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Algernon Charles Swinburne

Algernon Charles Swinburne
Swinburne aged 52
Born (1837-04-05)5 April 1837
London, England
Died 10 April 1909(1909-04-10) (aged 72)
London, England
Occupation Poet, playwright, novelist, and critic


Algernon Charles Swinburne (5 April 1837 – 10 April 1909) was an English poet, playwright, novelist, and critic. He wrote several novels, and contributed to the famous Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in every year from 1903 to 1907 and again in 1909.[1]


  • Biography 1
  • Criticism 2
  • Publications 3
  • In popular culture 4
  • Ancestry 5
  • See also 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9


Sketch of Swinburne at age 23 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Swinburne was born at 7 Chester Street, 3rd Earl of Ashburnham. He grew up at East Dene in Bonchurch on the Isle of Wight and attended Eton College 1849–53, where he first started writing poetry, and then Balliol College, Oxford 1856–60 with a brief hiatus when he was rusticated from the university in 1859 for having publicly supported the attempted assassination of Napoleon III by Felice Orsini, returning in May 1860, though he never received a degree.

He spent summer holidays at Capheaton Hall in Northumberland, the house of his grandfather, Sir John Swinburne, 6th Baronet (1762–1860) who had a famous library and was President of the Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle upon Tyne. Swinburne considered Northumberland to be his native county, an emotion memorably reflected in poems like the intensely patriotic 'Northumberland', 'Grace Darling' and others. He enjoyed riding his pony across the moors (he was a daring horseman) 'through honeyed leagues of the northland border'. He never called it the Scottish border.

Swinburne caricatured by 'Ape' In Vanity Fair in 1874

In the years 1857–60, Swinburne became one of Lady Pauline Trevelyan's intellectual circle at Wallington Hall and after his grandfather's death in 1860, would stay with William Bell Scott in Newcastle. In 1861 Swinburne visited Menton on the French Riviera to recover from his excessive use of alcohol, staying at the Villa Laurenti.[2] From Menton Swinburne travelled to Italy, where he journeyed extensively.[2] In December 1862, Swinburne accompanied Scott and his guests, probably including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, on a trip to Tynemouth. Scott writes in his memoirs that as they walked by the sea, Swinburne declaimed the as yet unpublished 'Hymn to Proserpine' and 'Laus Veneris' in his lilting intonation, while the waves 'were running the whole length of the long level sands towards Cullercoats and sounding like far-off acclamations'.

At Oxford Swinburne met several Pre-Raphaelites, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He also met William Morris. After leaving college he lived in London and started an active writing career, where Rossetti was delighted with his 'little Northumbrian friend', probably a reference to Swinburne's diminutive height—he was just five foot four.[3]

His poetic works include: Atalanta in Calydon (1865), Poems and Ballads (1866), Songs before Sunrise (1871), Poems and Ballads Second Series, (1878) Tristram of Lyonesse (1882), Poems and Ballads Third Series (1889), and the novel Lesbia Brandon (published posthumously in 1952).

Poems and Ballads caused a sensation when it was first published, especially the poems written in homage of Sappho of Lesbos such as "Anactoria" and "Sapphics": Moxon and Co. transferred its publication rights to John Camden Hotten.[4] Other poems in this volume such as "The Leper," "Laus Veneris," and "St Dorothy" evoke a Victorian fascination with the Middle Ages, and are explicitly mediaeval in style, tone and construction. Also featured in this volume are "Hymn to Proserpine", "The Triumph of Time" and "Dolores (Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs)".

Swinburne's gravestone
Swinburne's grave at St. Boniface Church, Bonchurch, Isle of Wight, pictured in 2013

Swinburne devised the poetic form called the MacDonald sisters] will find something to like among a hundred poems of nine lines each, twenty-four of which are about babies or small children". Opinions of these poems vary between those who find them captivating and brilliant, to those who find them merely clever and contrived. One of them, A Baby's Death, was set to music by the English composer Sir Edward Elgar as the song Roundel: The little eyes that never knew Light.

Swinburne was an alcoholic and algolagniac, and a highly excitable character. His health suffered as a result, and in 1879 at the age of 42 he was taken into care by his friend Theodore Watts, who looked after him for the rest of his life at The Pines, 11 Putney Hill, Putney SW15.[5] Thereafter he lost his youthful rebelliousness and developed into a figure of social respectability. It was said of Watts that he saved the man and killed the poet. Swinburne died at the Pines,[6] on 10 April 1909 at the age of 72 and was buried at St. Boniface Church, Bonchurch on the Isle of Wight.


