107. (Algernon Charles Swinburne)

Though Wilde mocked his pronouncements of sexual deviance,  Swinburne quarried queer desire for a reinvention of the metaphysical tradition.

Even among Victorianists, Swinburne is not written on or read much nowadays, but looking back nearly one hundred years, to the critics who were weaned on the poet of Putney (Swinburne in his later years) and who weaned off him into the dazzle of Donne, may open up a poet whose work is tough to crack on account of its being so little like a kernel on the page.

The young Empson heard the old seventeenth-century train in Swinburne, rescuing him from Pure Sound:

People are oddly determined to regard Swinburne as an exponent of Pure Sound with no intellectual content. As a matter of technique, his work was full of such dissolved and contrasted reminiscences as need to be understood; as a matter of content, his sensibility was of the intellectual sort which proceeds from a process of analysis.

Where such “people,” reading Swinburne’s “Dolores” found a pun, Empson eyed a metaphysical conceit: later nineteenth-century poetry…can reasonably called decadent because its effects depended on a tradition that its example was destroying…the metaphysical tradition dug up when rotten.

Too attenuated, too dissolved for Empson’s liking perhaps, Swinburne the Metaphysical would help to explain the excitement felt for Donne and Marvell by a generation of poets in the 1920s: adoring or at least quickening to Swinburne in youth, they had already absorbed an essential element of seventeenth-century verse.

That element, active in some of Swinburne as well as Donne, does not require a genealogical link between the two: it is at the core of all metaphysical poetry.

James Smith, writing under the wing but not influence of Leavis, scrutinized the criticism of the two early-twentieth-century champions of Donne with astute independence. Neither rebutting nor correcting Empson and Eliot, Smith offers guidance where they do not, describing just why metaphysical poetry really ought to be called metaphysical. His words show a way forward in understanding Swinburne’s poetry:

The contradictions in metaphysics, on the other hand, spring from essence. The very nature of things brings them forth. It seems impossible that the nature of things should possess either the one or the other of a pair of qualities; it seems impossible that it should possess both together; it seems impossible that it should not possess both together…Verse properly called metaphysical is that to which the impulse is given by an overwhelming concern with metaphysical problems; with problems either deriving from, or closely resembling in the nature of their difficulty, the problem of the Many and the One.

Swinburne’s poetry is hardly driven to or by the metaphysical problem as consistently as is Donne’s; but in the love poetry it is, and a bulk of the rest, the poems yearning for oblivion, might be read as a desire to escape the problem entirely, yearning for a stasis, a waste, a nothingness in which the division of one and many dissolves (c.f. “The Garden of Proserpine“).

One might rejoin that all love poetry is metaphysical, fundamentally concerning as it does the union of two into one–but then one would have to explain why so much love poetry of the eighteenth, nineteenth, not to mention seventeenth, centuries is not. Metaphysical love poetry has, it is likely, been afforded a status that makes it seem the greatest of love poetry in English, but Wordsworth, Keats, Byron, Barrett Browning, Robert Browning, Tennyson, Hardy all wrote moving love poetry in the nineteenth century, and they did so without its becoming metaphysical, as Smith defines the term. The poet missing from the list is Shelley, and his poetry is behind Swinburne’s; in it, the essential metaphysical problem is worked out, albeit often between man and the natural world—thought he later love lyrics are not.

Why Swinburne? Perhaps he read Shelley with greater intensity than others, or saw there what others missed; perhaps, through his profound appreciation of seventeenth-century drama, he absorbed its sensibility for conceits and techniques of rhetoric; perhaps also the nature of the love he wrote about: for Swinburne, as feels often to be the case with the metaphysicals, the problem of union, is not the universe (death, or some other immovable barrier or force), not society (not class barriers), and not even the lover’s absence or rejection (whatever Marvell’s coy mistress may have said, however far Donne’s pair of compasses may have had to extend). Instead, it is the nature of desire itself, as expressed through the rhetorical movement, and conceits; designed to persuade, to justify or imagine the union of the many and the one, they work simultaneous to fragment, to splinter and hold asunder two selves, and the parts of each self also.


