n his review "The Poems of Dante Gabriel Rossetti" (1870), Swinburne warns readers against judging any author solely on the grounds of his subject matter or the settings chosen for his works; he thus obliquely attacks the growing emphasis among Victorian writers and readers upon topical and didactic literature. He insists that "all the ineffably foolish jargon and jangle of criticasters about classic subjects and romantic, remote or immediate interests, duties of the poet to face and handle this thing instead of that or his own age instead of another, can only serve to darken counsel by words without knowledge: a poet of the first order raises all subjects to the first rank, puts the life-blood of an equal interest into Hebrew forms or Greek, medieval or modern, yesterday or yesterage" (Bonchurch, XV, 38). As one of the most versatile Victorian poets, Swinburne attempted with great success throughout his career to be "a poet of the first order"; thus his invective in this passage is not merely a renewal of his repeated calls in William Blake (published two years earlier) for an appreciation of art for art's sake. Rather, it suggests Swinburne's more consistent critical gospel that the greatest poets must assimilate past literary traditions and achievements while remaining torchbearers (to recall Swinburne's own recurrent use of Appollonian metaphors) illuminating fundamental and eternal truths of human experience and the human condition, no matter the extent to which modern issues and modern advances may formally or ideologically supersede tradition.
Thus, like Pope before him, Arnold among his contemporaries, and [1/2] T. S. Eliot after him, Swinburne was a perplexing and paradoxical literary figure who is simultaneously a traditionalist and a radical innovator. His innovations were not only formal and stylistic but also, and especially, ideological: in his poetry he rebelled against the limited and limiting moral, political, and religious values of his own historical era. Iconoclastic as Swinburne was — writing in the traditions of Blake, Shelley, Baudelaire, and Hugo — his prophetic function, as he conceived it, required that he adopt a poetic stance outside his historical moment in order to transmit to his reader transcendental truths about universal human needs, passions, compulsions, and ambitions; about the inevitable fate of disappointment or betrayal that all human aspirations eventually yield to; but also about the potentially sublime power of nature to inspire and uplift man despite the failure and tragedy that finally shape our lives. In order to perceive and express the unchanging qualities of human experience as well as to attain his ideal of detachment, Swinburne was necessarily a student of history, of past cultures, traditional literary forms, and the varied functions and voices of the poet as prophet from biblical to contemporary times.
Swinburne was appropriately, therefore, a model of the scholar-poet who molds public taste with both his critical and creative efforts. Apart from being the author in 1866 of the scandalous volume Poems and Ballads, First Series, which previewed the decadence as well as the subsequent sexual revolution, Swinburne was a dominant force in the Victorian renewal of interest in the Renaissance and in Hellenism. In addition, he almost single-handedly and with great success introduced contemporary French literature (especially Hugo, Baudelaire, and Gautier) to England while announcing to his provincial countrymen the virtues of previously neglected American writers such as Whitman and Poe. As significant as any of these innovative activities, however, was Swinburne's participation in the popular, backward-looking Gothic revival, which powerfully affected not only the arts in Victorian England but also, and more subtly, the social and political directions of the country.
Nineteenth-century medievalism is a subject often mentioned but little studied until the late 1960s among Victorianists most of whom [2/3] have focused attention on the topicality of Victorian literature (whether in its social, political, or psychological aspects) or studied it as a premodern body of documents, following Walter Houghton's assertion that "to look into the Victorian mind is to see some primary sources of the modern mind." And yet Victorian medievalism is an extraordinary phenomenon that cannot safely be ignored by students of the period, for it was not merely a mode of post-Romantic escapism but equally as often a means of glossing, evaluating, and redirecting contemporary developments in history, politics, literature, and art. Involved were thinkers representing the spectrum of English culture: from men like Disraeli to Sir Frederic Madden, who as assistant keeper of manuscripts was prolifically editing medieval texts at the British Museum; from the anti-establishment Pre-Raphaelite painters, who frequently chose medieval subjects and styles, to some of the most prominent architects (including Pugin and Gilbert Scott) and the most successful social thinkers, such as Carlyle, Ruskin, and William Morris. As Alice Chandler has demonstrated, nineteenth century medievalists from Scott to Morris used medieval settings, forms, and themes in their works to achieve emotional and spiritual effects, as well as to inculcate political and social values. The complexity of Victorian medievalism cannot be overestimated.
