In transcribing this detailed discussion of Swinburne’s use of the allusions to scripture by a Victorian critic who knows both his Bible and his Swinburne in great detail I have made use of the generally excellent Hathi Trust online version; its few errors take the form of spaces in the middle of words, missing question marks, and an occasional garbled letter. The original article places a series of centered asterisks to between lines of quoted poetry to indicate skipped lines, and I have instead used a simple ellipsis at the end of lines. It also places single quotes around set-off quoted poetry, which I have omitted. — George P. Landow
Mr. Swinburne does not pose before the world as an admirer of the Old and New Testaments. On the contrary, he refers again and again to their teaching in terms of hatred and contempt, which are stronger than the strongest expressions of Shelley in 'Queen Mab.' His own chosen Scriptures are professedly writings of a wholly different type, since he has told us of a certain French novel —
This is the golden book of spirit and sense,
The holy writ of beauty;
and he has spoken to its author of that inspiration which
With all love of all things loveliest
Gave thy soul power to make them more divine.
The teaching of this golden book is, it is hardly necessary to remark, a mere gospel of self-indulgence — an apocalypse of passion unrestrained by law. Nevertheless the phraseology of the Hebrew Scriptures clings curiously about the modern poet, and the memory of their stories haunts his earlier writings perpetually. It is only in his later productions that he shakes himself free from their influence, and finds words and imagery fitter for his own conceptions; as in 'Tristram of Lyonesse,' where his language is altogether that of the modern school, of which he is the great leader. It differs from that of Mr. Rosetti, inasmuch as the splendour of 'The House of Life' is full of quaint mediaevalism, whereas the eloquence of 'Tristram of Lyonesse' is warm with languorous romance. In this poem Mr. Swinburne has abandoned that reflection of the Hebrew fire which was incongruously at war with the theories of Hebrew virtue. Babylon and Gethsemane have at last ceased to intrude in the realms of romance, and Mr. Swinburne's muse wanders freely in her natural home. She leads us among bowers
Than ever summer dews and sunniest air
Fed full with rest and radiance,
and introduces us to knights and ladies whose faith to each other is faithlessness to all the world besides, and who acknowledge no social duty save that of an utter self-abandonment to the passion of love. And her phraseology fits her theme. It is full of all beauty that satisfies the sense; lines that flow on like sweet music, of the soft bubbling of a summer stream; words that follow as if they loved one another and were subdued to 'amorous' harmony; pictures and images that are vivid and soft at the same moment. There is no tinge of Hebraism in such writing as this —
Set her face hard against the yearning.
Now all athirst with trembling heart of hope
To see the sudden gates of sunrise opo. [sic]
In the story of Tristram and Iseult,' Mr. Swinburne seems to have found a theme which suits him to perfection, the story of lovers whose love was a defiance to law and custom, and whose truth to each other was a deception of those who trusted them most. This truth to each other is the element of nobility which gives the poem its one touch of moral beauty amid so much beauty that is only material. Yet in admitting it Mr. Swinburne wavers from his earlier ideal, which seemed to represent a love true only to the moment in which it was born, and lovers who changed their mind continually but their manners never. The passion was to be always the same, only the object different. At one time the poet suggests that a month is long enough for one love to last, at another he gives us twenty-four hours as its utmost limit.
His wings will not rest and his feet will not stay for us;
Morning is here in the joy of its might:
With his breath has he sweetened a night and a day for us,
Now let him pass, and the myrtle make way for us;
Love can but last in us here at his height
For a day and a night.
His earliest heroines appeared to win his admiration by their abominable and illimitable wickedness, which formed an alluring contrast to their beauty. Of Faustine, he says —
God's part in you was battered out;
Long since, Faustine;
of Dolores —
Thy sins, which are seventy times seven,
Seven ages would fail thee to purge in,
And then they would haunt thee in heaven;
of Felise —
' Swift and white And subtly warm, and half perverse,
And sweet like sharp soft fruit to bite,
And like a snake's love lithe and tierce; ' of Fragoletta —
Thou hast a serpent in thine hair,
In all the curls that close and cling;
of Queen Mary —
That fair face and the cursed heart in her,
Made keener than a knife for man-slaying;
and of her reddening
'at the mouth, with the blood of men.
Sucking between small teeth the sap o' the veins,
Dabbling with death her little tender lips.
