Swinburne's "A Ballad of Life" is a surreal dream of worshipful, yet painful and obsessive love, synthesizing classical and medieval traditions, and commenting on the anguish that love can create in conjunction with its joy. As the title of the poem implies, the dreamlike vision is an allegory for the speaker's perception of his life focusing singularly on his beloved, who, though she appears in a beautiful setting suggestive of pleasure, seems to be at a physical distance from the speaker and causes his blood to "burn and swoon." (l. 6) The medieval cithern she plays, "shaped heartwise" (l. 12) (suggesting the lover's actual heart), and strung with charity, tenderness, pleasure, sorrow, sleep, sin, and loving-kindness causes the reader to question whether these are qualities that the lady exudes, or whether she literally plays upon them in a more literal, manipulative way.
In the next two stanzas, the lover describes the three men attending his lady, conveying a combination of medieval and classical traditions; the personifications of Lust, Shame, and Fear resemble similar personifications of abstract concepts in the forms of Greeks gods, and the image of courtiers is reminiscent of medieval tradition. Significantly, these personified concepts are not part of her, but only attend her. The emotions surrounding her, not she herself, are the cause of the pain associated with loving her.
After the fifth stanza in which the speaker has come to a realization of the darker side of his love, he is almost immediately yanked back into the throes of passion again when the lady begins to play her cithern:
Thereat her hands began a lute-playing
And her sweet mouth a song in a strange tongue;
And all the while she sung
There was no sound but long tears following
Long tears upon men's faces waxen white
With extreme sad delight.
But those three following men
Became as men raised up among the dead;
Great glad mouths open and fair cheeks made red
With child's blood come again.
Then I said: Now assuredly I see
My lady is perfect, and transfigureth
All sin and sorrow and death,
Making them fair as her own eyelids be,
Or lips wherein my whole soul's life abides; Or as her sweet white sides
And bosom carved to kiss.
Now therefore, if her pity further me,
Doubtless for her sake all my days shall be
As righteous as she is. [ll. 51-70]
Her music gives great happiness, even life, while simultaneously causing the men to weep, drawing them to her with her song even though her words are unintelligible. The speaker too cannot help but fall for her as hard as he ever did, calling her perfect, praising her physicality, and hoping to live a better life if only for her sake. It is also notable here that his admiration of her appearance moves from her eyes, relatively non-sexual and romantic, to her breasts, which are decidedly sexual. His body as well as his mind is caught up in this love.
By the end of the poem, the lover completely gives in to the amalgam of pain and pleasure his love provides. He takes up beautiful roses though their thorns sting him in the neck and begs her to kiss him, despite the fact that she only bends toward him as a "blown vine-branch doth", without really seeming to mean it for him. And yet he only sees, "how sweet she is."
1. Though the poem ends with the speaker entranced, do you think that he will remain in this state permanently? Does the line, "And kiss thee with soft laughter on thine eyes" (l. 83) give any indication as to the answer? What does it say about the speaker's awareness of the situation?
2. Lines eight and nine read, "Sorrow had filled her shaken eyelids' blue,/ And her mouth's sad red heavy rose all through." This seems to be the only indication of the lady's emotions in the entire poem? Why sorrowful?
3. What is the meaning of the following lines?
Then Fear said: I am Pity that was dead.
And Shame said: I am Sorrow comforted.
And Lust said: I am Love. [ll. 48-50]