Charles Swinburne was a Victorian era English poet. His poetry was
highly controversial in its day, much of it containing recurring
themes of sadomasochism, death-wish, lesbianism and anti-Christian
was born in London, and raised on the Isle of Wight, and at Capheaton
Hall, near Wallington, Northumberland. He was associated with
the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and counted among his best friends
Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
is considered a decadent poet, albeit that he professed to perhaps
rather more vice than he actually indulged in, a fact which Oscar
Wilde notably and acerbically commented upon. Many of his early
and still admired poems evoke the Victorian fascination with the
Middle Ages, and some of them are explicitly medieval in style,
tone and construction, these representatives notably being "The
Leper," "Laus Veneris," and "St Dorothy".
was an alcoholic and a highly excitable character. His health
suffered as a result, until he finally broke down and was taken
into care by his friend Theodore Watts, who looked after him for
the rest of his life in Putney. Thereafter he lost his youthful
rebelliousness and developed into a figure of social respectability.
vocabulary, rhyme and metre arguably make him one of the best
poets of the English language; but his poetry has been criticized
as overly flowery and meaningless, choosing words to fit the rhyme
rather than to contribute towards meaning.
include: Atalanta in Calydon, Tristram of Lyonesse, Poems and
Ballads (series I, II and III -- these contain most of his more
controversial works), Songs Before Sunrise, Lesbia Brandon (novel
also wrote poems in favour of the unification of Italy. He was
a student at Balliol College, Oxford, and his work in his day
was very popular among undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge,
though today it has largely gone out of fashion. This, at least,
is the current popular and even the academic view of the decline
of Swinburne's reputation, but it contains some distortion.
fact Swinburne's Poems and Ballads, First Series and his Atalanta
in Calydon have never been out of critical favor. It was Swinburne's
misfortune that the two works, published when he was nearly 30,
soon established him as England's premier poet, the successor
to Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning. This was a position
he held in the popular mind until his death, but sophisticated
critics like A. E. Housman felt, rightly or wrongly, that the
job of being one of England's very greatest poets was beyond him.
may have felt this way himself. He was a highly intelligent man
and in later life a much-respected critic, and he himself believed
that the older a man was, the more cynical and less trustworthy
he became. Swinburne may have been one of the first people not
to trust anyone over thirty. This of course created problems for
him after he himself passed that age.
the first Poems and Ballads, Swinburne's later poetry is devoted
more to politics and philosophy. He does not utterly stop writing
love poetry, but he is far less shocking. His versification, and
especially his rhyming technique, remain masterful to the end.
He is the virtual star of the third volume of George Saintsbury's
famous History of English Prosody, and Housman, a more measured
and even somewhat hostile critic, devoted paragraphs of praise
to his rhyming ability.
Ernest Wheldrake was a fictional character invented by Swinburne,
who reviewed imaginary works by him. This was as a satire on the
spasmodic poets. Wheldrake is also a character used by Michael
Moorcock in his fiction. The band Cradle of Filth use sections
of Swinburne's The Garden of Proserpine in their song "The
Forest Whispers My Name" from the album The Principle Of
Evil Made Flesh (1994) and other of their lyrics show an influence
by their poet..