Some of these ideas are not unlike those of Heine in 'Das Leidschen von der Reue,' but the wickedness of Heine's heroine was idealistic and full of imagination, — that of Mr. Swinburne's realistic and teeming with sensuousness.
Drum gleicht dies Miindlein gar genau
Den hiibschen Rosenbüschen,
Wo gift 'ge Schlangen wunderschlau
Im dunkeln Laube zischen.
The serpent-like qualities here are revealed as venomous but secret, hidden away under fair appearances; those of Mr. Swinburne's heroines are paraded as part of the ladies' charm. Heine represents himself as indifferent to his heroine's feelings, if only he may have her caresses:
Du hassest, hassest mich sogar,
So spricht dein rothes Mtindchen;
Reich mir es nur mm Kiissen dar,
So trost ich mich, mein Kindchen.
Mr. Swinburne goes much farther than this in his poem, 'At a Month's End'—
No soul she hath, we see, to outlive her;
Hath she for that no lips to kiss?
It is difficult to discover in these earlier poems of Mr. Swinburne any ideals except those of physical beauty and general rebellion against established morality. He calls one of his idols Freedom, but no freedom can exist without protection, no protection with out law and limitation of individual indulgence; and these are things for which no room seems to be left in his philosophy. Before his 'holy writ ' can become a safe guide to a people, the laws which govern nature as well as the laws which govern nations must be changed; and such a change cannot be looked for even in the hopeful time of which Mr. Swinburne has told us, contrasting it with the past —
And all the old westward face of time grown grey
Was writ with cursing and inscribed for death,
But on the face that met the morning's breath
Fear died of hope as darkness dies of day.
But the new hope which can slay the old fears must be linked with a glad obedience to higher laws than those of individual impulse. Nature must still, as of old, be conquered by obeying her, by a comprehension of her conditions, and a submission to them. Mr. Swinburne's theories are, on the contrary, rampant with defiance of law and disregard of limits. And so it comes to pass that in his love-pictures there is no room for little children. Who could choose Faustine, Fragoletta, or Dolores, — 'Our Lady of Pain,' — for the mother of his children — of any children? Mr. Swinburne loves childhood, and perceives all its charm and beauty, as his later poems have proved. Are not children, how ever, like other beautiful things, a consequence? Are not their lovable qualities results of which the causes are more or less evident? And moral rebellion hates consequences; it denies them as fervently as if the}' were false gods; it demands for the acts of man isolation, for their sequences, extinction; it requires, in its own justification, that every deed of man should begin and end with itself, and not be, as it must be, a link and a cause. When Mr. Swinburne touches other subjects, he can, however, remember the little children, and plead eloquently for the rights of infancy. He waxes hot with indignation at the suffering which tyranny may bring on the innocent:
By the child that famine eats as worms the blossom —
h, God, the child!
By the milkless lips that strain the bloodless bosom
Till woe runs wild.
It is, nevertheless, a fact that more children suffer from disease which private sin has engendered than from famine produced by public tyranny. There are thousands of wretched babies who live a short life, — which life might be more truly described as a long death, — because the self indulgence of their parents has bequeathed to them for their only birthright suffering and sick ness. And if they carry their tainted existence beyond the years of childhood, it is too often only to reveal a moral disease as truly inherited as the material one. The sin which in the parents was — so far as we can perceive — a voluntary self-indulgence, becomes in the child a cruel need, which finds only a weakened will to resist it; and then, by slow and tedious means, nature at last — sometimes in the course of many generations — extirpates those terrible consequences which the selfishness of one generation so rashly brought upon its suc cessors. If Mr. Swinburne's love of children had ever led him to attempt the rescue of an innocent child from degrading asso ciations, he would have perceived how futile were his efforts, or the efforts of any outsider, to restore to the victim — ' Ah, God, the child ! ' — that birthright of moral and physical health of which it had been robbed by its parents. Would he not also have been compelled to acknowledge that in his earlier poems he sang the praises of tyrants, who in their self-indulgence work more woe among the innocent than it was ever in the power of Napoleon III. to accomplish?
I’d say of ahame — what is it?
Of virtue — we can miss it;
Of sin — we can but kiss it, And its no longer sin.
But there is nothing, nor shall be,
So sweet, so wicked, but my verse
Can dream of worse.
