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Veronica Forrest-Thomson

Swinburne as Poet: a reconsideration

(an unpublished essay)

                        Yet the words sufficed
To compel the recognition they preceded

— Little Gidding

Editor’s note: Thanks to Alison Mark for researching and supplying this essay. It was probably written in 1974, a year before the author’s death. It exists in a near-final draft typescript form, and the many typing errors have been corrected silently. The author’s handwritten syllable-stress diacritical marks have no counterpart in HTML, and have been replaced by in-line typographical conventions, viz: no stress; strong stress, {undecided} stress. Elsewhere, underlining has been replaced by italic type. Endnotes are given at the end of this file. Click on the note to be taken to it; likewise to return to the text. This piece is about twenty printed pages long. — J.T.

A chronology of Swinburne’s life is available in this issue of Jacket.

A new look at Eliot’s essay on Swinburne will help the student of literature to restore Swinburne’s reputation as poet. For, although intended as dismissive, the essay in fact points to several areas where a positive analysis may begin. There are two ways to approach the subject; first, the way of indignation; second, the way of recognition. I shall take them in that order.

I Indignation

The way of indignation consists of getting angry that Eliot should condescend to Swinburne, and its method of proceeding is to take up the various accusations and demonstrate their inappropriateness. “The material, the human feeling,[...] in Swinburne’s case does not exist. The morbidity is not of human feeling but of language. Language in a healthy state presents the object, is so close to the object that the two are identified.” [Note 1] says Eliot. And without raising objections about the pejorative moral tone of “morbidity” we are justified in examining this distinction between morbidity of material — whether “human feeling” or other -and morbidity of language. “Morbidity” in this case clearly means an in-turning incestuously. Morbidity of material would be illustrated by a poem which dwelt on subjective emotions without outside reference. Morbidity of language would be one in which the words refer to nothing outside themselves, where the “object”, as Eliot says, has disappeared and the poet lives entirely among words. [Note 2] This distinction between language and object is very dubious when applied to any poetry. It is especially dubious when applied to poetry such as Swinburne’s when theme and form constantly intermingle to modify each other, where language and the object change positions in relation to each other. The change of positions and intermingling does not mean that form and theme are not separable.
       The three opening stanzas of “The Triumph of Time” illustrate their
mutual progression:

Before our lives divide for ever,
       While time is with us and hands are free,
(Time swift to fasten and swift to sever
       Hand from hand, as we stand by the sea)
I will say no word that a man might say
Whose whole life’s love goes down in a day;
For this could never have been; and never,
       Though the gods and the years relent, shall be.

Is it worth a tear, is it worth an hour
       To think of things that are well outworn ?
Of fruitless husk and fugitive flower,
       The dream foregone and the deed foreborne ?
Though joy be done with and grief be vain,
Time shall not sever us wholly in twain;
Earth is not spoilt for a single shower;
       But the rain has ruined the ungrown corn.

It will grow not again, this fruit of my heart,
       Smitten with sunbeams, ruined with rain.
The singing seasons divide and depart,
       Winter and summer depart in twain.
It will grow not again, it is ruined at root,
The bloodlike blossom, the dull red fruit;
Though the heart yet sickens, the lips yet smart,
       With sullen savour of poisonous pain. [Note 3]

I have italicised those pronouns and phrases which refer to the subject of  these stanzas — what Eliot would call the material. It will be observed that, though few words refer directly to unknown referents outside the poem, these words are very important ones; they are both exact — “it” “this” — and vague — “things”. All such direct references are immediately dwelt on by the reader seeking the stanzas’ theme. Moreoever the rest of the lines explain and expand these references by using adjectival phrases and subordinate clauses which tell the reader to look for explanation within the poem itself. Thus the words that seem to refer to  unknown objects or themes outside the poem are in fact brought within it as its structure develops.
       But this is far from incestuous morbidity; it illustrates an oscillation rather between words which point to outside referents and an explanation of these words by inside referents.
  The first stanza contains a temporal progression from the present to the future; remarks before separation and a look at what will happen after. Definition of the present situation involves a look at the past and a prediction of the future based on both past and present. This does not look much like morbidity either of material or of language unless we consider it morbid to write about unrequited love. It demonstrates, rather, a very dynamic interaction between theme and form; the complicated stanza form and metre being used as agents in the creation of additional connotations to add to the meanings of words. In the first stanza, for example, “never” as a repeated word within a single line calls up the previous rhyme-words “ever” and “sever”. So that the line, “For this could never have been; and never” sums up the theme of loss. The line rhymes with “Before our lives divide for ever” and “(Time swift to fasten and to sever” on the thematic level as well as in the obvious rhyme scheme. This is partly the outcome of the rhyme-scheme used, for it has the effect of suspending the reader’s attention until the end as he waits for the final closing rhyme. The three lines with the same rhyme make up a poem of their own where the major themes appear in little:

Before our lives divide for ever,
(Time swift to fasten and swift to sever
For this could never have been; and never

Such an arrangement is elliptical but it contains the theme of the poem and even its stress on temporal progression.
       The same thing is not entirely true of the other rhyme patterns in this first stanza; they do not make sense when extracted.