Yet one generalization holds firm for most Victorian literary figures who were medievalists: they looked back nostalgically upon what they perceived as a period of uniform social and spiritual values, of social integration, of political and cultural stability. Such is clearly the case in the works of Carlyle, Ruskin, Arnold, and Morris (later in his career). These writers followed the examples of Sir Walter Scott and Coleridge. As a corollary to their idealization of medieval culture, they [3/4] perceived medieval man and his society as existing in idyllic harmony with nature. Victorian depictions of the medieval world usually emphasize (often with startling simplicity) a life of fulfilling industry, of heroic achievement and endurance, of shared values, of filial devotion, and of integration with nature.
Two exceptions to this rule are Tennyson and Swinburne. Tennyson, though a scholar of the Middle Ages as was Swinburne, wrote only one major work that makes significant use of a medieval setting, the Idylls of the King. Yet even in his Arthurian epic, Tennyson radically Victorianizes the characters, events, and moral significance of his materials. As every commentator has observed, he rewrites Malory to allegorize for almost evangelical purposes the conflict between "sense and soul." Swinburne, by contrast, wrote numerous major works, both prose and poetry, which embody a notably different treatment of his medieval subjects than is found in Tennyson or in the works of his contemporaries. If Swinburne "idealizes" the period in any way, he does so by consistently depicting it as a golden age — like the Hellenic age — of tragic heroism and tragic love; these appear in a society realistically characterized as disharmonious and corrupt, populated with men and women who are fickle in their emotional attachments, capricious in their loyalties, and misguided in their adherence to Christianity. All such characters are victims of an ostensibly malevolent fate, including even Swinburne's stoical pantheistic heroes, who are often transiently aware of a sublime and transcendent spiritual world that generates and infuses the material world in which they live. Their lives are dominated by frustrated love and inexorable strife which result usually in suffering rather than fulfillment or harmony.
Swinburne produced a considerable body of medievalist works, including his Chronicle of Queen Fredegond, Rosamond (set during the reign of Henry II), "Laus Veneris," numerous border ballads and translations of Villon, Tristram of Lyonesse, Marino Faliero, and The Tale of Balen, as well as many more minor poems, essays, and prose pieces on medieval subjects (see Appendix I). Throughout his career Swinburne conscientiously studied medieval texts, pursuing fidelity to original sources in his own creative efforts and reviving medieval literary forms such as the aubade or alba, the ballad, and the rondel. He [4/5] thus holds a significant place among Victorian medievalists who extended the "discoveries" begun in the eighteenth century that much of the greatest English literature has its roots in the medieval period. Moreover, beyond his works set in medieval times or based upon medieval literary traditions or founded upon ostensibly medieval systems of value, Swinburne's frequent use of the Middle Ages and its literature as a frame of reference when evaluating literary developments in his own era makes clear that the impact of medieval literature and values upon the poet was enormous. However, no thorough study of Swinburne's medievalism has yet been published, though extensive discussions of the other major literary traditions in which Swinburne holds a place have been forthcoming since Georges Lafourcade's pioneering studies appeared in 1928. As the general estimate of Swinburne's importance to Victorian and modern literature continues to rise with startling (but not unwarranted) rapidity, analysis of his medievalist works in their proper context helps us to see him steadily and see him whole. Such analysis reinforces our perception of Swinburne not only as an extraordinary scholar and major poet but also as a relentless iconoclast and great innovator who had in common with his contemporaries only the subject matter of his medievalist poetry. Swinburne radically diverged from Tennyson, Arnold, and even William [5/6] Morris, for instance, in his fidelity to Arthurian sources and in the scope of his tragic sensibility when writing on Arthurian themes. Moreover, he went well beyond any of his contemporaries in the breadth and diversity of medieval materials he treated and assimilated.
