stung with a serpentine desire
He turned and saw the terror in her eyes
That yearned upon him shining.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
Nor other hand there needed, nor sweet speech
To lure their lips together. [Poems, IV, 37).
The desire of these lovers is "serpentine," just as was Adam and Eve's. It transgresses all arbitrary inhibitions and impels them to eat all natural fruits. They need no "other hand," no sanctions other than passion, to bring them together; nor do they need any "sweet speech" of courtly rhetoric. The natural "sin" of Tristram and Iseult in this poem is defined unequivocally as virtue, as is all activity depicted as harmonious with nature's powers for generation and integration.
The naturalness of the poem's central figures is measured by their openness to experience and by the passionate energy and enthusiasm [118/119] with which they meet it. As McSweeney observes, "Swinburne does not invite the reader to judge the lovers in any way except by measuring the fullness of their response to each other and to the natural world" ("Structure," 696). Significantly, sexual passion is expressed only infrequently in human terms and more often in metaphors from nature, the most common source of objective correlatives in this poem. Swinburne's obsession with the pervasive and consuming condition of passion, his extension of courtly love preoccupations, is frequently described here in musical terms suggestive of nature. Song, as usual with Swinburne, proves the only adequate vehicle for expressing the ineffable. He is able most forcefully to communicate an impression of pure passion purely expressed when describing the qualities of song. When Brittanic Iseult and Tristram first yield to their different but equally compelling desires for each other, for instance,
Something she would and would not fain have said,
And wist not what the word would be,
But rose and reached forth to him her hand: and he
Heart-stricken, bowed his head and dropped his knee,
And on her fragrant hand his lips were fire;
And their two hearts were as one trembling lyre
Touched by the keen wind's kiss with brief desire
And music shuddering at its own delight. [Poems, IV, 67]
Tristram himself has just finished singing his song that "yearns" upon the name of Iseult and serves to reinforce his passion for the absent Irish Queen. "Music shuddering at its own delight" captures both the sensual and intangible qualities of this true passion, which is always, like the wind-touched lyre, spontaneous and uninhibited.
Elsewhere Swinburne chooses only to emphasize either the sensuality or the spirituality of passion, and he does so again by means of imagery from nature. For the latter he selects the most expansive images, those associated with light. By their continual use, these become symbolic of the presiding power of Love in the world. That power finally supersedes the laws normally governing natural objects:
The spring's breath blew through all [the lovers'] summer time,
And in their skies would sunlike Love confuse
Clear April colours with hot August hues, [119/120]
And in their hearts one light of sun and moon
Reigned, and the morning died not of the noon:
Such might of life was in them, and so high
Their heart of love rose higher than fate could fly. [Poems, IV, 94).
Ultimately the natural world is not large enough to contain the ever-expanding "might of life" that characterizes the passion of Tristram and Iseult. Sexual indulgence merely results in "delight that feeds desire," which culminates in speculations on death or even an explicit yearning for it. "The Queen's Pleasance" imitates the alba when Iseult implores, "Hast thou no sword? I would not live till day." And earlier the narrative has characterized their passion as one that impels the lovers to yearn for ever more profound realms of expression and experience, to "reach / Beyond all bourne of time or trembling sense" (Poems, IV, 50). Natural gratifications of their energetic and expansive passion, though always sought, are always inadequate.
Occasionally, however, their moments of sensual indulgence are described at length, though they perpetually feel "a yearning ardour without scope or name." The paradoxical effect of momentarily gratified passion is sensory disorientation for Iseult, and — for both of them, finally — an absolute coalescence and spiritualization of the senses:
She had nor sight nor voice; her swooning eyes
Knew not if night or light were in the skies.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Only with stress of soft fierce hands she prest
Between the throbbing blossoms of her breast
His ardent face, and through his hair her breath
Went quivering as when life is hard on death;
And with strong trembling fingers she strained fast
His head into her bosom; till at last,
Satiate with sweetness of that burning bed,
His eyes afire with tears, he raised his head
And laughed into her lips; and all his heart
Filled hers; then face from face fell, and apart
Each hung on each with panting lips, and felt
Sense into sense and spirit into spirit melt. [Poems, IV, 50- 51 ]
A transfiguring receptivity analogous to that which death requires and bestows is, for Swinburne, the quintessence of the "quivering," [120/121] "trembling," "throbbing" sensations that characterize the supreme ecstasy of passion. The end of the experience is literally "consummation"; each lover is consumed by the other in spiritual exaltation, just as the veil of life is devoured by death. The unity these lovers achieve corresponds to the organic unity that, as the poem frequently observes, is attained finally by all separate objects and phenomena in nature. These "die" into each other so that they can be reborn or transformed. At the beginning of "Tristram in Brittany," Tristram reflects upon the "passionate" behavior of all natural occurrences, which present analogues to the lovers' experience:
"as the worn-out noon
Loves twilight, and as twilight loves the moon
That on its grave a silver seal shall set-
We have loved and slain each other and love yet.