Swinburne is considered a poet of the decadent school,[7] although he perhaps professed to more vice than he actually indulged in; Oscar Wilde stated that Swinburne was "a braggart in matters of vice, who had done everything he could to convince his fellow citizens of his homosexuality and bestiality without being in the slightest degree a homosexual or a bestialiser."[8]

Many critics consider his mastery of A. E. Housman, a more measured and even somewhat hostile critic, had great praise for his rhyming ability:

[Swinburne] possessed an altogether unexampled command of rhyme, the chief enrichment of modern verse. The English language is comparatively poor in rhymes, and most English poets, when they have to rhyme more than two or three words together, betray their embarrassment. They betray it, for instance, when they write sonnets after the strict Petrarchian rule: the poetical inferiority of most English sonnets, if compared with what their own authors have achieved in other forms of verse, is largely though not entirely the result of this difficulty. [...] To Swinburne the sonnet was child’s play: the task of providing four rhymes was not hard enough, and he wrote long poems in which each stanza required eight or ten rhymes, and wrote them so that he never seemed to be saying anything for the rhyme’s sake.[11]
Painting by William Bell Scott

Swinburne's work was once quite popular among undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge, though today it has gone out of fashion. This is at least somewhat contextual, as it tends to mirror the popular and academic consensus regarding his work, although his Poems and Ballads, First Series and his Atalanta in Calydon have never been out of critical favour. Atalanta in Calydon in particular has been lauded as one of his best early works, written in 1865, before the passionate excesses of later works earned him a sordid reputation for blasphemy and depravity among contemporary critics.[12]

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 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.

After the first Poems and Ballads, Swinburne's later poetry is devoted more to philosophy and politics (notably, in favour of the unification of Italy, particularly in the volume Songs before Sunrise). He did not stop writing love poetry entirely (including his great epic-length poem, Tristram of Lyonesse), but the content is much less shocking. His versification, and especially his rhyming technique, remain in top form to the end.

T. S. Eliot read Swinburne's essays on the Shakespearean and Jonsonian dramatists in The Contemporaries of Shakespeare and The Age of Shakespeare and Swinburne's books on Shakespeare and Jonson. Writing on Swinburne in 'The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism', Eliot said, of Swinburne, he had mastered his material, writing 'he is more reliable to them than Hazlitt, Coleridge, or Lamb: and his perception of relative values is almost always correct'. However, Eliot judged Swinburne did not master it to the extent of being able to take liberties with it, which is everything.[13] Furthermore, Eliot disliked Swinburne's prose, about which he wrote "the tumultuous outcry of adjectives, the headstrong rush of undisciplined sentences, are the index to the impatience and perhaps laziness of a disorderly mind."[14]

H. P. Lovecraft considered that Swinburne was "the only real poet in either England or America after the death of Mr. Edgar Allan Poe."[15]


16 Cheyne Walk, home to Swinburne
Blue plaque at 16 Cheyne Walk
Blue plaque at The Pines, Putney
Verse drama
  • The Queen Mother (1860)
  • Rosamond (1860)
  • Chastelard (1865)
  • Bothwell (1874)
  • Mary Stuart (1881)
  • Marino Faliero (1885)
  • Locrine (1887)
  • The Sisters (1892)
  • Rosamund, Queen of the Lombards (1899)
  • Atalanta in Calydon (1865) — [although a tragedy, traditionally included with "Poetry"]
  • Poems and Ballads (1866)
  • Songs Before Sunrise (1871)
  • Songs of Two Nations (1875)
  • Erecthus (1876) — [although a tragedy, traditionally included with "Poetry"]
  • Poems and Ballads, Second Series (1878)
  • Songs of the Springtides (1880)
  • Studies in Song (1880)
  • The Heptalogia, or the Seven against Sense. A Cap with Seven Bells (1880)
  • Tristam of Lyonesse (1882)
  • A Century of Roundels (1883)
  • A Midsummer Holiday and Other Poems (1884)
  • Poems and Ballads, Third Series (1889)
  • Astrophel and Other Poems (1894)
  • The Tale of Balen (1896)
  • A Channel Passage and Other Poems (1904)
  • William Blake: A Critical Essay (1868, new edition 1906)
  • Under the Microscope (1872)
  • George Chapman: A Critical Essay (1875)
  • Essays and Studies (1875)
  • A Note on Charlotte Brontë (1877)
  • A Study of Shakespeare (1880)
  • A Study of Victor Hugo (1886)
  • A Study of Ben Johnson (1889)
  • Studies in Prose and Poetry (1894)
  • The Age of Shakespeare (1908)
  • Shakespeare (1909)
Major collections
  • The poems of Algernon Charles Swinburne, 6 vols. London: Chatto & Windus, 1904.
  • The Tragedies of Algernon Charles Swinburne, 5 vols. London: Chatto & Windus, 1905.
  • The Complete Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne, ed. Sir Edmund Gosse and Thomas James Wise, 20 vols. Bonchurch Edition; London and New York: William Heinemann and Gabriel Wells, 1925-7.
  • The Swinburne Letters, ed. Cecil Y. Lang, 6 vols. 1959-62.