Does it not come strangely from one who afterwards ventured to address ' two leaders ' in this lofty manner —
Our hopes are higher,
And higher than yours the goal of our desire,
Though high your ends be as your hearts are great
. . . Go honoured hence, go home,
Night's childless children; here your hour is done;
Pass with the stars, and leave us with the sun.
Victor Hugo, whom Mr. Swinburne loves to praise, has a wider vision and a nobler dream than this. He sees beyond the desires of man to their results, and he prefers to crown with poetic praise those aspirations which work to the benefit of many rather than those indulgences which sacrifice many to the plea sure of one. In his love stories the children are not absent. In Les Miserables Tholomyes forsook Fantine with the assurance that she had made him happy for a couple of years. That was his share of the transaction, and — from his point of view and Mr. Swinburne's — its justification. But among the results there was left to Fantine—Cosette. The picture of the struggle of the poor girl under the disadvantages of loneliness and weakness to maintain the child left so cruelly on her hands is one of the most terrible in literature, terrible because it may so easily have been, in a multitude of like instances, true. It is not the father of the child, but another sort of man altogether, who ultimately rescues it from degradation and misery; and his help comes too late to save the mother. In many actual cases the mothers of such children do not sacrifice themselves, as did Cosette; they repeat the cruel selfishness of the father, and then we hear of child-murders and of baby-farming; but even these evils, which occasionally come openly to the front, are nothing to those which lurk unspoken of in the background of degraded lives, the disease and misery which waste the souls and bodies of children from the cradle to the grave. It is pitiful to contrast the actual existence of such infants — children of sin — with the picture of infancy given to us by Mr. Swinburne —
Nay, in some more divine
Small speechless song of thine
Some news too good for words,
Heart hushed and smiling, we
Might hope to havo of thee,
The youngest of God's birds,
If thy sweet sense might mix itself with ours,
If ours might understand
The language of thy land,
Ere thine became the tongue of mortal hours.
Such a child belongs to a virtuous home and orderly parents; it has no place in a picture of splendid vice. Even Tennyson, in his great moral vision of the sin of Guinevere and Lancelot, has dared to put no child upon the scene.
Well is it that no child is born of thee.
The children born of thee are sword and fire,
Red ruin, and the breaking up of laws,
The craft of kindred and the godless hosts
Of heathen swarming o'er the northern sea.
Would not the golden head of Guinevere have been shorn for us of its queenly beanty, and the knightly courtesy of Lancelot have lost its poetic charm, if every possible result of their sin had been realized? When we consider, therefore, Mr. Swinburne's theory of love in connection with the Christian doctrine of chastity, it is all the more singular to find how freely he has borrowed the phraseology of a religion which he professes to hate and despise.
Mr. Rossetti fell into a curious mistake of taste in his sonnet of 'Love's Redemption,' where, if the imagery is not meaningless, it can only be regarded as shocking. But he acknowledged his error, and altered the sonnet to another form. It would not per haps be possible to find in Mr. Swinburne's poetry more than a single instance of the use of incongruous imagery so repelling as this; but the quotations, the refrains from old biblical stories, the application of well-known forms of speech to unsuitable subjects, are very numerous. It is undoubtedly possible for religious phraseology to be adapted to unusual themes with very striking results, but such an adaptation must be sparingly used if it is to produce any fine effects. In Mr. Swinburne's earlier poems the echoes of biblical verses are so frequent, and often so inapt, that they produce only an impression of weakness. We feel in reading them that the special pleading must be very poor indeed which can find no forms of its own in which to utter itself, but must borrow old sayings and clothe itself in strange resemblances. Had the new gods of the poet's vision no fitting garments of their own, that they must appear before the world in 'old clothes' from Hebrew sources, as in the 'Hymn to Man'?
Glory to Man in the Highest! for Man is the master of things.
Or 'A Watch in the Night,' where the whole poem is worked lengthily out from a simple old text! It is a series of eight-lined stanzas beginning respectively, 'Watchman, what of the night? Prophet, what of the night?' and so on through a list of ques tions addressed to mourners, dead men, statesman, warrior? master, exile, captives, Christian, high priest, princes, martyrs, England, France, Italy, Germany, Europe, and liberty, — rather too long a catalogue to be worked out effectively. But this fault of length and repetition spoils many of Mr. Swinburne's earlier poems. Too often they may be described as 'Theme, with variations'; and the theme is frequently borrowed from old sources; so that, instead of a great production from a new master, with a fitting introduction, elaboration, and close, we have frequently a kind of play upon old words, adapted to thoughts of which the unsuitability is more striking than the novelty.