Although Swinburne's medievalist poems of epic scope did not appear till the second half of his career, it is clear from the evidence of letters, unpublished manuscripts, and his best biographers that Swinburne read most widely and enthusiastically in medieval authors from 1857 to 1860, as an undergraduate at Oxford, and during his first years in London (1860-1862). In this period of apprenticeship he considered himself to be under the tutelage of William Morris and D. G. Rossetti, whom he always regarded as expert medievalists. Yet Swinburne appears to have read more extensively in medieval literature, to have studied it more thoughtfully, and to have retained more of what he read than did either Morris or Rossetti. Long before he met his two friends, much of his reading, especially in medieval French history, poetry, and romance, as well as in medieval theology, was done in the library of his uncle, the Earl of Ashburnham, who specialized in medieval manuscripts and early Renaissance texts. In a letter to Sydney Cockerell late in Swinburne's life (January 11, 1906), the poet pays tribute to his uncle's library when discussing what Cecil Lang describes as "a magnificent thirteenth-century MS. of Lancelot du Lac." Swinburne effusively confesses "how much both Watts-Dunton and myself would enjoy a sight of your San Graal MS. I wish my uncle Ashburnham, whose collection is now scattered to the winds, were alive to see it-as well as Burne-Jones and Morris" (Ironically, as Lang notes, this manuscript happened to come originally from Lord Ashburnham's collection (Lefters, VI, 198). Swinburne's remarkable knowledge of medieval literature and tradition and his extreme sensitivity as a bibliophile are not at all surprising in light of the many hours of his childhood spent in his uncle's library. Edmund Gosse observes that it was there probably that "Swinburne gained his . . . intimacy with the Frankish Kings of France. He once told me that the medieval and French sections of his uncle's famous collection had been a source of unfailing enjoyment to him" (Bonchurch, XIX, 76). But Lord Ashburnham's library provided only the introduction to Swinburne's medieval studies, which were [6/7] pursued as an undergratuate at Oxford and, more discursively, later in his career while at work on his major Arthurian poems. (See (Appendix 2) for his essays on medieval subjects written at Balliol College.)
Early in 1886 the Pall Mall Gazette asked a number of major English authors to list the one hundred books that each believed to be "most precious to humanity in general." On Swinburne's list (from which he excluded all living authors) appear eight writers or groups of works from the Middle Ages: Dante, Chaucer, Boccaccio, Ballads of North England (from Percy, Scott, Motherwell and others), the story of the Volsungs and Niblungs, the saga of Burnt Njal, Malory's Morte D'Arthur, and early English metrical romances from the collections of Weber, Ritson, and Wright. These selections are in no way surprising for such a long list, but the significance of medieval works to Swinburne becomes more striking as one realizes that Greek authors (Aeschylus, Homer, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Pindar, Epictetus, Theocritus) occupy only seven positions on the same list and Romantic writers (Shelley, Landor, Lamb, Coleridge, Scott, Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, Hunt) appear in just nine places. From such references and from allusions to medieval literature in his letters and essays, two facts emerge clearly: that Swinburne's favorite writers of the Middle Ages were Dante, Villon, Chaucer, and Boccaccio; and that throughout his career he read these authors while expanding his appreciation of other medieval texts, including history, poetry, and romance.
As his Chronicle of Queen Fredegond (1859-62) indicates, Swinburne was intimate at an early age with Gregory of Tours' Historia Francorum, a rare 1561 edition of which was housed in his uncle's library. Gosse notes that "the earlier part of Swinburne's Chapter I is closely paraphrased and reduced from the Book V of Gregory . . . from whom he continues to help himself to incidents until the end" (Bonchurch, XX, 305). At Balliol, he continued to read a good deal in medieval history, especially French. On April 15, 1860, he wrote to [7/8] his mother that "I am . . . taking in . . . either Charlemagne or St. Louis-possibly both. That is the sort of history I like-live biographical chronicle not dead constitutional records" (Letters, I, 35). Swinburne did indeed study both, along with feudal law, the Crusades, and Hallam's View of the State of Europe During the Middle Ages.
