338. (Algernon Charles Swinburne)

The first chorus of Swinburne’s Atalanta in Calydon is by widely accepted as one of his finest achievements—susceptible, as all of Swinburne’s finest achievements are, to an analytical scrutiny that their hypnotic effects of sound could seem to render void.  Here is the Chorus:

WHEN the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces,
    The mother of months in meadow or plain
Fills the shadows and windy places
    With lisp of leaves and ripple of rain;
And the brown bright nightingale amorous        5
Is half assuaged for Itylus,
For the Thracian ships and the foreign faces,
    The tongueless vigil, and all the pain.
Come with bows bent and with emptying of quivers,
    Maiden most perfect, lady of light,        10
With a noise of winds and many rivers,
    With a clamor of waters, and with might;
Bind on thy sandals, O thou most fleet,
Over the splendor and speed of thy feet;
For the faint east quickens, the wan west shivers,        15
    Round the feet of the day and the feet of the night.
Where shall we find her, how shall we sing to her,
    Fold our hands round her knees, and cling?
O that man’s heart were as fire and could spring to her,
    Fire, or the strength of the streams that spring!        20
For the stars and the winds are unto her
As raiment, as songs of the harp-player;
For the risen stars and the fallen cling to her,
    And the southwest-wind and the west-wind sing.
For winter’s rains and ruins are over,        25
    And all the season of snows and sins;
The days dividing lover and lover,
    The light that loses, the night that wins;
And time remember’d is grief forgotten,
And frosts are slain and flowers begotten,        30
And in green underwood and cover
    Blossom by blossom the spring begins.
The full streams feed on flower of rushes,
    Ripe grasses trammel a travelling foot,
The faint fresh flame of the young year flushes        35
    From leaf to flower and flower to fruit;
And fruit and leaf are as gold and fire,
And the oat is heard above the lyre,
And the hoofed heel of a satyr crushes
    The chestnut-husk at the chestnut-root.        40
And Pan by noon and Bacchus by night,
    Fleeter of foot than the fleet-foot kid,
Follows with dancing and fills with delight
    The Mænad and the Bassarid;
And soft as lips that laugh and hide        45
The laughing leaves of the trees divide,
And screen from seeing and leave in sight
    The god pursuing, the maiden hid.
The ivy falls with the Bacchanal’s hair
    Over her eyebrows, hiding her eyes;        50
The wild vine slipping down leaves bare
    Her bright breast shortening into sighs;
The wild vine slips with the weight of its leaves,
But the berried ivy catches and cleaves
To the limbs that glitter, the feet that scare        55
    The wolf that follows, the fawn that flies.

“When the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces” suggests a hunt, but a hunt out of season; hounds would lead a hunt in the autumn. Time, then, is flowing back against the ebb of the hunting season, the autumn that led to winter; the traces of winter are the remnants of winter, and also the scent of winter, with winter the quarry that the hounds of spring will kill. The spring is violent, as well as fecund; Swinburne, Empson remarked, writes his best poetry when excited by masochism, without, Empson felt, quite realizing the problem of pain. But here the pain is apprehended and placed as one element in the elemental torrent of life returning in Spring; the Chorus does not celebrate, but witnesses the violence. Notes inform us that the “mother of months” is Artemis, Shelley’s expression for the moon; she is the hunter goddess, and she follows on from the hounds of spring and “fills,” as moonlight fills, the “shadows and windy places” of “meadows and plains.” Swinburne risks an ambiguity, the suggestion that she is mother merely in meadows and plains, or mother of months that are themselves merely in those places; the ambiguity is extinguished by the impossibility of the thought but it does let off a smoky residue, the thought that time is contained, felt to be more itself, fuller, in some places rather than another. The relation of time as Time (figured, bodied) and place as Place (a place that is more than place, capable of orienting abstractions in space) is important for Swinburne here and elsewhere; I would not want to expunge the smokiness from the poem. Why does she only fill the shadows and windy places of meadows and plains with leaves and rain? Perhaps because the spring is felt soonest away from the dank cold forest where the hounds are pursuing the traces of winter still. The leaves “lisp” because they are young and can barely speak.

“Brown bright” is, the notes say, a translation from Aeschylus, but Swinburne knows the effect will shock and be true; not bright brown, of course, but something that is somehow brown and bright, where the brightness owes to the brownness in relation to what is near, or to some other quality, perhaps the sound of the voice. It is also right for spring, where the brown of winter is bright in water catching the sun. In this poem at least, Swinburne’s eye for concrete details is superb.  “Amorous” catches at the end of the line: “Amorous for”? But the nightingale, once Philomela who was raped by her brother-in-law Tereus, is not here given an object of desire; she is prone to love, sexual love even, this being, perhaps for Swinburne, a part of the recompense she was afforded in her transformation into a bird: being able to feel such love, even after the trauma she endured, and yet not having to feel it for anyone, since it is another who could hurt her further. The myth, told in Ovid, is that King Tereus, married to Procne, sails to retrieve Philomela for his wife, and rapes her in the woods upon arrival, then cuts her tongue out to prevent her from reporting it; Philomela instead weaves a tapstery, which communicates to Procne what has happened; Procne, revenging herself upon her husband, kills her son Itylus, and serves him as a meal for Tereus, soon after fleeing with her sister; Tereus pursues; in pity, the gods transform all three into birds. Hence “the Thracian ships” (which transported Tereus) and the “foreign faces” (the Thracians who accompanied him, perhaps complicit). If Swinburne had Britain, rather than Greece, in mind, the nightingale would return in April sometime, and the word “and” in “and the bright brown nightingale amorous” suggests that it is the nightingale that seals the identity of spring as much as anything; it serves as the culminating mark of transformation, itself being a product of transformation, and the nightingale itself, or herself, bearing witness continually to the traumatic pain that the mother of months, Artemis, would have been keenest to revenge; her hounds tore Actaeon to shreds when he became a voyeur without intending it.