In 'Super Flumina Babylonis,' we have the well-known form but little altered: —
By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept,
That for ages of agony hast endured, and slept,
And would not see.
And the original of the following paraphrase is not far to seek: —
In thy grief had we followed thee, in thy passion loved,
Loved in thy loss;
In thy shame we stood fast to thee, with thy pangs were moved,
Clung to thy cross.
By the hill-side of Calvary we beheld thy blood,
Thy blood-red tears,
As a mother's in bitterness, an unebbing flood,
Years upon years.
And the north was Gethsemane, without leaf or bloom,
A garden sealed;
And the south was Aceldama, for a sanguine fume Hid all the field.
By the stone of the sepulchre we returned to weep,
From far, from prison;
And the guards by it keeping it we beheld asleep,
But thou wast risen.
And an angel's similitude by the unsealed grave,
And by the stone:
And the voice was angelical, to whose words God gave
Strength like his own.
Lo, the grave-clothes of Italy that were folded up
In the grave's gloom:
And the guards as men wrought upon with a charmed cup,
By the open tomb.
And her body most beautiful, and her shining head?—
These are not here;
For your mother, for Italy is not surely dead:
Have ye no fear.
* * * * * * *
Unto each man his handiwork, unto each man his crown
The just Fate gives:
Whoso takes the world's life and his own lays down,
He, dying so, lives.
Whoso bears the whole heaviness of the wronged world's weight
And puts it by,
It is well for him suffering, though he face man's fate, —
How should he die?
Seeing death hath no part in him any more, no power
Upon his head;
He has bought his eternity with a little hour,
And is not dead.
For an hour, if ye look for him, he is no more found,
For one hour's space;
Then ye lift up your eyes to him and behold him crowned,
A deathless face.
While the line,
So the angel of Italy's resurrection said,
is taken obviously from a later book of the New Testament.
It is in fact difficult to imagine that Mr. Swinburne, in spite of his splendid gifts, could have originated thoughts of self-sacrifice such as those in the lines beginning —
Whoso bears the whole heaviness of the whole world's weight.
His nearest approach in original thought to such a conception of the choice between self-indulgence and virtuous renunciation, is to be found in the poem for which he has borrowed the biblical title of 'Genesis.'
For in each man and each year that is born
Are sown the twin seeds of the strong twin powers:
The white seed of the fruitful helpful morn,
The black seed of the barren hurtful hours.
And he that of the black seed eateth fruit,
To him the savour as honey shall be sweet;
And he in whom the white seed hath struck root,
He shall have sorrow and trouble and tears for meat.
And him whose lips the sweet fruit hath made red
In the end men loathe and make his name a rod;
And him whose mouth on the unsweet fruit hath fed
In the end men follow and know for very God.'
In 'Quia Multum Amavit,' where the place of the penitent Magdalen is given to France and that of Christ to Liberty, we have these verses: —
Yet I know thee turning back now to behold me,
To bow thee and make thee bare,
Not for sin's sake but penitence, by my feet to hold me,
And wipe them with thine hair.
And sweet ointment of thy grief thou hast brought thy master,
And set before thy lord,
From a box of flawed and broken alabaster,
Thy broken spirit, poured.
And love-offerings, tears and perfumes, hast thou given me,
To reach my feet and touch;
Therefore thy sins, which are many, are forgiven thee,
Because thou hast loved much.'
A wasted Vigil' puts before us again, with singular inappropriateness, the well known words,
Couldst thou not watch with me one hour?
In the verses, 'Blessed among Women,' where the position of the Virgin is given to the Signora Cairoli, we have these lines —
But four times art thou blest,
At whose most holy breast
Four times a god-like soldier-saviour hung;
And thence a four-fold Christ
Given to be sacrificed
To the same cross as the same bosom clung.
In the poem entitled, 'Before a Crucifix,' we read —
O sacred head, O desecrate,
O labour- wounded feet and hands,
O blood poured forth in pledge to fate
Of nameless lives in divers lands!
O slain and spent and sacrificed
People, the grey-grown speechless Christ! . . .