His readings of medieval poetry and romance were even more extensive. According to Gosse, well before 1861, Swinburne was familiar with Boccaccio (as well as Malory, Dante, and Chaucer, of course) and with more obscure works, including Marguerite de Navarre's Nouvelles françoises en prose du xiiie siècle, which Morris and he had read in college ( Bonchurch, XIX, 76) . He had also perhaps seen works by Nicholas of Troyes (Bonchurch, XIX, 305). As late as 1894, Swinburne wrote to Morris concerning the Tale of the Emperor Constans and of Over Sea, "I remember reading the old French romance in the days when we first foregathered at Oxford" (Letters, VI, 76). Thirty-five years earlier, Swinburne had written to William Bell Scott, "You must excuse a party who has been prostrate through catching awful colds, etc. with reading French romances on the wet grass about Wallington" (Letters, I, 23). By 1859, Swinburne had apparently begun collecting medieval romances for his own library. In addition to French romances and narrative poetry, Swinburne delighted in medieval ballads, especially during his youth. According to Gosse, "At an early age he had been attracted to this class of poetry by the study of Scott's Border Minstrelsy of 1802-03, an examination of which will show that it contains, then published for the first time, all the ballads which most powerfully affected Swinburne's imagination."(Posthumous Poems by Algernon Charles Swinburne(London,1917))
Swinburne's interest in the medieval world and its literature never waned. After his apprenticeship in medieval studies during the late 1850s and early 1860s, his approach to medieval literature became somewhat more scholarly, especially when he was preparing to write Tristram of Lyonesse. On November 4, 1869, he wrote to Burne-Jones: [8/9] "With 1) Mallory (sic), 2) Scott's chaos [his 1804 edition of Sir Tristrem] . . . and-if I can get it-3) Michel's collection of every metrical fragment on Tristram extant, published by old Pickering, I shall have enough stuff to build my poem on. Besides the French poem, there is one (written at Micklegarth) in medieval Greek of the canine dialect which is at least a good lark" (Letters, II, 50). Then on December 28 of the same year to William Michael Rossetti, when discussing his research and objectives for Tristram, he explained his need "to look at the romance . . . of father Meladius in the British Museum as well as the Tristan and Lancelot" (Letters, II, 78). After this point, one can only speculate on the directions his Arthurian researches took during the almost thirteen years that intervened before the publication of Tristram (Swinburne's Use of His Sourcesp. 96-112).
Tristram of Lyonesse is not only Swinburne's finest poem with a medieval subject but also perhaps his greatest single poem. Yet Swinburne's irregular studies in medieval literature spanned twenty-five years and resulted in his writing numerous medievalist poems and brief romances. During the four years between 18S8 and 1862, Swinburne was most intent upon these endeavors, and they were extremely varied, including such works as "Laus Veneris," "The Leper," "St. Dorothy," and Rosamond. But W. H. Hutton writes that Swinburne in 1859 was even composing "Latin medieval hymns . . . with the greatest facility."(The Letters of William Stubbs (London,1904) pg. 50) According to Gosse, Swinburne also "planned an epic poem in the late 1850s on the subject of the Albigenses" (Bonchurch, XIX, 54). Soon afterward, in 1860 or 1861,
Swinburne was . . . occupied with a scheme which had begun to take shape at Oxford and which was not finally abandoned till much later. This was the composition of a cycle of nineteen or twenty prose stories, to be issued as the Triameron, in rivalry with Boccaccio and Marguerite de Navarre.... The only one of these tales which Swinburne printed was Dead Love, which he sent to Once a Week in 1862, and published in book form in 1864. But several others were written . . . and three still exist. (2 of the stories are "The Marriage of the Monna Lisa" and "The Portrait." The title of what Gosse perceives as the 3rd work is uncertain.) Moreover, about the year 1861 he wrote a prose Chronicle of Queen Fredegond. (Bonchurch, XIX, 76)
[9/10] The historical studies and notes upon which his Chronicle is based are here published for the first time (see Appendix II).
Throughout this period and as early as 1858, Swinburne was at work, too, on his many border ballads. The apparent authenticity of his creations clearly delighted him. On September 15, 1858, he wrote exuberantly to Edwin Hatch: "I must tell you a piece of success on my part: I wrote a ballad lately, which was accepted here [at Capheaton, from the thirteenth century the Swinburne family's Northumbrian home near Newcastle] — in the native land of ballads — as a genuine Border specimen, and of the earliest mediaeval build! The very people I learnt the old ones from when I was a kid of diminutive proportions were wholly taken in-one party was elated at such a discovery, but only wondered where it had been all these years to escape his discovery!!" (Lelters, I, 22). Despite Swinburne's mastery of pastiche in these and his later medievalist works, most of them clearly reflect his own characteristic philosophical and literary values, as do his commentaries upon medieval writers and upon the medievalism of his contemporaries.
