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Catherine Maxwell and Stefano Evangelista (eds), Algernon Charles Swinburne, Unofficial Laureate

Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2013, 256 p. ISBN: 978-0-7190-8625-0
Sébastien Scarpa
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Catherine Maxwell and Stefano Evangelista (eds). Algernon Charles Swinburne, Unofficial Laureate, Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2013, 256 p. ISBN: 978-0-7190-8625-0

Texte intégral

1Swinburne once admitted that ‘it is something of a juggler’s trick to squeeze into reviewing shape all one has to say of a great book’ (Spectator, 1862). As I start writing down this review, I hasten to say that I could not agree more. Algernon Charles Swinburne, Unofficial Laureate (C. Maxwell & S. Evangelista, eds.) is a remarkable work that will certainly be remembered by specialists as a landmark publication in the field of Swinburnean studies. Its unambiguous title, based on a provocative statement by Oscar Wilde, says it all: the aim was to re-evaluate, in the wake of other notable collections of essays and biographies, Swinburne’s major literary contribution. When asked who should be the next Poet Laureate after Tennyson, Wilde replied: ‘Mr. Swinburne is already the Poet Laureate of England. […] He whom all poets love is the Laureate Poet always.’ Wilde’s reply not only stresses Swinburne’s craftsmanship as a writer but also highlights, in spite of his detractors’ outraged comments, his contemporaries’ admiration for him. After a long period of critical misfortune (partly due to T. S. Eliot’s faint praise of his poetry), Swinburne’s work—as this volume clearly demonstrates—still deserves much attention and acclaim.

2This collection of essays brings together the contributions of eleven scholars, all specialised in Victorian culture and literature, whose reassessment of the poet’s work proves particularly stimulating. Organised into three sections (‘Cultural Discourse’, ‘Form’, ‘Influence’), the volume covers many interrelated aspects of the poet’s life and work, first by examining the often-underestimated role Swinburne took in public life, then by exploring the poet’s mastery of form and taste for reverberating sound-patterns, and finally by questioning Swinburne’s relationship with those who influenced him and those he influenced.

3In ‘Swinburne’s French voice: cosmopolitanism and cultural mediation in aesthetic criticism’, Stefano Evangelista deals with Swinburne’s prose work as a young literary critic. To him, Swinburne was fundamentally a passeur whose playful ‘practice of cultural mediation’ (28) indisputably promoted cosmopolitanism in Britain. From his influential 1862 essay on Baudelaire to the two hoax reviews on the bogus Félicien Cossu and Ernest Clouët which he most certainly wrote as a way to denounce ‘the pervasive power of Victorian censorship’ (28), Swinburne’s always-daring critical essays remind us that his transgressive attitude was a sign of his radical open-mindedness and constant search for aesthetic novelty. How come then the poet’s unfaltering cosmopolitanism was turned into harsh, intolerant patriotism during the Anglo-Boer War? This is the teasing question Julia F. Saville raises in ‘Swinburne’s swimmers: from insular peace to the Anglo-Boer War’. By focusing on ‘swimming scenes’ which indeed ‘proliferate in Swinburne’s corpus’ (37), Saville discusses the tension between the poet’s taste for democratic reform and his paradoxical immersion in insular dogmatism. By so doing, she manages to shed new light on the poet’s border-crossing obsession with ‘principles of freedom, equality, and communal well-being’ (36). If Swinburne’s revolutionary imagination crossed the English Channel to reach Italy, it also drew on Greek culture in a manifold way. In her essay on Swinburne’s Hellenism (‘Swinburne: a nineteenth-century Hellene’), Charlotte Ribeyrol reveals that the poet’s views on Greek antiquity were always dual, not to say oxymoronic. Ancient Greece, to him, was both an Apollonian symbol of grandeur and purity and a colourful paradigm of Dionysian vitality. This ‘Janus-like’ Hellenism was a way for the controversial author of Atalanta in Calydon and Erechtheus to attract his readers’ attention beyond the ideal, immaculate classicism of Victorian culture. In the last essay of the first section (‘“A juggler’s trick”? Swinburne’s journalism 1857–75’), Laurel Brake tackles the neglected question of Swinburne’s publication practices describing the figure of a provocative—but fully engaged—man of letters whose journalistic writings helped shape and vitalise the press throughout the Victorian era.