The soldiers and the high priests part
Thy vesture: all thy days are priced,
And all the nights that eat thine heart,
And that one seamless coat of Christ,
The freedom of the natural soul,
They cast their lots for to keep whole.
And here perhaps there is something fine in the comparison, something striking in the simile. But in the sonnets entitled 'The Saviour of Society,' where the story of the Immaculate Conception is closely followed, but altered to fit a scandal about a public character, the comparison is simply revolting. Whoever may choose to reject the story of the Incarnation as it is related in the New Testament, no one can truthfully suggest that it was intended as a cloak for a sensual history. To transform it into such a thing is to offer an insult to those ideals of purity which we all — whatever may be our religious beliefs — desire to cherish.
The first sonnet is unquotable; the second (dated Dec., 1869) proceeds in this fashion: —
Thine incarnation was upon this wise,
Saviour; and out of east and west were led,
To thy foul cradle by thy planet red,
Shepherds of souls that feed their sheep with lies,
Till the utter soul die as the body dies,
And the wise men that ask but to be fed,
Though the hot shambles be their board and bed,
And sleep on any dunghill shut their eyes,
So they lie warm and fatten in the mire:
And the high priest enthroned yet in thy name,
Judas, baptized thee with men's blood for hire;
And now thou hangest nailed to thine own shame
In sight of all time, but while heaven has flame
Shall find no resurrection from hell-fire.
The sonnets on ' Mentana: Second Anniversary,' are full of cursing and bitterness beyond the limits of poetic taste; for the hate of poetry ought to be as lofty as its own ideals, and not as low as the object of its execration. Such an aspiration as the following is unfit for a poet's lips —
Cancel his bond of life, dear God, I pray,
That I may live to say "The dog is dead!"
The two more sonnets, 'Mentana: Third Anniversary' (dated 1870), breathe the same violent spirit: the two entitled 'The Descent into Hell' (1&73) end with a pitiless reference to the load of guilt on
this one man's head
Whose soul to-night stands bodiless and bare,
For whom our hearts give thanks who put up prayer,
That we have lived to say, "The dog is dead."
'Peter's Pence from Perugia' contains the following mixture of fierce hatred and Scriptural allusions —
Gather thy gold up, Judas, all thy gold,
And buy thee death; no Christ is here to sell,
But the dead earth of poor men bought and sold,
While year heaps year above thee safe in hell,
To grime thy grey dishonourable head
With dusty shame, when thou art damned and dead.
In 'Papal Allocution,' we have references to 'Judas,' 'Iscariot,' and 'Judas the Second.' The sonnet following this one, with its title borrowed from the denunciations of Isaiah, 'The Burden of Austria,' begins with the well-known form —
O daughter of pride, wasted with misery.
The sonnets entitled 'Intercession' are composed not altogether in accordance with the Christian meaning of that word, being an entreaty to death to spare a public enemy longer, that he may have time for more suffering —
Till the coiled soul, an evil snake-shaped beast,
Eat its base bodily lair of flesh away.
'A Song of Italy' contains many verses in the manner of Psalm cxlviii., each beginning with 'Praise him;' as 'Praise him, O all her cities and her crowns,' etc. In ' Mater Dolorosa ' we find the borrowed line —
Is it nothing unto you then, all ye that pass by?
The kings of the earth stood up,
And the rulers took counsel together, to smite her and slay.
In the 'Hymn of Man' there occurs this paraphrase of Elijah's address to the priests of Baal —
'Cry aloud; for your God is a God and a Saviour, cry, make yourselves lean;
Is he drunk or asleep, that rod of his wrath is unfelt and unseen? . . . .
Cry, cut yourselves, gash you with knives and with scourges, heap on to you dust;
Is his life but as other gods' lives? is not this the Lord God of your trust? . . . .
He hath doffed his king's raiment of lies, now the wane of his kingdom is come;
Ears hath he, and hears not; and eyes, and he sees not; a mouth, and is dumb.
The 'Litany of Nations,' addressed to the Earth, contains this stanza —
By the blood-sweat of the people in the garden
Inwalled of kings;
By his passion interceding for their pardon
Who do these things.