Slain; for we live not surely, being in twain." [Poems, IV, 54]
Here dying into unity becomes the only source of real life for separate creatures. Indeed, immediately afterwards this dialectical pattern is described as the source of all continued cosmic generation. Tristram asserts that he and Iseult, like "all the streams on earth and all fresh springs . . . Even with one heart's love seek one bitter grave." Similarly,
"So strive all lives for death which all lives win;
So sought her soul to my soul, and therein
Was poured and perished: O my love, and mine
Sought to thee and died of thee and died as thine.
As the dawn loves the sunlight that must cease
Ere dawn again may rise and pass in peace;
Must die that she being dead may live again,
To be by his new rising nearly slain.
So rolls the great wheel of the great world round,
And no change in it and no fault is found,
And no true life of perdurable breath,
And surely no irrevocable death." [Poems, IV, 55 ]
Openness to the passionate encounter is finally a necessity if the world is to continue, and in Swinburne's metaphysic of love, death becomes merely a metaphor for the process of integration and transformation.
Such openness, however, implies enthusiastic receptivity to all experience, not only to love, which Swinburne's hero and heroine exhibit continually. For instance, in "The Sailing of the Swallow," Iseult's [121/122] characteristic receptivity is imagined in her passionate confrontation with the newly risen sun, which virtually quickens her to womanhood:
And [the sun's] face burned against her meeting face
Most like a lover's thrilled with great love's grace Whose glance takes fire and gives.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
So as a fire the mighty morning smote
Throughout her, and incensed with the influent hour
Her whole soul's one great mystical red flower
Burst, and the bud of her sweet spirit broke
Rose-fashion, and the strong spring at a stroke
Thrilled, and was cloven, and from the full sheath came
The whole rose of the woman red as flame. [Poems, IV, 25-27]
The effect of the sun's passionate anointing power is the generation not merely of Iseult as a sexual entity, the "woman red as flame," but also of the inseparable spiritual counterpart of her sexual being. Iseult's blossoming can be adequately described only in a vivid and sexually charged metaphor from nature because she possesses the same components and is subject to precisely the same forces as natural objects are. Her human spiritual potential is not projected onto a rose; rather, this natural object is conceived as a symbol of the essential soul that all things partake of and that here is merely being realized in Iseult as her own "great mystical red flower." Only after this experience can she perceive within herself the yearning for that love-accomplished unity that inspires Tristram after he leaves her and goes to Brittany, and that for him is simply an echo of the impassioned feeling all natural things have toward the power that will kill and ultimately regenerate them. The total significance of the presiding power of Love is suggested in both versions of Tristram's first song aboard the Swallow, which precipitates Iseult's perception of her passion for unity:
"Ah, who knows yet if one be twain or one,
And sunlight separable again from sun,
And I from thee with all my lifesprings dry,
And thou from me with all thine heartbeats done?" [Poems, IV, 33]