Swinburne does not work by such conceits; his range of images, the concrete objects to which he turns, is extraordinarily narrow (kisses, fire, waves, sea, etc); instead, his desire is thwarted by its own nature because it is queer. Repressing itself in the act of extension, existing between a state of fulfillment and denial, Swinburne’s desire is a visible shadow of an amputated longing. When he writes of love, he writes of desire; and when he writes of desire, Swinburne’s poetry becomes about the problem of uniting two and one.

Or, in an especially clear (and, to me, powerful) example, of uniting more-than-two into one. “Hermaphroditus,” a four part sonnet sequence, is, Swinburne notes, a response to a sculpture in the Louvre Museum of a sleeping figure. But he draws also on the myth told by Ovid of a nymph, Salamacis, falling in love with a man, Hermaphroditus, swimming above her; he rejects her and, in response to her prayers, the gods unite them into one being. The choice of subjects was not original: notes to the Penguin edition of Swinburne inform us that the nineteenth-century had a minor fascination with the hermaphrodite, first as a figure of perfection, then as a figure of decadence. And, in Swinburne’s personal reading, the hermaphrodite appears in Shelley’s “Witch of Atlas”:

And when the wizard lady would ascend
The labyrinths of some many-winding vale,
Which to the inmost mountain upward tend —
She called “Hermaphroditus!” — and the pale
And heavy hue which slumber could extend
Over its lips and eyes, as on the gale 
A rapid shadow from a slope of grass,
Into the darkness of the stream did pass.

In Poems and Ballads, the volume in which “Hermaphroditus” appears, the poem following it, “Fragoletta,” is also about a hermaphrodite, but is a narrative and based on a novel. In the sonnet sequence of “Hermaphroditus,” the narrative of the myth is subordinated to the play of ambiguities and dissolving and resolving oppositions of sex and desire.

The poem in its four-part entirety is below (but a link to the Swinburne project, one of the finest digital archives is here):


Lift up thy lips, turn round, look back for love,
Blind love that comes by night and casts out rest;
Of all things tired thy lips look weariest,
Save the long smile that they are wearied of.
Ah sweet, albeit no love be sweet enough,
Choose of two loves and cleave unto the best;
Two loves at either blossom of thy breast
Strive until one be under and one above.
Their breath is fire upon the amorous air,
Fire in thine eyes and where thy lips suspire:
And whosoever hath seen thee, being so fair,
Two things turn all his life and blood to fire;
A strong desire begot on great despair,
A great despair cast out by strong desire.

Where between sleep and life some brief space is,
With love like gold bound round about the head,
Sex to sweet sex with lips and limbs is wed,
Turning the fruitful feud of hers and his
To the waste wedlock of a sterile kiss;
Yet from them something like as fire is shed
That shall not be assuaged till death be dead,
Though neither life nor sleep can find out this.
Love made himself of flesh that perisheth
A pleasure-house for all the loves his kin;
But on the one side sat a man like death,
And on the other a woman sat like sin.
So with veiled eyes and sobs between his breath
Love turned himself and would not enter in.

Love, is it love or sleep or shadow or light
That lies between thine eyelids and thine eyes?
Like a flower laid upon a flower it lies,
Or like the night’s dew laid upon the night.
Love stands upon thy left hand and thy right,
Yet by no sunset and by no moonrise
Shall make thee man and ease a woman’s sighs,
Or make thee woman for a man’s delight.
To what strange end hath some strange god made fair
The double blossom of two fruitless flowers?
Hid love in all the folds of all thy hair,
Fed thee on summers, watered thee with showers,
Given all the gold that all the seasons wear
To thee that art a thing of barren hours?

Yea, love, I see; it is not love but fear.
Nay, sweet, it is not fear but love, I know;
Or wherefore should thy body’s blossom blow
So sweetly, or thine eyelids leave so clear
Thy gracious eyes that never made a tear —
Though for their love our tears like blood should flow,
Though love and life and death should come and go,
So dreadful, so desirable, so dear?
Yea, sweet, I know; I saw in what swift wise
Beneath the woman’s and the water’s kiss
Thy moist limbs melted into Salmacis,
And the large light turned tender in thine eyes,
And all thy boy’s breath softened into sighs;
But Love being blind, how should he know of this?
Au Musée du Louvre, Mars 1863.