From 'Studies in Song' we may take the following play upon the doctrine of the Trinity as given in the Nicene and Athanasian creeds. It is used with reference to the encroachments of the sea upon the English coast —
Change of change, darkness of darkness, hidden,
Very death of very death, begun
When none knows, — the knowledge is forbidden —
Self -begotten, self- proceeding, one,
Born, not made — abhorred, unchained, unchidden,
Night stands here defiant of the sun.
Change of change, and death of death begotten,
Darkness born of darkness, one and three,
Ghostly godhead of a world forgotten,
Crowned with heaven, enthroned on land and sea;
Here where earth with dead men's bones is rotten,
God of Time, thy likeness worships thee.
Lo, thy likeness of thy desolation,
Shape and figure of thy might,
O Lord, Formless form, incarnate miscreation,
Served of all things living and abhorred;
Earth herself is here thine incarnation, Time, of all things born on earth adored.
This lavish use of religious allusions and scriptural quotations is certainly remarkable in one who cherishes so intense a hatred for all religious doctrine. It is as if this warrior had to borrow his opponent's armour before he could go to battle; and the ar mour does not fit him well or really assist in the fight, for the phraseology of Christianity does not readily adapt itself to Mr. Swinburne's subjects. Where he unchristianizes himself alto gether, and attacks his opponents from a heathen point of view, he shews his true strength. In the ' Hymn to Proserpine,' for example, he breaks away from incongruous imagery and writes splendid poetry, splendid because it represents something; it can stand alone, and has no borrowed beauty. It is a direct attack and defiance, and, true or untrue, is beautiful in its directness and strength.
Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath;
We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fulness of death.
Here Mr. Swinburne knew what he had to say, and said it magnificently. The poem, 'Before a Crucifix,' from which some verses have already been quoted, contains also many noble lines, uttering a truth which we recognize, though we may hardly yet know how to reconcile it with other truths.
And mouldering now and hoar with moss
Between us and the sunlight swings
The phantom of a Christless cross
Shadowing the sheltered heads of kings,
And making with its moving shade
The souls of harmless men afraid. . . .
Set not thine hand unto their cross,
Give not thy soul up sacrificed,
Change not the gold of faith for dross
Of Christian creeds that spit on Christ.
Let not thy tree of freedom be
Regrafted from that rotting tree. . . .
O hidden face of man, wherover
The years have woven a viewless veil,
If thou wast verily man's lover,
What did thy love or blood avail?
Thy blood the priests make poison of,
And in gold shekels coin thy love. . . .
When we would see thee, man, and know
What heart thou hadst towards men indeed,
Lo, thy blood-blackened altars; lo,
The lips of priests that pray and feed
While their own hell's worm curls and licks
The poison of the crucifix.
God of this grievous people, wrought
After the likeness of their race,
By faces like thine own besought,
Thine own blind helpless eyeless face,
I too, that have no tongue nor knee
For prayer, I have a word to thee. . . .
Nay, if indeed thou be not dead,
Before thy terrene shrine be shaken,
Look down, turn usward, bow thine head;
O thou that wast of God forsaken,
Look on thine household here, and see
Those that have not forsaken thee.
Thy faith is fire upon their lips,
Thy kingdom golden in their hands;
They scourge us with thy words for whips
They brand us with thy words for brands;
The thirst that made thy dry throat shrink
To their moist mouths commends the drink.
The toothed thorns that bit thy brows
Lighten the weight of gold on theirs;
Thy nakedness enrobes thy spouse
With the soft sanguine stuff she wears,
Whose old limbs use for ointment yet
Thine agony and bloody sweat.
The blinding buffets on thine head
On their crowned heads confirm the crown,
Thy scourging dyes their raiment red,
And with thy bands they fasten down
For burial in the blood-bought field
The nations by thy stripes unhealed.
But the dignity of tone is destroyed altogether in the following stanzas, by the obvious unfairness of imputing to Christ the sins of his so-called followers; sins openly at variance with the teaching of his own life and lips. The final address to the cruci fix is simply brutal.
Thou bad'st let children come to thee;
What children now but curses come?
What manhood in that God can be
Who sees their worship and is dumb?
No soul that lived, loved, wrought, and died,
Is this their carrion crucified?
Nay, if their God and thou be one,
If thou and this thing be the same,
Thou shouldst not look upon the sun;
he sun grows haggard at thy name.
Come down, be done with, cease, give o'er;
Hide thyself, strive not, be no more.