Throughout Swinburne's epic, Iseult opens herself totally to Tristram and to all unitary experience. Paradoxically indicative of Iseult's passion for life is her desire even to explore "love's last possible eminence" [122/123] in death. In addition, upon Tristram's reappearance in Cornwall with Ganhardine, she is the one to suggest they flee to Camelot and seek Guenevere's assistance, "'Which love shall be full fain to lend, nor loth / Shall my love be to take it'" (Poems, IV, 91). Afterwards, at Joyous Gard, Iseult eagerly communes with nature at Tristram's side, open to its multiform phenomena in the same way that she is "subject to the sun": "They took the moorland's or the bright sea's boon / With all their hearts into their spirit of sense, / Rejoicing" (Poems, IV, 95) McSweeney defines this difficult and recurrent phrase as "man's most spiritual quality, but something that is inseparable from his sense, his perception of other human beings and of the external world. Without sense, spirit cannot exist; without spirit, sense perceives merely a drab otherness" (696). But for Iseult passionate enjoyment of nature requires the company of her personal sun-god, Tristram. Like the sun itself in "The Sailing of the Swallow," Tristram's love is an influent force that opens, sensitizes, and transfigures Iseult. Under his caresses,
her bright limbs palpitated and shrank
And rose and fluctuated as flowers in rain
That bends them and they tremble and rise again
And heave and straighten and quiver all through with bliss
And turn afresh their mouths up for a kiss,
Amorous, athirst. [Poems, IV, 51-52]
Descriptions of Iseult's thirst for passionate natural experiences are necessarily less frequent and more limited than are descriptions of Tristram's, for she is represented as and conceives herself to be primarily an adjunct of his fate. Although the virtue of their love assures both Tristram and Iseult immortality in myth, as well as an organically envisioned afterlife similar to that of Merlin and Nimue, the crucial events of the legend result primarily from Tristram's actions. Moreover, in spite of his uncharacteristic attention to Christian pronouncements [123/124] while dying, Tristram is in closer touch with man's spiritual source in nature than is Iseult or are any of the other central figures of the poem. Thus, his experience is the work's philosophical focus and the means to depict man's place in relation to all parts of the cosmic organism. Although he possesses more limited vision than does Merlin, nature's high priest in the poem, Tristram consistently precipitates and frequently formulates the pantheistic insights that are repeatedly associated with the wizard. Tristram is intermittently able to achieve real vision, however, not by any superhuman powers, but by virtue of his dominant trait, total rceptivity to all types of passionate experience. Love is certainly the most important of those types; the energy and enthusiasm with which he greets his love for Iseult are also exhibited in battle and in impassioned encounters with the sea.
Except for his fight against Iseult's kidnapper, Palamede (in "The Queen's Pleasance"), Tristram's major battles occur in "The Last Pilgrimage," as do two of his major encounters with the sea-one passive and philosophical, the other active and rapturous. Because of a summons from Arthur to assist his Welsh vassal against Urgan, "an iron bulk of giant mold," Tristram and Iseult are forced to abandon Joyous Gard and their luxurious intimacy. Consequently, Iseult, nearly in despair, appears as "a cloud fullcharged with storm and shower." Tristram's blithe and energetic mood, however, contrasts significantly with hers. He is
High-hearted with desire of happy fight
And strong in soul with merrier sense of might
Than since the fair first years that hailed him knight. [Poems, IV, 115]
Yet Tristram by no means forgets Iseult. When apart from her,
his heart mourned within him, knowing how she
Whose heart with his was fatefully made fast
Sat now fast bound . . . such a brief space eastward thence" [Poems, IV, 118]
Tristram's appetite for glory equals his appetite for adventure. He quests for "Fame, the broad flower whose breath makes death more sweet / Than roses crushed by love's receding feet" (Poems, IV, 115). The immortality that chivalric fame promises, however, is always subordinate to that bestowed by love. Battle becomes a fiery alternative to love when the possibility of love is denied. It is merely one more [124/125] manifestation of the passionate vital spirit in men that is finally responsible for all fame, whether achieved through love, heroism, or wizardry.
