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Sara Lyons, Algernon Swinburne and Walter Pater: Victorian Aestheticism, Doubt and Secularisation

Oxford: Legenda, 2015, 300 p. ISBN: 978-1-909662-48-3
Charlotte Ribeyrol
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Sara Lyons, Algernon Swinburne and Walter Pater: Victorian Aestheticism, Doubt and Secularisation, Oxford: Legenda, 2015, 300 p. ISBN: 978-1-909662-48-3

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1150 years ago, in 1866 the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne published his controversial volume of poetry, Poems and Ballads. That same year, Walter Pater’s first periodical essay ‘Coleridge’s Writings’ appeared in The Westminster Review. The two Victorian writers had both studied at Oxford University under the tutelage of Benjamin Jowett, the Regius Professor of Greek who argued in favour of a liberal interpretation of Christianity. In spite of their common engagement with the intertwined notions of art for art’s sake, romantic hellenism, and religious doubt, Swinburne and Pater, whose works have attracted increasing critical attention over the past decade, have rarely been analyzed together. This is what Sara Lyons attempts to do in her inspiring monograph entitled Algernon Swinburne and Walter Pater: Victorian Aestheticism, Doubt and Secularisation (2015).

2The book opens with a discussion of the Victorian free-thinker John Morley’s contrasting appreciation of, on the one hand, the first collection of poems by Swinburne whom he famously dubbed ‘the libidinous laureate of a pack of satyrs’ (3) and, on the other, Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) which received Morley’s praise. This apparent inconsistency, as Lyons notes, reflects the complexity of the ‘politics of Victorian religious doubt’ which her book explores with great subtlety. But Lyons’s discussion of Morley’s unease with the stigma of immorality attached to the ‘disinterestedness’ of aestheticism is also a good example of her convincing method of analyzing Swinburne’s and Pater’s writings: combining very precise micro-readings (with a Paterian sensitivity to the etymology of key notions such as ‘disenchantment’ (2728), ‘agnosticism’, etc.) with an erudite contextualisation of the secularisation debate, she successfully manages to shed a radically new light on both well-known and under-explored texts. For this, Lyons often relies on a wealth of critical sources, whether primary or secondary, and yet her approach is always strikingly original and never derivative. This perfect balance between close textual analysis and historical and philosophical recontextualisation is certainly what makes her book such a stimulating read.

3Throughout her book Lyons is extremely careful to situate very clearly and with great conceptual precision the terms of the Victorian debate on doubt and secularisation to which Pater and Swinburne responded. If ‘secularisation’ was a Victorian concept, coined in 1851 (35), Lyons traces it back to its Latin roots and explores its historical evolution up until 20th and 21st–century interpretations, which enables her to grasp the full scope of Swinburne’s and Pater’s complex engagement with contemporary discussions of belief and doubt.

4If Lyons’s leading question is ‘what ways of imagining the secular did aestheticism enable, and in what senses did it constitute an experiment in secular aesthetics’ (2), her reading of both Swinburne and Pater goes much further in that it also offers an exploration of the works of influential Romantic forefathers and Victorian contemporaries such as Matthew Arnold, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning and George Eliot. Rather than analyzing Pater’s and Swinburne’s writings as simple critiques of Christianity, as has often been the case in recent criticism, Lyons approaches the issue of secularisation in new, dialogical terms.

5The first chapter thus explores Swinburne’s parodic and blasphemous revision of Browning’s dramatic monologues, such as ‘Cleon’ which she convincingly contrasts with Swinburne’s pagan ‘Hymn to Proserpine’, although she notes Arnold’s Empedocles on Etna may also have been a source of inspiration. Similarly, Lyons sheds a new light on Swinburne’s often discussed poem ‘The Leper’ by suggesting Browning’s ‘Prophyria’s Lover’ as a possible macabre intertext, enabling the younger poet to posit a scandalous ‘equivalence between the desire to fathom the relationship between sex and death via a woman’s corpse and the desire to fathom the nature of God’ (67).

6The following chapter offers an equally thought-provoking analysis of Swinburne’s attitude towards Tennyson into whose ‘church’ he famously claimed to have been baptized. And yet, Swinburne clearly disrupts Tennyson’s approach to grief in In Memoriam in what Lyons calls his ‘Carpe diem’ poems such as ‘Rococo’ or ‘Ilicet’ which anticipate the decadent poetics the poet Laureate so deeply rejected. This chapter offers many close, stylistic readings of such secondary poems which make it possible for the reader to grasp the complexity of Swinburne’s appropriation and subversion of Biblical language and rhythms.