In popular culture

Algernon Charles Swinburne features as the companion of Sir Richard Francis Burton in the steampunk alternative-history fiction series "Burton and Swinburne" by Mark Hodder. He first makes an appearance in The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack, as a young poet. Burton takes a liking to Swinburne, often referring to him fondly as "Algy".


See also


  1. ^ "Algernon Charles Swinburne". The Nomination Database for the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1901–1950. Nobel Foundation. Retrieved 15 February 2011. 
  2. ^ a b Ted Jones (15 December 2007). The French Riviera: A Literary Guide for Travellers. Tauris Parke Paperbacks. pp. 185–.  
  3. ^ Edmund Gosse, The Life of Algernon Swinburne, 1917 (The Macmillan Company), p. 258, cited (w/ a Google-book link) at
  4. ^ Walter M. Kendrick, "The secret museum: pornography in modern culture", University of California Press, 1996, ISBN 0-520-20729-7, p.168
  5. ^ Blue Plaques Listing for London, English Heritage, Accessed December 2009.
  6. ^ Deaths England and Wales 1837–1983
  7. ^ Alkalay-Gut, Karen (2000). "Aesthetic and Decadent Poetry", in The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry, edited by Joseph Bristow. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 228.  
  8. ^ A. C. Swinburne: Biography
  9. ^ Kellett, Ernest Edward (1969). Reconsiderations: Literary Essays. New York: Books for Libraries Press. p. 227.  
  10. ^ Thomas, Edward (1912). Algernon Charles Swinburne: A Critical Study. New York: M. Kennerley. p. 94. 
  11. ^  
  12. ^ Hyder, Clyde. Algernon Swinburne: The Critical Heritage. Retrieved 6 October 2014. 
  13. ^ Eliot T.S. Reflections on Vers Libre New Statesman 1917
  14. ^ Eliot, T. S. (1998). The Sacred Wood and Major Early Essays. Mineola NY: Dover Publications. p. 10.  
  15. ^ H.P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters: Volume 1. Sauk City: WI: Arkham House, 1965, p. 73


  • Rooksby, Rikky (1997) A C Swinburne: A Poet's Life. Aldershot: Scolar Press.
  • A modern study of his religious attitudes: Margot Kathleen Louis, Swinburne and His Gods: the Roots and Growth of an Agnostic Poetry ISBN 0-7735-0715-9
  • Jerome McGann, Swinburne: An Experiment in Criticism (1972) initiated modern Swinburne criticism.
  • Robert Peters's Crowns of Apollo ]
  • The Swinburne Letters, 6 vols., ed. Cecil Y. Lang.
  • Uncollected Letters of Algernon Charles Swinburne. 3 vols., ed. Terry L. Meyers.
  • Anonymous (1873). Cartoon portraits and biographical sketches of men of the dayC. Swinburne . Illustrated by Frederick Waddy. London: Tinsley Brothers. pp. 48–49. Retrieved 6 January 2011. 
  • Wakeling, E; Hubbard T; Rooksby, R (2008) Lewis Carroll, Robert Louis Stevenson and Algernon Charles Swinburne by their contemporaries. London: Pickering & Chatto, 3 vols.

External links

  • The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and CriticismT. S. Eliot, "Swinburne as Critic" in Eliot's essay "Imperfect Critics", collected in , 1922.
  • The Swinburne Project: A digital archive of the life and works of Algernon Charles Swinburne. The site includes texts of Swinburne's works as well as letters and other material supplemental to Meyers, Uncollected Letters (above).
  • Works by Algernon Swinburne at Project Gutenberg (plain text and HTML)
  • Works by or about Algernon Charles Swinburne at Internet Archive
  • Works by Algernon Charles Swinburne at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
  • The Death of Rudel, a rare, posthumously published poem by Swinburne
  • Swinburne by A.E. Housman
  • No. 2. The Pines – Max Beerbohm's memoir
  • Photo of Swinburne's grave on the Isle of Wight
  • Stirnet: Swinburne02 (subscription required)
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