In Wales, Tristram triumphs over Urgan, and the country finds itself "by Tristram's grace . . . free." Renewed by success and the "high laud and honour" it bestows, Tristram sets out in a meditative frame of mind for Brittany. There he is intercepted by a namesake who asks his commitment once again to love's cause by battling the kidnappers of this new Tristram's lady. The poem's hero, for the sake of his fame and in order to "do the unrighteous griefs of good men right" (Poems, IV, 123), feels bound to assist, and he does so with spirit. The night before the encounter finds him "With heart of hope triumphant as the sun / Dreaming asleep of love and fame and fight," the triune virtues. Then at dawn, "with joy / full-souled and perfect passion," he awakens feeling the "rapture of the hour / That brought his spirit and all the world to flower" (Poems, I, 125) . For Tristram, that moment of delight is inseparable from the sensation of his own birth and an awareness of regeneration as nature's perpetual process. His earlier reveries on natural objects emphasize the freedom with which they give themselves continually to compelling life-forces, just as he himself and Iseult have given themselves openly and totally to Love and Fate. Tristram's sense of harmony with the world drives him now to the sea, into which he impetuously plunges and from which he emerges "Strong-spirited for the chance and cheer of fight" (Poems, IV, 128). His yearning for passionate interaction with the world is indomitable, and it is nearly always rewarded by physical pleasure or self-fulfilling reverie. For instance, while swimming, Tristram discovers a supreme sensation that characterizes many of his impassioned moments. The narrative insists upon its sublimity:
No song, no sound of clarions that rejoice,
Can set that glory forth which fills with fire
The body and soul that have their whole desire
Silent, and freer than birds or dreams are free
Take all their will of all the encountering sea. [Poems, IV, 127]
Tristram, in fact, takes all his will of all experience, and the battle that follows his ecstatic union with the sea is no exception. In the tumultuous confrontation Tristram is descried "exalting like a flame": [125/126] "his heart bounded in him, and was fain / As fire or wind that takes its fill by night / Of tempest and of triumph" (Poems, IV, 130). The analogy depicts Tristram as one natural force harmoniously and exultantly interacting with others.
Although Tristram does not explicitly acknowledge the fact, it is the spirit that impels these composite forces (Love) and the laws that govern them (Fate) that also inform his own receptivity to experience and inspire his passions. Tristram is always resigned to these mysterious powers that control his life and that he consistently associates with the sun and sea. Even after three years of painful separation from Irish Iseult, he fervently acknowledges his subjection:
"O strong sun! O sea!
I bid not you, divine things! comfort me,
I stand not up to match you in your sight-
Who hath said ye have mercy toward us, ye who have might?
And though ye had mercy, I think I would not pray
That ye should change your counsel or your way
To make our life less bitter." [Poems, IV, 57-58]
In Kierkegaardian terms, Tristram is a knight of infinite resignation. Not always content, as Swinburne declared himself to be, accepting the "absolute mystery" of destiny, he nonetheless rejoices in the experiences and visions of nature's unity that his fate allows him. Although he alternates between triumph and grief, even at his worst moments this "changefully forlorn" knight is regenerated by an instinct of hope, whose symbol and sanction in the natural world is the planet Venus and in Arthurian society is Merlin.According to Tristram, Merlin, who succumbed inexorably to his love of Nimue, exists "at the heart of slumberland" in perfect harmony with the consoling and magnanimous generative forces of the world, as Tristram himself is in moments of impassioned confrontation with nature and as he would like to be in death. Merlin, in his [126/127] integral union with the elemental world, embodies the paradox of organicism that all creatures manifest. Being at once discreet and incorporate, he
"knows the soul that was his soul at one
With the ardent world's, and in the spirit of earth
His spirit of life reborn to mightier birth
And mixed with things of elder life than ours." [Poems, IV, 98]
Merlin lives perpetually in a state of extended existence, of "deathless life and death," that is attained by grace of Nimue's passion for him. Unrestrained passionate interaction between individuals in life results after death in rapturous integration with all living things and the dominant spirit infusing them. Thus Nimue and Merlin have been absorbed into the presiding procreative life-force without sacrificing their individuality. The wizard "hears in spirit a song" that is "shed" from "the mystic mouth of Nimue / . . . Iike a consecration." That song is reminiscent of the courtly songs of love that Tristram sings and that beatify both the singer and his beloved. At the sound of Nimue's ethereal lyric, Merlin's heart
"is made for love's sake as a part
of that far singing, and the life thereof
Part of that life that feeds the world with love:
Yea, heart in heart is molten, hers and his,
Into the world's heart and the soul that is
Beyond or sense or vision; and their breath
Stirs the soft springs of deathless life and death,
Death that bears life, and change that brings forth seed
of life to death and death to life indeed
As blood recircling through the unsounded veins
of earth and heaven with all their joys and pains."[Poems, IV, 99]
Change, as it is consistently feared by living creatures and especially those in love, thus becomes the unique and beneficent source of the world's constant regeneration and of its multitudinous unity. Tristram and Iseult usually conceive of death incorrectly as an ending and a time for punishment. Death is, however, what permanently allows the unity that they have experienced transiently in their lovemaking and that Tristram perceives as the dominant fact of nature. Indeed, Tristram displays enough visionary instinct by the poem's end to reconcile [127/128] himself to the facts of Fate, to change and death, though he is unable to perceive them as beneficent aspects of the world-force, Love. His peculiarly eager resignation resembles Iseult's impulse to explore love's "last possible eminence," death, as a potential source of consummate joy.