Who can read these lines, remembering the teaching of Christ and the teaching of Mr. Swinburne, and feel anything but re volted, not by the audacity, but by the unfitness and untruthful ness of such words as addressed by one to the memory of the other?
Mr. Swinburne has hardly any moral force of a direct sort, therefore he has only once or twice succeeded in reaching the moral heights of poetic beauty, and carrying us along by his ardent spirit as well as his fluent words. But he has abundant moral force of the indirect sort as discovered in Byron by Mr. Buskin; for he has that love of beauty which is one step on the way to virtue in poetry as elsewhere. 'Laus Veneris' contains many beautiful lines, as, for example,
Lo, this is she that was the world's delight;
The old grey years were parcels of her might;
The strewing of the ways wherein she trod
Were the twain seasons of the day and night;
and the following, although the first is disfigured by the allusion to that 'flesh' of which in the beginning of his life Mr. Swinburne seemed to be so painfully conscious,
Ah, yet would God this flesh of mine might be
Where air might wash and long leaves cover me,
Where tides of grass break into foam of flowers,
Or where the wind's feet shine along the sea.
The imagery of the last two lines is perfect in its suggestive beauty. Very weak, however, are two other lines in the same poem, in which Mr. Swinburne measures the attractions of his religion against those of the religion he attacks.
Alas, Lord! surely thou art great and fair,
But lo, her wonderfully woven hair.
Are we not landed here in bathos, and a bathos of fact as well as words?
When Mr. Swinburne attacked the principles to which the world has long professed obedience, he should have offered in their place principles which were more and not less attractive to the moral sense. It is hardly likely that we shall reject the religion of Christ for the worship of Venus, or transfer our reverence from saints and martyrs to Dolores and Fragoletta. If mankind is to change its creed, it must be for the better and not for the worse. If the profession of a faith, whose keynote is a pure unselfishness of life, has not succeeded in keeping man pure and unselfish, we cannot reasonably suppose that the profession of an impure creed will improve the condition of humanity. Mr. Matthew Arnold's appeal to us on the subject comes from a higher level than Mr. Swinburne's, though it is not so splendidly adorned with all the decorative appliances of poetry.
So Christ said eighteen hundred years ago.
And what then shall he said to those to-day
Who cry aloud to lay the old world low
To clear the new world's way.
Religious fervours! ardeur misapplied!
'Hence, hence,' they cry, "ye do but keep men blind;
But keep him self-immersed, pre-occupied,
And lame the active mind.'
Ah! from the old world let some one answer give:
'Scorn ye this world, their tears, their inward cares?
I say unto you, see that your souls live
A deeper life than theirs.'
Say ye: 'The spirit of man has found new roads,
And we must leave the old faiths of man and walk therein.
Leave then the Cross as ye have left carved gods,
But guard the fire within! . . . .
Children of men! not that your age excel
In pride of life the ages of your sires,
But that you think clear, feel deep, bear fruit well,
The Friend of Man desires.
And again this appeal to our higher aspirations which makes use in a justifiable manner of the old ideal it professes itself almost ready to reject.
Long fed on boundless hopes, O race of man,
How angrily thou spurn'st all simpler fare!
'Christ,' some one says, 'was human as we are,
No judge eyes us from heaven, our sin to scan.
'We live no more, when we have done our span.'
'Well, then, for Christ,' thou answerest, 'who can care?
From sin, which Heaven records not, why forbear?
Live we like brutes our life without a plan!'
So answerest thou: but why not rather say —
'Hath man no second life? Pitch this one high!
Sits there no judge in Heaven, our sin to see?' —
More strictly, then, the inward judge obey!
Was Christ a man like us? — Ah! let us try
If we then, too, can be such men as he!'
For the world that has studied so long, however blindly, stupidly, and vainly, the heart of Christ, cannot turn back to satisfaction with that merely material beauty which is revealed as the new gospel of poetry; it cannot be content to reject a noble law for a selfish so-called liberty, nor yet to relinquish that religion of love which finds its realization in denial of self and beneficence to others, in order to replace it by the worship of a passion, which at its very best sacrifices the rest of the world to the indulgence of a dual selfishness.
“Mr. Swinburne’s Debt to the Bible.” Scottish Review. 3 (1883)" 266-85. Hath Trust Digital Library version of a copy in the Harvard University Library. Web. 30 November 2019.