While time is with us and hands are free
Hand from hand as we stand by the sea
Though the gods and the years relent, shall be

is incomprehensible without the rest of the stanza. While

I will say no word that a man might say
Whose whole life’s love goes down in a day

contains only a part of the thematic statement.
      The “ever — sever — never” group of lines, then, operates the widest breadth of co-operation between rhyme and theme. This is partly the result of the chracteristics the stanza form. With a rhyme-scheme of ababccab, the a rhymes start the suspense moving across several lines and establish a network to which the poem returns. It would be posssible to do the same thing with the b rhymes, and indeed the second stanza’s “outworn — foreborne — ungrown corn” does this. The c rhymes form a unit on their own like the final couplet of a Shakespearean sonnet only here included in the body of the stanza. In a sense these c rhymes end the first movement of the stanza which begins again with ab repeated. Thus the suspense seems to be resolved only to be resumed.
       Such a movement of stanza is particularly suited to the theme of alternation between past and present, hope, and despair which it is the poem’s business to present. The mind finds certainty only to have it displaced by a new development which is yet a return of the old and this suggests the brooding of the mind on every different aspect from which the situation may be viewed. Thus we see one way in which the deployment of a rhyme-scheme may be used to help make a thematic point or rather to indicate the attitude to the theme as stated in the words. For this is one of the main uses of non-meaningful levels of poetic organisation: they indicate the attitude the reader is to adopt to the theme. Byron’s use of comic rhyme in “Don Juan”, for instance, tells us that we are not to take the action too seriously; whereas the weight of the Spenserian stanza in “The Fairie Queen” tells us the reverse. Stylistic arrangement tells the reader how the author is expecting him to react to the theme.
       In the second stanza the succession of equivalents for “things that are well outworn” matches the suspension of theme across the grid of the rhyme-scheme. “Fruitless husk and fugitive flower” pick up the a rhyme while the b rhyme returns in “The dream forgone and the deed foreborne”. Moroever both these rhymes are variants of an assonance in o which makes them resemble as well as differ from, each other. So that the equivalence is maintained in the rhyme-scheme. We can try the same experiment with stanza one and rewrite each of the rhyme lines as poems in themselves. First the a rhymes:

Is it worth a tear, is is it worth an hour
Of fruitless husk and fugitive flower
Earth is not spoilt for a single shower;

This does not stand as a poem on its own; the connections between the statements are too uncertain. The connection between the first two lines could be that in Swinburne’s piece but it could equally mean “an hour of fruitless husk and fugitive flower spent”. Similarly the “single shower” of the third line could be such a fruitless hour. The lines could be read as expressing a contrast between the “single shower” and the “fruitless husk” but also as expressing an identity between them. Without the intervening lines we cannot tell.
       The b rhymes make a more coherent short poem:

To think of things that are well outworn
The dream foregone and the deed foreborne
But the rain has ruined the ungrown corn

The last line is not clearly connected with the first two but these two are quite unambiguously connected; the equivalence between “things” and “the dream foregone and the deed foreborne” is firmly established. Once more, however, the third line of a group of three rhyme lines shows a gap which can only be filled by putting the lines back in their original context. The c rhymes in the couplet when taken out of context suggest an interpretation which is opposite that of their thematic intention:

Though joy be done with and grief be vain,
Time shall not sever us wholly in twain,

