Erotic Friday: Algernon Charles Swinburne

Damn, now that’s a mouthful. Anyway, here’s today’s poet Algernon Charles Swinburne.


Algernon Charles Swinburne (5 April 1837 – 10 April 1909) was an English poet, playwright, novelist, and critic. Swinburne wrote about many taboo topics, such as lesbianism, cannibalism, sado-masochism, and anti-theism. Hmm, sounds like my kind of guy. His poems have many common motifs, such as the ocean, time, and death. Several historical people are featured in his poems, such as Sappho (“Sapphics”), Anactoria (“Anactoria”), Jesus (“Hymn to Proserpine”: Galilaee, La. “Galilean”) and Catullus (“To Catullus”).

Swinburne possessed a curious combination of frail health and strength. He was small (just over 5 feet tall) and slightly built, but an excellent swimmer and the first to climb Culver Cliff on the Isle of Wight. He had an extremely excitable disposition: people who met him described him as a “demoniac boy” who would go skipping about the room declaiming poetry at the top of his voice. In this as in many things, he seems to have eschewed moderation. Once or twice he had fits, perhaps epileptic, in public; but he made this condition much worse by drinking past excess to unconsciousness. More than once while he was living with Rossetti he was delivered to the door in the small of the night, dead drunk. Throughout the 1860s and ’70s he rode an alcoholic cycle of dissolution, collapse, drying out at home in the country, then returning to London where he would begin all over again.

Although some of his work had already appeared in periodicals, Atalanta in Calydon (1865) was the first poem to come out under his name and was received enthusiastically. “Laus Veneris” and Poems and Ballads(1866), with their sexually charged passages, were attacked all the more violently as a result. Swinburne’s meeting in 1867 with his long-time hero Mazzini, the Italian patriot living in England in exile, led to the more political Songs before Sunrise.

His mania for masochism, particularly flagellation, probably began at Eton and was encouraged by his later friendships with Richard Monckton Milnes (one of Tennyson’s fellow Apostles), who introduced him to the works of the Marquis de Sade, and Richard Burton, the Victorian explorer and adventurer. Some gamey stories survive from the year or so that he spent living at 16 Cheyne Walk with Rossetti: according to one, Rossetti once had to tell him to keep down the noise — he and a boyfriend had been sliding naked down the bannisters and disturbing Rossetti’s painting. In another, Rossetti gave to Adah Menken, the American circus rider, to introduce Swinburne to heterosexual love. She returned it because, she said, “I can’t make him understand that biting’s no use.”

He took a sardonic delight in what the critic and biographer, Cecil Lang, calls “Algernonic exaggeration”: When people began to talk scathingly about his homosexuality and other sexual proclivities, he circulated a story that he had engaged in pederasty and bestiality with a monkey — and then ate it. How many of the stories were true and how many inventive fiction is still unclear. Oscar Wilde, thoroughly capable of inventing his own interesting fictions, called him “a braggart in matters of vice, who had done everything he could to convince his fellow citizens of his homosexuality and bestiality without being in the slightest degree a homosexual or a bestializer.”

In 1879, with Swinburne nearly dead from alcoholism and dissolution, his legal advisor Theodore Watts-Dunton took him in, and was successful in getting him to adopt a healthier style of life. Swinburne lived the rest of his days at Watts-Dunton’s house outside London. He saw less and less of his old friends, who thought him “imprisoned” at The Pines, but his growing deafness accounts for some of his decreased sociability. He died of influenza in 1909.

It is clear that Swinburne had an addictive personality, one nearly incapable of moderation. His criticism is perceptive and useful but suffers from praise too lavish of the things he liked and attacks too vituperative on those that he didn’t. His poetry follows the by now standard pattern of early flourish and later decline; some of the fresher pieces in the second and third series of Poems and Ballads (1878 and 1889) were actually written during his days at Oxford. Nevertheless, his last collection, A Channel Passage, has some lovely poems, including “The Lake of Gaube.” He is best remembered as the supreme technician in metre, with a versatility which exceeds even Tennyson’s, but which lacks a corresponding emotional range. His obsessions are not widely enough shared; and if he can not shock us by the strangeness of his desires nor the shrillness of his anti-theistical exclamations, often too little remains.

Swinburne died at the Pines on 10 April 1909 at the age of 72 and was buried at St. Boniface Church, Bonchurch on the Isle of Wight.

Check out this poem that I happened to fall in love with. Enjoy

Love and Sleep
by Algernon Charles Swinburne

Lying asleep between the strokes of night
I saw my love lean over my sad bed,
Pale as the duskiest lily’s leaf or head,
Smooth-skinned and dark, with bare throat made to bite,
Too wan for blushing and too warm for white,
But perfect-coloured without white or red.
And her lips opened amorously, and said—
I wist not what, saving one word—Delight.
And all her face was honey to my mouth,
And all her body pasture to mine eyes;
The long lithe arms and hotter hands than fire,
The quivering flanks, hair smelling of the south,
The bright light feet, the splendid supple thighs
And glittering eyelids of my soul’s desire.

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