Swinburne's attitude toward the Middle Ages is inherently paradoxical. He is at once vehemently critical of the epoch and nostalgic toward it. Unlike Carlyle, Ruskin, and Arnold, Swinburne does not perceive the millennium generally considered the medieval period as an era of desirable social, political, and spiritual stability founded upon a uniform religious faith. Rather, Swinburne's irrepressible hostility to Christianity skews his vision. A passage from his "Short Notes on the English Poets" reveals his iconoclastic predisposition:
When Ariosto threw across the windy sea of glittering legend and fluctuant romance the broad summer lightnings of his large and jocund genius, the dark ages had already returned into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth — the tears of Dante Alighieri and the laughter of Francois Villon. But the wide warm harvest-field of Chaucer's husbandry was all glorious with gold of ripening sunshine while all the world beside lay in blackness and in bonds, throughout all those ages of death called ages of faith by men who can believe in nothing beyond a building or a book, outside the codified creeds of a Bible or the oecumenical structure of a Church. [Bonchurch, XIV, 101]
Swinburne perceives the Middle Ages as centuries of religious oppression, calling them "dark" ages as many of his scientifically oriented [10/11] contemporaries did, but for different reasons. He sees medieval man as predominantly materialistic rather than spiritual-as pre-Romantic, in fact. At the same time, after the fashion of Morris and Rossetti in their early days, Swinburne is consistently realistic about political events as well as about the tragedies of human interaction that took place during this period. In his essay on Hugo's La Léyende des siècles he makes note of "all the blackness of darkness, rank with fumes of blood and loud with cries of torment, which covers in so many quarters the history, not romantic but actual, of the ages called the ages of faith" (Bonchurch, XIII, 118). Such critical perceptions seem to be based primarily on Swinburne's knowledge of the period. By contrast, he is nostalgic for the atmosphere as well as the erotic and chivalric ideals of the period, a sentiment that derives from literary rather than historical sources. While discussing another aspect of Hugo's medievalist Léyende, he remarks that "all the music of morning, all the sunshine of romance, all the sweetness and charm of chivalry, will come back upon all readers at the gracious and radiant name of Aymerillot" (Bonchurch, XIII, 118). And with even greater exuberance later in his essay Swinburne explains that "the glory of beauty, the loveliness of love, the exultation of noble duty and lofty labour in a stress of arduous joy, these are the influences that pervade the world and permeate the air of the poems which deal with the Christian cycle of heroic legend, whose crowning image is the figure of the Cid" (Bonchurch, XIII, 118-19) .
Swinburne's remarks on specific medieval writers are less nostalgic and more critically keen than are these mellifluous comments on romantic tradition in general. In an important letter to John Nichol (April 2, 1876), while discussing Nichol's Tables of European Literature and History, A.D. 200-1876, Swinburne crystallizes his essential perceptions on those poets he only half ironically designates as the "Three Persons of the Mediaeval Trinity," each of whom, he asserts,
represented not only his nation, but his class, as it then showed itself for good or evil; Dante the aristocratic class as it ruled in Italy, none the less essentially and typically aristocratic for being commercial or municipal in form; Chaucer the English gentry or prosperous middle class of scholars and professional men, burgesses and small proprietors, or such men as Boccaccio in Italy; Villon, the commons of France, especially the people or populace, if you like, of Paris. Reluctantly in the teeth of patriotism and [11/12] prepossession, I have long since come to the conclusion that though third in date he is beyond all question second in rank of these three; as indisputably greater than Chaucer as lesser than Dante in natural gift of poetic genius. (tetters, III, 164)
Although Swinburne has an appropriate critical respect for the greatness of Dante's work, Villon — whose poems Swinburne often translated — is his favorite among the "Trinity" because of his earthy and rebellious vigor. Despite the similarities between Swinburne's own and Dante's social stations, Swinburne felt a strong spiritual, emotional, and especially ideological kinship with Villon, whom he describes as "a singer of . . . the future; he was the first modern and the last medieval poet. He is of us, in a sense in which it cannot be said that either Chaucer or Dante is of us, or even could have been" (Bonchurch, XIV, 100). For Swinburne, Villon is an original in a way that Chaucer, for instance, is not. Among the greatest poets of all nations, "Chaucer borrowed most from abroad, and did most to improve whatever he borrowed. I believe it would be but accurate to admit that in all his poems of serious or tragic narrative we hear a French or Italian tongue speaking with a Teutonic accent through English lips" (Bonchurch, XIV, 98). Swinburne reserves quite different criticisms for Dante. The Italian poet's virtue of concreteness suggests to Swinburne dangerous deficiencies in his stature as a metaphysician: "Dante was beyond all other poets a materialist, — and this, I have heard it remarked [probably by Rossetti], is of course what Blake meant to convey by the quaint apparent paradox of his essentially accurate objection to the 'atheism' (as he called it) of Dante; with whom the finest forms of abstract qualities that the scholastic ingenuity of mediaeval metaphysicians could devise and define became hard and sharp and rigid as tempered steel. Give Dante a moral image, he will make of it a living man" (Bonchurch, XIV, 102-103). Swinburne is ambivalent about Dante's attempt to establish a poetic cosmos on medieval theological foundations.