This implies a reasonably optimistic viewpoint whereas what Swinburne wants to suggest is that time will sever him and his beloved wholly because it is a love that never found its earthly close and therefore has no sequel and “the rain has ruined the ungrown corn”.
       All this goes to show how the thematic modulations in the stanzas are helped out and even insisted on by the complicated rhyme scheme with its suspensions of conclusion and final statement until the last line. The anapaestic metre also helps this because it requires a long stretch of language in which to establish itself, having three stresses to accomodate instead of the iambic two. It is therefore an expansive metre which spreads itself over several lines instead of finishing each line and starting afresh. Such a movement also suspends conclusion and leads to a brooding build-up of rhythm in which the theme is presented from several different angles but where these angles are held together by the metrical continuity.
       Anapaests, moreover, can be used for speed or slowness, for lightness or weight. Speed, for instance, is observable in the polysyllabic “fruitless husk and fugitive flower”, “The dream foregone and the deed foreborne”; and slowness is observable in the monosyllabic “Is it worth a tear, is it worth an hour”. But while weight belongs to the polysyllabic feet, lightness belongs to the monosyllables so that each pair of qualities — speed/slowness, lightness/weight” — can be observed separately; speed doesn’t equal lightness nor slowness, weight. Hence the movement of the poem’s theme between hope or the evocation of past happpiness and present despair finds its analogy in the metre. But we can only perceive the analogy if we are able to see the levels of theme, stanza form and metre as distinct in their operations and not dependent on each other. Each of the three has its own job to do in organising the poem as a whole. This is not the way morbid language would work, which talked only of its own operations and allowed no foothold for the distinction between different kinds of relation between words and the non-verbal world to be perceived.
       Similarly the dynamics of development between the might-have-been theme and the present despair show that far from “ceasing to exist” the object — in Eliot’s sense of “human material” or subject or theme — is very much present in the verse and modifies it. We have remarked the effect of the suspended rhyme scheme in introducing parentheticial alternatives to the stated theme of despair. In the second stanza, for example, the c rhyming couplet — “Though joy be done with and grief be  vain / Time shall not sever us wholly in twain” — sounds optimistic amid the surrounding pessimism. Of course Eliot could say that this is just a loose use of language resulting from Swinburne’s lack of attention to detail. Eliot does say that “so little material as appears to be employed in The Triumph of Time should release such an amazing number of words, requires what there is no reason to call anything but genius.” [Note 4] This statement shows in what restricted a sense he is using the word “material”; he means simply the overall theme of unrequited love. If, on the other hand, we consider the material line by line without prejudice we can see the kind of variations from line to line that are typified by the example just given. These alter the material or object while they present it in interaction with the formal pattern. So that the object or theme is not turned in on itself in a perpetual tautology in which the human feelings have ceased to exist and the poet lives entirely among words.
       The third stanza quoted above reaches on of those climaxes which are important points in the structure of the whole poem, A particular aspect of the theme having been presented in several ways is allowed to expand over a whole summarising stanza before the next aspect is brought forward. The contrast between hope and despair is still present and is extended to include the change of the seasons. The harvest metaphor reaches its climax in the “bloodlike blossom” which is the last harvest. Explanatory metaphors for “this” “it” “things” are now superabundant so that the reader is made certain what is being talked about. The choice of metaphors shows the reader what attitude the poem asks him to adopt towards the theme. “Smitten with sunbeams, ruined with rain”, for example, show that there is no room for the feelings presented in the poem in any natural context: “Bloodlike blossom” and “sullen savour of poisonous pain” identify the feelings as a taste and raise them thus to a higher degree of immediacy after the long perspective of the “singing seasons”; these phrases also reflect back on their previous equivalents “fruitless husk and fugitive flower” characterising these as greater than their literal natural referents.
       These operations of language are more subtle and delicate in their adjustments of phrase to phrase than many poems where a simpler interaction between theme and structure is observed but they are not different in kind. And if we call the simpler instances deep in feeling and fresh in language there is no need to deny Swinburne these qualities. An example of the simpler kind of interaction would be Hardy’s “The Voice”:

Woman much missed , how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first , when our day was fair .

Can it be you that I hear ? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes , as I knew you then,
Even to the original air -blue gown ! [Note 5]
[Handwritten syllable stress indicators have been replaced by in-line typographical conventions, viz: no stress; strong stress, {undecided} stress.]