  • 1 Yisrael Levin, Swinburne’s Apollo, Myth, Faith, and Victorian Spirituality, Farnham and Burlington, (...)

7Lyons’s reading of Swinburne is not, however, confined to his earlier and certainly most polemical poems. Some of his major post-1878 so-called ‘Putney’ works are equally discussed in this dialogical light as she suggests Swinburne’s ‘By the North Sea’ could also have been a parodic response to In Memoriam. In bridging the earlier and later Swinburne poems, Lyons partly follows Yisrael Levin who recently dedicated a book1 to the poet’s Apollonian inspiration, although her contextual approach to Swinburne’s ‘Atheistic sublime’ (95)—which she claims was the poet’s ‘remedy to Victorian melancholy over doubt and lost faith’ (109)—casts an even more compelling light on the poet’s aestheticism. The last section of the chapter explores Tennyson’s response to Swinburne in ‘The Last Tournament’, a poem which riposted to Tristram of Lyoness, an apology of the ‘strenuous joy’ triggered by a materialistic conception of the world and inspired by Lucretius’ De Natura Rerum.

8If the first two chapters mainly focused on Swinburne, with occasional incursions into Pater’s essays, Chapter 3 is dedicated to exploring the ‘secular, rebellious spirit’ expounded in Pater’s early aesthetic texts, such as ‘Diaphaneitè’ (1864) and his Studies in the History of the Renaissance which made some critics as indignant as Swinburne’s first volumes of poetry. This chapter offers a challenging discussion of Pater’s Hellenism in connection with his dual desire to encrypt his homosexuality as well as his secularism. Lyons resorts to a similar intertextual reading of Pater by exploring parallels between ‘Diaphaneitè’ and Thomas Carlyle’s Past and Present (1843). Just as for Swinburne, Arnold appears as another important source for Pater, not only in his indebtedness to (and to a certain extent deconstruction of) the ‘sweetness and light’ of Hellenism but also in his reading of the French medieval story of Aucassin and Nicolette, which also fascinated Swinburne. A more overt connection with Swinburne is exemplified by Pater’s reading of sacred art—in particular Botticelli’s painting—in secular terms, which was possibly inspired by Swinburne’s ‘Notes on Designs of the Old Masters at Florence’ (1868). This extremely dense and rich chapter ends with a discussion of Pater’s ‘Conclusion’ in relation to the utilitarian ethos of John Stuart Mill.

9The final chapter of the book analyzes Pater’s Marius the Epicurean in the light of George Eliot’s Romola (1863). As with Swinburne, Lyons partly bridges the gap between the young and the old Pater, without simplifying any of the ambiguities of his approach to doubt. Reading Marius through the prism of Romola, which was Pater’s favourite among Eliot’s novels, adds to the subtlety and originality of her approach to these two texts in which religious sceptics are paradoxically and ultimately celebrated as saintly figures. As Lyons rightly notes, this enabled the two writers to question what it meant to be and act as a Christian in the Victorian age.

10Lyons’s study ends with an equally inspiring analysis of the Romantic Pantheism of both Swinburne and Pater and its fin-de-siècle echoes in Swinburne’s ‘Nympholept’ (1891) on the one hand and in Pater’s Gaston de Latour (1893) on the other. At this stage, one may perhaps regret that Pater’s posthumously published Greek Studies were not part of Lyons’s stimulating discussion, especially as Pater’s essay on Demeter heralds the chthonian goddess as the ‘mater dolorosa of the ancient world’ in an interesting twist of the Victorian ‘Hellenising idiom of radiance, gaiety and sensuousness’ (239).

11However there is no doubt that Sara Lyons’s admirable monograph will prove a cornerstone in Victorian studies and will soon become invaluable to students and scholars alike working on 19th-century literature and culture.

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1 Yisrael Levin, Swinburne’s Apollo, Myth, Faith, and Victorian Spirituality, Farnham and Burlington, Ashgate, 2013.

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Charlotte Ribeyrol, « Sara Lyons, Algernon Swinburne and Walter Pater: Victorian Aestheticism, Doubt and Secularisation »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 83 Printemps | 2016, mis en ligne le 27 mai 2016, consulté le 07 juin 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Charlotte Ribeyrol

Université Paris-Sorbonne et Institut Universitaire de France

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