If in such commentaries as these and in his poems and fiction Swinburne displays his perspective on the medieval period and its literature, he further clarifies that perspective in his various remarks about the medievalist works of Morris and Rossetti. From the first months of 1857, when Swinburne was prolific in his imitations of Morris, until Morris' death in 1896, Swinburne's admiration for his [12/13] fellow poet's works was unbounded. Yet his enthusiastic review of The Life and Death of Jason (1867) seems now to be detailed and accurate rather than hyperbolic, and it reveals some of the attributes of medieval romance that most appealed to Swinburne. He observes that "in direct narrative power, in clear forthright manner of procedure, not seemingly troubled to select, to pick and sift and winnow, yet never superfluous or verbose, never straggling or jarring; in these high qualities [the poem] resembles the work of Chaucer. Even against the great master his pupil may fairly be matched for simple sense of right, for grace and speed of step, for purity and justice of colour. In all the noble roll of our poets there has been since Chaucer no second teller of tales, no second rhapsode comparable to the first, till the advent of this one" (Bonchurch, XV, 55- 56) . Throughout this passage, Swinburne is suggesting quite correctly that one of the greatest virtues of Morris' art and of Chaucer's as well is an apparent lack of self-consciousness and therefore of strain. In its propriety, its perfect sense of pace and choice of images, the "art" is invisible, the creative sensibility apparently instinctive. Moreover, Swinburne admires the tragic scope, the precision and passionate power of Jason. In Swinburne's view, much medieval literature possesses such virtues. He concludes that "rarely but in the ballad and romance periods has such poetry been written, so broad and sad and simple, so full of deep and direct fire, certain of its aim, without finish, without fault" (Bonchurch, XV, 60).
Three years later, when reviewing Rossetti's poems, Swinburne reveals his delight in three distinct but complementary qualities he perceives in medieval poetry: its passion, its imagination, and its pervasively tragic view of the human condition. Speaking of "the intimate relations of [Rossetti's] work in verse and his work in painting," Swinburne observes similarities in emotional effect "between the romantic poems and the romantic designs, as for example 'Sister Helen' and the 'Tune of Seven Towers,' which have the same tone and type of tragic romance in their mediaeval touches and notes of passionate fancy" (Bonchurch, XV, 40). Earlier in the essay, when discussing Rossetti's translations, Swinburne especially applauds his friend's fidelity to the mood of the original and his reproduction of its emotional effects. He praises Rossetti's "full command of that Iyric sentiment and power which give to mediaeval poetry its clear particular charm [and which] is plain alike from the ending given to the 'old song' of Ophelia and [13/14] from the marvellous visions of Villon's and other French songs.... The very cadence of Villon's matchless ballad of the ladies of old time is caught and returned. The same exquisite exactitude of translation is notable in 'John of Tours' — the old provincial song long passed from mouth to mouth and at last preserved with all its breaks and lapses of sweet rough metre by Gérard de Nerval" (Bonchurch, XV, 32-33). Implicit here once again is Swinburne's perception of the inescapable continuity of literary tradition from medieval to modern times, a continuity that he demonstrates repeatedly in his own numerous medievalist works.
One of the interlocutors in Jerome J. McGann's Swinburne: An Experiment in Criticism makes an incisive general remark about the poet's philosophical thought, a remark that is essential to any consideration of Swinburne's literary treatment of medieval subjects, but also- more broadly and profoundly-to the implied theory of history that informs all his work. "One of Swinburne's most important intuitions," Murdoch insists, "is that discoveries are not made at the end of something, or even along the way, but at the beginning. So, . . . his poetry is constantly turning back upon itself in an attempt to reveal the significance of something in the past, something that he has already seen but that will bear further scrutiny in the light of the still more recent past" (4). Swinburne's literary beginnings, especially under the tutelage of Morris and Rossetti, are very largely medievalist, and thus it comes as no surprise that the poet should return at intervals throughout his career to the composition of medievalist poems. Nor is it unexpected that each of these works embodies a developing but fundamentally identical set of moral, spiritual, amatory, and intellectual values, whose varied treatment from one work to another merely expands their scope and depth.
