Despite Swinburne's decidedly atheistic slant and the sacreligious subject matter of his poetry, God and the gods appear frequently in both his early and later poetry, a reoccurring instance that might make a reader think twice about Swinburne's aversion to religion, especially in a poem like "Laus Veneris" in which the word "God" appears over 100 times. Although Swinburne ostensibly included religious motifs in his poems because "his Victorian audience was accustomed to that language when discussing serious issues and in part because it suggested the existence of common ground where little may in fact have existed" (Landow), the near obsessive invocation of one or more deities could in fact signal a fascination of the same nature as Swinburne's fixation on sado-masochism and lost love.

In "Laus Veneris," Swinburne puts lust and the agony of sexual longing in such close proximity to descriptions of religious ecstasy begin to blend and blur with his descriptions of the sexual bliss to such an extent that the reader becomes confused about which he's referring to, as is the case in this verse:

Lo, she was thus when her clear limbs enticed
All lips that now grow sad with kissing Christ,
Stained with blood fallen from the feet of God,
The feet and hands whereat our souls were priced.

As the reader journeys deeper into the poem, the idea that becomes increasingly apparent is that when confronting experiences in which we encounter the sublime (an experience, either good or bad, that overwhelms the mind with a sense of grandeur or power), regardless of whether the experience is characterized with virtue or vice, the sublime transcends morality in such a way that two completely polarized experiences end up sounding like the same thing.

Discussion Questions

The tone of Swinburne's poems very purposefully elevated, and read almost like an actual prayer. What does this technique accomplish in the way of setting a tone for the reader? Is the conflation intentional?

In "Laus Veneris" Swinburne makes numerous references to "God" whereas in "The Triumph of Time" he frequently invokes "the gods." Why the switch?

In Modern Painters, Ruskin lays out a theory of the sublime to explain the way people experience the aesthetic. To what end does Swinburne employ the sublime, and how does his purpose differ from Ruskin's? What fueled Swinburne's fascination with the sublime?

Last modified 9 April 2009