4In ‘Metrical discipline: Algernon Swinburne on “The Flogging-Block”’, the first essay in the section dealing with form, Yopie Prins examines ‘Algernon’s algolagnia’ and convincingly—though not without humour—argues that metrical discipline is necessarily to be associated with corporal discipline in the work of a poet whose posterior suffered repeated punishment on ‘Eton’s notorious flogging block’ (96). According to her, Swinburne’s poetic performance actually ‘turns the bottom into a surface for inscription of metre, figured as rhythmic beating of the body and literalised in lines written on the page’ (100). The poet’s obsessive use of repetitions and onomatopoeias—which almost seem to function as a system of scansion (‘Swish! Oh! Swish! Oh!’)—certainly demonstrates that sexuality, whether orthodox or perverse, actually shapes verse, and vice versa. If Swinburne was second to none when it came to wreathing roundels, the brilliancy of the poet’s phrasing is clearly a stimulus to Herbert F. Tucker who insightfully shows how close attention paid to formal structure can reveal the essence of Swinburne’s centripetal poetry. In ‘What goes around: Swinburne’s A Century of Roundels’, Tucker suggests we listen to Swinburne’s poetic ‘reverberations’ as ‘performed rediscoveries of the unexpected’ (131). Along the eleven-line loops of his spellbinding roundels, the poet’s words systematically play out ‘the dialectic of sameness with difference’ (130). Caught in the ‘compulsive machinery’ (135) of these poems, sense therefore becomes intense, immeasurable, immense, and forever ‘fitful with supreme suspense’ (Swinburne, ‘Plus Intra’). In other words, the lines of the verse are somehow turned into lines of flight opening up spaces for conjecture in the midst of mere clusters of signs. Does this mean that they also represent desire lines, unexpected circuitous paths, unforeseen shortcuts boosting the circulation of poetic voices? This is what Marion Thain demonstrates in ‘Desire lines: Swinburne and lyric crisis’. In ‘On an Old Roundel’, Thain argues, Swinburne manages to bind Villon’s and Rossetti’s voices through a circular rhyme scheme suggesting a multilayered song sung by different singers ‘at overlapping intervals’ (146). By ‘writing about Villon’s voice being preserved through Rossetti’s, and his own voice preserving both’ (149), Swinburne leads the literary community further along the way to posterity and expresses a desire for plurality which dominated his entire career as a writer.

5The concluding section of the book examines the notion of influence in two different ways. The first two contributions explore Swinburne’s relationships with two of his notorious contemporaries while the last two discuss Swinburne’s own legacy and, more particularly, the various ways modernist poets responded to his influential work. Focusing on Swinburne’s ambiguous relationship with Christina Rossetti—a relationship oscillating between admiration and repulsion—, Dinah Roe (‘‘‘Good Satan”: the unlikely poetic affinity of Swinburne and Christina Rossetti’) reveals the two poets’ indebtedness towards one another, even though Swinburne’s eroticism was admittedly ‘poles apart from Christina Rossetti’s piety’ (157). In ‘Parleying with Robert Browning’, Sara Lyons demonstrates how such poems as ‘Hymn to Proserpine’ and ‘The Leper’ were aimed at parodying ‘the biases of Browning’s Christian historicism’ (190). In this perspective, Swinburne’s blasphemous recourse to the dramatic monologue becomes a way to reaffirm his uncompromising aesthetic position against Browning’s typically Victorian respectability. To finish with, Sarah Parker and Catherine Maxwell, in their respective ‘Whose muse? Sappho, Swinburne, and Amy Lowell’ and ‘Atmosphere and absorption: Swinburne, Eliot, Drinkwater’ both investigate Swinburne’s indisputable influence over modernist writers. When Sarah Parker shows the various connections linking Sappho, Swinburne and Lowell by analysing the ‘triangular “matrix” of complex cultural cross-influences’ (210) the three poets form, Catherine Maxwell presents us with yet another trio (Swinburne, Eliot, Drinkwater) in order to shed new light on Eliot’s 1920 essay on Swinburne revealing that the critic’s well-known act of self-promotion was also an act of stealth whose negative impact on the unofficial Laureate’s critical fortunes is (manifestly) only a bad memory now.

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Sébastien Scarpa, « Catherine Maxwell and Stefano Evangelista (eds), Algernon Charles Swinburne, Unofficial Laureate »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 84 Automne | 2016, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2016, consulté le 24 novembre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Sébastien Scarpa

Université Grenoble Alpes

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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