What must become clear, however, to any serious student of Swinburne and his position in the history of ideas during the nineteenth century, is that he saw the human condition as essentially static, tragically but paradoxically so. Thus, Murdoch's statement is true in relation not only to the poet's own biography but also to his sense of human history as a whole. Prophetic truth, that is, complete human truth, emerges from a poetic "scrutiny" of the past in which ephemeral historical contexts are penetrated and exposed. To the extent that [14/15] Swinburne saw human nature and the constraints governing human life as unchanging and universal, he possesses more of the neoclassical temper than do any of his literary contemporaries, including Matthew Arnold, whose cyclical theory of human history is frequently belied in his later years by history's implicit and sometimes explicit depiction as a perfectibilianist spiral. With equal felicity Swinburne could set his poetic representations of human passion, aspiration, and suffering in ancient Greece, in medieval France, Wales, Northumberland, or in Renaissance England because the fundamental conditions surrounding human motivations and endeavors do not vary from era to era, according to Swinburne's philosophy of history. Despite his very visible concern with the political events of his own day, therefore, Swinburne's entire literary enterprise can be seen to be anti-historicist precisely because it is philosophically idealistic. As he explains in "Hertha"-which he believed to contain his philosophical thought in its most concentrated form-man is only the supreme manifestation of an ageless and unchanging generative spirit active in the world.
Why, then, focus attention on Swinburne's medievalist works, rather than on his "Renaissance" closet dramas, or his "Greek" tragedies, or his multifarious "philosophical" and aestheticist Iyrics? Apart from the fact that, by comparison with Swinburne's other major works, his medievalist poems have been neglected by critics, one can justify examining the medievalist poems on at least two important grounds.
First, for Swinburne, as for most of his contemporaries, the end of the medieval period signaled the beginning of the modern world. His description of Villon as "the first modern and the last medieval poet," one of us in a way that neither Chaucer nor Dante is, suggests that Swinburne thought Chaucer and Dante were thralls of a socially hierarchical culture constrained by an unyielding system of religious beliefs that denied free play to their imaginations. By contrast, Villon — energetically receptive to life and experience of all kinds, wholly engaged with the lives and loves he sang of-possessed a fully liberated imagination, a democratizing instinct, a feel for the transcendent within the quotidian that was foreign to Chaucer and Dante. In important ways, then, for Swinburne the medieval millennium until the twelfth century represents an era inhospitable in its cultural surfaces and institutions, stubbornly foreign to Swinburne's own predominantly [15/16] Hellenic and Romantic value system. At the same time Swinburne found lacunae — in literary forms and mythologies generated by particular medieval writers — through which he could emphatically project his own view of the human condition as passionate and aspiring, but finally tragic. Thus by exploiting selected literary forms, traditions, topoi, and mythologies from the medieval period, especially from medieval France, Swinburne could, as it were, poetically rewrite medieval cultural history from a revisionist or modernist — that is, Romantic-perspective. Doing so would serve a corrective prophetic function because Swinburne's poetic re-creations of medieval myths and their characters would not yield to the social or religious constraints that thwarted Dante and Chaucer, for instance, at their least imaginative. Using the traditions of love poetry that originated in late-medieval France, and especially the Arthurian matter that represents the culmination of such traditions, Swinburne perceived that he could unveil the universal truths of human experience for the medieval era that otherwise would remain buried beneath the surfaces of medieval culture. Swinburne perceived the medieval courtly love and Arthurian mythologies as in themselves iconoclastic: attempts to revive light and life in an era otherwise dark, oppressed by a religiously grounded system of social and moral values that denied the most profound elements of human nature and experience.
