Charles Algernon Swinburne: Intense Device And Superflux Of Pain

Charles Algernon Swinburne aged 52

Algernon Charles Swinburne.  I was hoping to like his poetry.  I did not.  To the modern ear —or at least to this modern ear– his verse sounds like a caricature of Victorian Age poesy.  His tone is hysterical romanticism, his content full of oceans and suns and flowers and an overabundance of references to classical mythology.  What are intended to be heavings from the heart emerge, instead, as barks from the brain.  Art gives way to artifice.  The excess of feast and flood pouring down from the head trickle down to the breast as famine and drought.

Too often Algernon sells-out reason to rhyme, sacrificing exactitude for attitude, a line poignant and precise followed by some meaningless fluff and foam force-fused for the convenience of same-soundingness.

And woe is me!— the mountains of “Alas!” and “O!”  The rivers of “meseemeth!”  The ever-blossoming perennials of “thy” and “thee!”  O, would me instead plungeth forthwith from high atop dire Tarpeian Rock!

That said…  I do try to find the diamonds in the rough-going of all poets I read— and I usually find some.  From hundreds of pages skimmed from Swinburne, I did find these gems:

From Anactoria:  “I would my love could kill thee; I am satiated/ with seeing thee live, and fain would have thee dead./ I would earth had thy body as fruit to eat, / and no mouth but some serpent’s found thee sweet. /  I would find grievous ways to have thee slain, / intense device, and superflux of pain; / vex thee with amorous agonies, and shake / life at thy lips, and leave it there to ache; / strain out thy soul with pangs too soft to kill. / intolerable interludes, and infinite ill.”

From Hertha:  “I am that which began; / out of me the years roll; / out of me God and man; / I am equal and whole; / God changes, and man, and the form of them bodily; I am the soul. //  before ever land was, / before ever the sea, / or soft hair of the grass, / or fair limbs of the tree, / or the flesh-colored fruit of my branches, I was, and thy soul was in me.”

and..  “but the Gods of your fashion / that take and that give, / in their pity and passion / that scourge and forgive, / they are worms that are bred in the bark that falls off; they shall die and not live.”

and also…  “where dead ages hid under / the live roots of the tree. / in my darkness the thunder / makes utterance of me; / in the clash of my boughs with each other ye hear the waves sound of the sea.”


And the man could sometimes turn a phrase:

“a little soul for a little bears up this corpse which is man”

“ah beautiful passionate body / that never has ached with a heart!”  (Funny, I didn’t know he knew my ex)


So, another poet down.  Only about a hundred more to read.  In a way, with so much to read and so little time, part of me is relieved to find a poet that I don’t have to pursue farther.  So long, Al.  Alas, methinks twasn’t in the stars for thee and me!


“as the weed in last year’s waves are we”


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