 Nor has the nightingale forgotten—(the later line “time remembered is grief forgotten” seems especially relevant here, that line itself suggesting three possibilities, both relevant here: that to time when it is remembered is itself a grief that had previously been forgotten; that it is possible to forget present griefs by remembering happier times; and that to remember the very existence of time is to remember a grief that oblivion, absolute unawareness of time itself, would negate; they are all relevant because the nightingale may be thought, though living through seasons, to not possess a human consciousness of time, explaining why her transformation was an act of pity; because the return of spring, the memory of what it was and the knowledge of what it could be, can represent a partial effacement of past griefs; and because the memories of Philomela are themselves grievous, and so to recall Philomela to mind is to retrieve otherwise forgotten grief)—since she is only “half assuaged” for her past; “for Itylus” is surprising since we might have thought “by” to be a more suitable word; his death and the revenge it represented was intended as an act that might assuage, but “for” asks us instead to recognize the different anger and pain that an act of extreme revenge might entail, something itself that must be assuaged; and as the final lines of the stanza progress, we see it is not Itylus alone but the entire sequence of terrible events, of which Itylus’ death is a part, for which she would be assuaged. Swinburne’s dramatic monologue in Philomela’s voice is titled “Itylus,” and in it, she mourns the boy, “the small slain body, the flowerlike face,” in the springtime, associating spring with the memory of his death. In spring, it is suggested, the violence of memory is most strongly felt; she is only “half” assuaged.

 Swinburne’s poetry does not so much inhabit an echo chamber of his preoccupations, as Tennyson’s might be said to do; instead, it is in itself, an echo chamber; echoes are its materials and medium; they are even its subject matter—or rather the somewhat limited subjects and experiences of Swinburne’s poems are, in the poems, made into echoes, and registered, treated accordingly. The recollection of Philomela is not incidental; it haunts the spring, and the arrival of Bacchus and the festivals of his followers, Maenads and Bacchanids and Bassarids, and this chorus has greater development, a more sustained arc, than many of Swinburne’s lyrics, which can be felt in how the first stanza moves to, and finds itself echoed within, the last two:

And Pan by noon and Bacchus by night,

Fleeter of food than the fleet-foot kid,

Follows with dancing and fills with delight

The Maenad and the Bassarid;

And soft as lips that laugh and hide

The laughing leaves of the trees that divide,

And screen from seeing and leave in sight

The god pursuing, the maiden hid.


The ivy falls with the Bacchanal’s hair

Over her eyebrows hiding her eyes;

The wild vine slipping down leaves bare

Her bright breast shortening into sighs;

The wild vine slips with the weight of its leaves,

But the berried ivy catches and cleaves

To the limbs that glitter, the feet that scare

The wolf that follows, the fawn that flies.

“Brown bright” is picked up into “bright breast” and “the wild vine slipping down leaves bare” gives an image of the ruin of winter, the fall of leaves, and the bare trees, as the god pursues the maiden. Within the lines themselves, the words seem to re-sound, but always, as with echoes, with a different quality: “the lips that laugh” become “laughing leaves” and “leaves” become “leave in sight,” and the laughing lips that “hide” become the maiden who is “hid.” The flickering vision is two-fold: it is what the god sees and does not see as the maiden flees from him, but it is also what the poet (and reader) sees and does not see, which is why the leaves both “screen from seeing and leave in sight.” That remarkable phrase is not paradox; it performs the glimpse afforded and denied the god; and it registers that we both see and do not see what is happening. Namely, is this an echo of the tragedy of Philomela? Is the pursuit akin to Apollo’s of Daphne, or is it playful hide-and-seek culminating in mutual erotic bliss? We cannot be more than “half assuaged” that it is the latter, but the final stanza asks us to look elsewhere, to consider instead the fall of the leaves, the fall of the vine, caught on, but only briefly, the limbs glittering with sweat; it is a transformation of the seasons, made erotic and potentially violent; and it is erotic violence (whether consensual or not, there is violence permitted; Empson’s sense of Swinburne is useful again) made natural. Empson is probably correct to think that this is a topic that makes for Swinburne’s best poetry, even as it is possibly  morally deranged. The final echo of the poem is the final line, returning us to the first; but now it is not the hounds on the trace of winter, but the wolf on the traces of the lamb, made something different and new by the former being scared by the feet, as well as the latter. It is an emblem for the place of the erotic violence of god and celebrant: it scares both wolf and lamb: it is neither the one or the other, but is a disruption of seasons. The start of the poem saw the hounds of spring, an unseasonable time for hounds, hunting the seasons; here we see the fall of leaves in the midst of spring as an expression of springtime’s fecundity; the world is both itself in its seasonal temporality, and in the seasonal displacement of seasons by something otherworldly.


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