One of the tricks to the poem is to see that it is not, as Camille Paglia, says, “a critique of heterosexuality” in which “barrenness is now a sexual privilege.” If anything, it is nearer to Empson’s principle of pastoral, “better in some ways, not as good in others,” but even this misses the point which is that the perfection of love in the union of the hermaphrodite represents also its greatest failing, since love, in creating a being in which all of the possibilities are contained, has also made love impossible. There is, as Paglia says, beauty in the “waste wedlock of a sterile kiss,” but there is also tragedy because Love has made itself a house into which it would not entire.

The anthropologist can explain the problem. Maurice Godelier in his The Metamorphosis of Kinship:

In the end, what the incest taboo stamps into the individual is not only that sexuality must submit to the reproduction of society. It is more basically that it must be placed in the service of the production of society. But for that, part of the spontaneous polytropism and (hetero- and homosexual) polyvalence of desire must be amputated. This is the insurmountable law that the many forms of incest taboo imprint into each individual. Partial amputation does not mean destruction of the individual, though, but rather promotion to the state of true human being, to humankind’s generic being, which is not only to live in society but to produce society in order to live.

Containing all of the possibilities of desire (and not just the sexual divide of male-female) “all the loves his kin,” means that nothing has been cut off from the figure, no amputation has occurred; but because of its completeness, its fully absorbed polyvalence of desire, the figure is in turn cut off from Love as a social force binding one individual and another, and so from society, and left isolated, guarded by Shame (in the figure of Sin) and Punishment (in the figure of Death).

The figure remains perpetually desired, always apart from others, because of its uniting of the many within itself; that union ensures a further division, its own unity only understood by its not being a part of the many who desire it:

A strong desire begot on great despair

A great despair cast out by strong desire.

Despair begets desire, which in turn casts out despair; but the syntax suggests that the process is circular, so that the great despair that is cast out is nonetheless one of the “two things” that “turn all his blood and life to fire”; it is not a matter, perhaps, of despair being abolished once and for good, but instead of desire renewing itself on the despair it casts out, only to cast it out once more; despair and desire pursue in a cycle.

But in addition to the nymph and the man, blended together and at odds with the world, the poem concerns the poet’s own ambivalent desire for the hermaphroditic figure: Swinburne fears and loves, desires and despairs, at what he cannot possess, at what is perfect and flawed in being so perfect as to exclude his participation within it; the word “love” does triple or quadruple work, representing the nymph’s love for the swimmer, the poet’s love for the sleeping hermaphrodite, and the Platonic Ideal of Love (as well as, possibly, Love the Goddess, Aphrodite, or Love as Cupid, blind in the final line); love itself is cleaved, such that the unity of love in the hermaphroditic figure provokes the disunity of love in the poem.

And a further division springs from the figure, which is at once both the sculpture in the Louvre museum and the mythic figure that the sculpture represents; the poem’s (or its speaker’s) desire is then split once again, at once yearning for the Hermaphroditus of the myth, the person represented by the sculpture, and the sculpture itself, as a work of art. The idea would seem to be that the perfection of its unity can only be attained in art–lying as art does “between sleep and life”–and that being art, the sculpture elicits, as in Pygmalion, a desire that is both forbidden by custom and nature; the poet can only reciprocate by a work of art.

In the opening octet of the final sonnet, playing on the sculpture’s physical properties, the eyes that “never made a tear” are those of the (tearless) statue; the eyelids will never leave the eyes because the sculpture depicts Hermaphroditus asleep; the body, being stone, will not blow like a blossom. But then in the sestet, the swimmer of the myth is addressed, suspended in the water above Salamacis; Swinburne describes the events of Ovid’s narrative as if he saw them for himself.

We are invited to trace out the Ovidian implication (a reverse of Pygmalion): that the transformation from man to hermaphrodite coincided with a transformation from life to art; that the union can only be realized in art, but that as a work of art, the figure is cut off from the desire of life, and of the poet. As the boy’s breath “softened into sighs” accepting Salamacis within him, they both hardened into art. What Love being blind does not know if–the open “this” of the poem’s close–is not only the the story, the dramatic scene just described, but also the union and tension of life and art in the poem, such that Love in realizing that perfect reconciliation of desires does not see that it sunders it from desires that live.

The entire poem is propelled by the second-person imperative, anticipating Eliot’s “La Figlia Che Piange” (“Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair”), fumbling for an object, turning alternately, dizzyingly, to the one aspect and then another of what is loved, and of love itself. It is one of the purest metaphysical poems from the nineteenth century.


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