Both characters thus feel intimations of the impalpable "Truth" always associated with love, which the narrative finally proclaims (in "The Sailing of the Swan") as the "Fountain of all things living, source and seed" (Poems, IV, 135). In the pantheistic vision that the poem projects, this quintessential Truth involves the benevolent dominance of Fate over all the world's objects and laws, and defines Love as the universal unifying force. That Tristram partially perceives this ultimate Truth throughout the narrative is suggested in his first song. Although he is forced to sing a second, simplified version of "these wrought riddles made of night and day," the irreducible complexity of the first song becomes less enigmatic as the poem advances. The song contains the monistic philosophical vision that Tristram as a whole embodies and explicates:
"O which is elder, night or light, who knows?
And life or love, which first of these twain grows?
For life is born of love to wail and cry,
And love is born of life to heal his woes,
And light of night, that day should live and die."
"O sun of heaven above the worldly sea,
O very love, what light is this of thee!
My sea of soul is deep as thou art high,
sut all thy light is shed through all of me,
As love's through love, while day shall live and die." [Poems, IV, 31 ]
As Tristram progresses, what appear here to be paradoxes and tautologies gradually are perceived as self-fulfilling Blakean cycles. Day and night, life and death, permanence and change, darkness and light, all opposed phenomena and all contrarious concepts are reciprocally dependent: "Each into each dies, each of each is born" (Poems, IV, 55). Love, which normally describes sensation, in Tristram also describes the set of forces by which all the world becomes dialectical process. That which is usually viewed as static must be perceived as being in a state of constant transformation. Such perception of Love's activity in the world requires conscious and eager subjection to its power. Human [128/129] love therefore produces a visionary state whose sensory aspect can be adequately expressed only in conventional terms of passion.
Thus, descriptions of natural and sexual interaction become interchangeable, because all activity ultimately reflects the same transformational laws that govern all phenomena and every object that exists. The primary manifestations of these laws are dissolution and rebirth precipitated by intense sensation. Every object or activity is merely one aspect of a cosmic and organic unity whose functions are described by these laws. Appropriately, therefore, sunrise aboard the Swallow is depicted in explicitly sexual terms:
swift the moon
Withered to westward as a face in swoon
Death-stricken by glad tidings: and the height
Throbbed and the centre quivered with delight
And the depth quailed with passion as of love,
Till like the heart of some new-mated dove
Air, light, and wave seemed full of burning rest,
With motion as of one God's beating breast. [Poems, IV, 26]
One hundred pages later, when Tristram takes his final sunrise swim, the interaction of sun and sea at the sun's birth is similarly described. His soul drank in
Limitless love that lifts the stirring sea
When on her bare bright bosom as a bride
She takes the young sun, perfect in his pride,
Home to his place with passion. [Poems, IV, 126]
Such descriptions help to determine Tristram's dominant lyrical quality, for they are frequent in the work. These repeated descriptions are, however, not merely projections of human spirit and activity onto objects in nature. Rather, they attempt to elicit a recognition of the all-pervasive "sovereign conscience of the spirit of life," in which man merely participates. Whereas in Wordsworth or Keats the poet's psyche informs a receptive natural world, here the spirited and unitary natural world informs man's limited vision of its beneficent and self-conscious omnipotence. Early in "The Last Pilgrimage" the narrative reveals the "very bay whence very love, / . . . might have risen" as Aphrodite. The waters therefore become a symbol of all joyfully interacting forces and creatures: [129/130]
who sets eye thereon soever knows
How since these rocks and waves first rolled and rose
The marvel of their many-coloured might
Hath borne this record sensible to sight,
The witness and the symbol of their own delight,
The gospel graven of life's most heavenly law,
Joy, brooding on its own still soul with awe,
A sense of godlike rest in godlike strife,
The sovereign conscience of the spirit of life. [Poems, 1V, 119]
The Wordsworthian (and Miltonic) atmosphere here is unmistakable, especially in the last five lines. It suggests the extent to which this vision of Tristram's, though unaccompanied by a perception of his own and his love's part in it, is epic in scope and revolutionary. Indeed, he receives solace from this vision of self-fulfilling and complementary activites in the world. He is comforted to see "The strong deep joy of living sun and sea, / The large deep love of living sea and land" (Poems, IV, 118).