Unlike Tennyson, his sometime Hegelian contemporary, Swinburne must be described finally as a historical, as well as a philosophical, monist." ( Tennyson and Clio: History in the Major Poems (Baltimore, 1979) p. 112-149) Throughout his major philosophical works he describes the generations of mankind emerging through history as the composite material revelation of a single, changeless spiritual Being, which he sometimes calls God:
Not each man of all men is God, but God is
the fruit of the whole;
Indivisible spirit and blood, indiscernable
body from Soul. ( "Hymn of Man," Poems, II, 96)
More complexly in the same poem he describes individual men in history as the "multiform features of man": "whatsoever we be," we [16/17] "Recreate him of whom we are creatures, and we only are he." History therefore becomes a mere superflux of putative change:
In the sea whereof centuries are waves
the live God plunges and swims;
His bed is in all men s graves, but the
worm hath not hold on his limbs.
Night puts out not his eyes, nor time
sheds change on his head. (Poems, II, 96)
The material universe at once nourishes and embodies this comprehensive spiritual force, as man-in Swinburne's metaphorical myth- moves through its Being both as essential lifeblood and transient consciousness:
With such fire as the stars of the sky are the
roots of his heart are fed. Men are the thoughts passing through it, the
veins that fulfill it with blood, With spirit of sense to renew it as springs
fulfilling a flood. (Poems, 11, 96)
The generations of man generate God and vice versa. History at its most accurate, therefore, and literature at its greatest, repeatedly record the same phenomena: human passions, aspirations, failures, and suffering-an endless, timeless tragedy. (pp. 22-47)
The second rationale for examining Swinburne's medievalist works derives from the first. Just as Swinburne's anti-historicism compels him always to place his works in clear and specific historical settings only to undercut the significance of those settings, his sense of biography-the history of the individual and that most representative of individuals, the poet-compels him insistently to demonstrate the nondevelopmental quality, the psychological, moral, and spiritual stasis of every man's adult life. Swinburne's own life and work as a poet largely begins with a focus on medieval poetry and romance. Works such as "Dead Love," Queen Yseult, "Joyeuse Garde," Chronicle of Queen Fredegond, and Rosamond constitute his beginnings-formal and stylistic, as well as philosophical-to which he almost compulsively [17/18] returns until the very last decade of his life. As a cohesive body of materials, Swinburne's medievalist poems therefore represent systematically and coherently his moral, literary, philosophical, and religious values, as they take on varied shapes and emphases during his career. This body of works, when set against the poetry of his contemporaries, fully demonstrates Swinburne's uniqueness as a major Victorian poet.
To illustrate Swinburne's manipulations of medieval literary forms and topoi, as well as his role in the Victorian medieval revival, I have chosen in the following chapters to discuss at length only those poems I consider to be Swinburne's finest that rely upon medieval settings or that are based upon what the poet considered to be a medievalist system of values. These poems — from Queen Yseult through Rosamond, some of his Poems and Ballads, Tristram of Lyonesse, and The Tale of Balen — span a period of forty years, constituting about 80 percent of Swinburne's literary career. My judgment of many of these as important Victorian poems is either explicit or implicit in all I have to say about them. Beyond their intrinsic virtues, however, I hope to demonstrate something of their cultural significance as documents in the extraordinary phenomenon of Victorian medievalism.
Further explanation of Swinburne's reasons for choosing medieval subjects and settings for many of his best poems appears in the chapters that follow. Clearly, his early exposure to medieval literature and the influence of Morris, Rossetti, and Burne-Jones had a good deal to do with such choices, as did his almost constitutional fondness for action-filled depictions of chivalric warfare. But as I have indicated, Swinburne's philosophical and ideological stances also drew him to medieval subjects. Setting his work in the age of faith allowed Swinburne to continue his attacks on the misguided values of Christianity, but in a manner less iconoclastic and in a context more palatable to his Victorian readers than he managed, for example, in the lyrics of Songs before Sunrise. His medieval subjects further enabled him to correct his own era's unwarranted and contagious idealization of an age that was more socially chaotic than harmonious and that remained more primitive but therefore closer to nature than was the industrial age. Swinburne could thus exploit the greater dangers and brutality [18/19] of daily life in the Middle Ages to express his relentlessly fatalistic world view. Finally and most important, for Swinburne, as for his contemporaries, the age of faith was also the age of love literature, and so the poet in his medievalist works could fill out his philosophical vision that held Love-whether erotic, fraternal, or spiritual-to be the presiding albeit fatal impulse in all human lives and the power ultimately governing all activity in the world.
Last modified June 2000