Tristram often participates in this joyous and loving unity. (In addition to the following passage, see Poems, IV, 56- 57, 61, 62, 121-22, 140.) He does so most energetically in his amorous union with the sea at dawn just before his last battle, having been inspired by the example of the sun borne by the "bare bright bosom" of the sea. His heart
Trembled for joy within the man whose part
was here not least in living; and his mind
was rapt abroad beyond man's meaner kind
And pierced with love of all things and with mirth
Moved to make one with heaven and heavenlike earth
And with the light live water. [Poems, IV, I26]
Ironically, in this scene Tristram is only temporarily able to achieve that sense of his unity with the rest of the world that always subtends his conscious life. Among the waves, "all the life that moved him seemed to aspire, / As all the sea's life toward the sun," until "each glad limb became / A note of rapture in the tune of life" (Poems, IV, 128). Finally his sense of unity is fulfilled by a sensation of new birth, as is every transformation that reveals an underlying unity:
And like the sun his heart rejoiced in him,
And brightened with a broadening flame of mirth: [130/131]
And hardly seemed its life a part of earth,
But the life kindled of a fiery birth
And passion of a new-begotten son
Between the live sea and the living sun. [Poems, IV, 128]
Tristram's experience here imitates the cycles of all natural life. Much earlier he had perceived that "'full sure / All [things] and we are parts of one same end'" (Poems, IV, 56), but never before has sensation so graphically proven how all things are parts of one same life. His experience has been limited to intimations of spiritual harmony: "the heart of the ancient hills and his were one" ( Poems, IV, 61 ) . Only now does he perceive in full the dynamic cosmic unity of which he is a physical, as well as a spiritual, part.
Tristram's epiphany in his final swim is one among many that are central to Swinburne's early and late poems, from Atalanta in Calydon through "A Nympholept" and "The Lake of Gaube." Unfortunately, critics until now have not taken his mystical, organicist philosophy with adequate seriousness, largely because they have not been able to perceive the complex strains of meaning within his deceptively musical verse. The crucial message of most of Swinburne's philosophical poetry is the same, though it is embedded in strikingly different contexts and expressed in a startling variety of forms. These diverse forms serve finally to reveal not only Swinburne's artistic versatility but also the essential monistic faith that informs his whole body of song: that Fate
smites and soothes with heavy and healing hand
All joys and sorrows born in life's dim land,
Till joy be found a shadow and sorrow a breath
And life no discord in the tune with death,
But all things fain alike to die and live
In pulse and lapse of tides alternative,
Through silence and through sound of peace and strife,
Till birth and death be one in sight of life. [Poems, IV, 133]
The central idea here — albeit in a highly generalized form — is akin to that of Keats's "Ode on Melancholy." In Swinburne's philosophy the world is depicted as a single organism where all objects, all phenomena, and all contraries are inseparably interrelated in the paradoxical, beneficent tragedy we call mutability. The human spirit yearns passionately but vainly for absolute and permanent union with the beloved [131/132] and with the world in order to be fulfilled. Realizing the impossibility of this quest, man turns either to death or to the nurture of spiritual states in order to attain transcendence. This world view is characteristic not just of nineteenth-century Romanticism; it has its roots in the varieties of medieval mysticism upon which much romance and troubadour poetry is constructed. For example, in Rudel's poems, Jean de Meun's section of the Roman de la Rose, as well as Dante's Vita Nuova and the Divine Comedy, absolute love of one's lady integrates the lover with the universe. Moreover, love simultaneously allows for the transcendence-no matter how temporary-of a world whose human component appears irrevocably corrupt. Thus, no matter how much suffering love compels and no matter how tragic its end, love becomes the ultimate source of all redemption. However, for Swinburne and the Romantics, as for Malory, Chaucer, and medieval French romanceurs (as well as for such theologians as Saint Benedict and Cassian, who were indispensable to medieval writers on the subject of love), erotic passion was only one expression of the redemptive impulse basic to spirited and spiritual men. Brotherly love, caritas, also served to ennoble man and reveal humanity's potential for transcendence through integration with others and with the world.
Last modified June 2000