These first two stanzas maintain an even emotional rhythm which contrasts with Swinburne’s sudden changes of pace. Their choice of words is correspondingly simple, lacking the tension between polysyllables and monosyllables observed in the stanzas from “The Triumph of Time”. This is matched by the metre where, however, intricate use of trochees and dactyls gives a song-like quality to the verse. I have marked the scansion and it will be seen that anapaests are present as a reverse way of reading the dactyls; the first syllables of “Woman” for example could be taken as extra-metrical giving two opening anapaests “an much missed , how you call ”. But the repetition of “call to me” in its dactylic form makes a continuous anapaestic reading imposssible, and the stress dactyls in the following lines makes it clearly inappropriate. This pattern is then repeated almost exactly throughout the other lines. Having found a metre and rhythm to fit the theme exactly there is no reaching after greater effects or subtleties and indeed these would destroy the poem’s lyrical directness.
       There is still, however, distance between the simplicity of the diction and the formality of the stanza form. Indeed such distance is always present in poetry neither totally nonsense nor written entirely in the form of prose. It allows the reader into the poem by helping him to distinguish what is being said from the way in which it is being said — a distinction which is an essential step in all reading of poems even if we go on to say that what is a said is ultimately indistinguishable from the way it is said. For if we are to talk of the interaction between form and theme we must first able to see their separation. Such a distinction has allowed me to say that the dactylic metre of “The Voice” gives it a song-like rhythm suited to its theme.
       It would be a mistake, however, to think that this quality cannot co-exist with elaboration of metaphors and formal complexity. Swinburne can always produce direct simplicity within his elaborate framework, “Is it worth a tear, is it worth an hour/ to think of things that are well outworn”, for instance, is a very direct lyric question.
       This co-existence of directness and subtlety is even more apparent in:

I have put my days and dreams out of mind,
       Days that are over, dreams that are done.
Though we seek life through, we shall surely find
       There is none of them clear to us now, not one.
But clear are these things: the grass and the sand,
Where sure as the eye reach, ever at hand,
With lips wide open and face burnt blind,
       The strong sea daisies feast on the sun. [Note 6]

The metaphor of feasting links this stanza with those that precede it where the lips of the poet have feasted on the “bloodlike blossom” but it is the link of contrast for the natural objects are clear and open to natural processes whereas the “days and dreams” are not. ‘The grass, sand, and sea-daisies resemble Hardy’s stress on the “air-blue gown” in their invocation of the world of objects. The difference lies in that the air-blue gown quietly takes its place in the world of “The Voice” whereas the relationship of Swinburne’s objects to his theme has to be stated in his poem overtly; the reader has to be told what they are doing there and their appearance is linked with earlier images such as that of feasting which I have mentioned.
       Their appearance is also linked with later images; those sea-daisies have a hidden importance; they prepare the reader for the next great symbol of the theme of despair: the sea. Thus Swinburne solves two problems at once; he anchors his verse anew in the world of objects and he prepares for the next great leap in lifting the world of objects into the dignity of his thematic preoccupations by adopting its qualities as symbols for his emotions. “You may say ‘diffuse’“, says Eliot, “but the diffuseness is essential; had Swinburne practised greater concentration his verse would be, not better in the same kind, but a different thing. His diffuseness is one of his glories.”[Note 7]] This again insists that the subject of a poem — its material — is a single thing and results from Eliot’s failure to appreciate the skill with which detail is managed in Swinburne’s work.
       What makes Eliot think Swinburne’s work diffuse? Unless we are content simply to accuse Eliot of lack of appreciation that question must be answered. I think it can be answered from the examples already given. It is Swinburne’s practice to take a general theme — in “The Triumph of Time”, unrequited love — and to view it from many different angles. In this process he uses the devices of repetition and equivalence, obscure phrases expanded and explained by later phrases, constantly and this can give an air of superficial tautology to his poems especially if we think they must be about one thing and that his returns are simply repetitions of points already made. In fact, however, each of these returns brings something new with it so that the points are constantly being enlarged and modified; new topics are hinted at, old topics are expanded. We have seen how the resolution of the first movement of despair in “The Triumph of Time” ends with an invocation of the natural world as the only thing left. But already this invocation is preparing the sea motif. And that motif links the poem with the overall symbolism of Swinburne’s world where the sea is always considered a last refuge after pain.
       This landscape or seascape of movement corresponds to the movement in the previous stanzas where a man’s life falls from hope to despair; it parallels the symbol of the changing seasons in the same stanza. Diffuseness is seen to be a way of working in different symbols for the initial situation and thus extending that situation by invoking its wider ramifications in other areas of human or natural activity. Style directs the reader’s attention to the degree of close reading appropriate to each particular poem and on this depends the degree to which the poem may be found diffuse. For, if there are no subtleties of detail corresponding to a close reading which seems to be required by the theme then we are justified in calling the poem diffuse it will have failed to support theme by form. If, however, we do find such subtleties in metre, rhythm, and the use of imagery the poem cannot validly be called diffuse; it seems diffuse only if we think of it as having a single theme and a single form. There is though an additional reason why Swinburne’s verse could seem diffuse and that is his constant use of anapaests. Anapaests can give a great deal of speed to rhythm and, unless the reader look very closely at how each individual anapaest is formed or varies into another kind of foot, he will be in danger of being swept along and thus once again failing to take account of detailed modifications in the poem.
       But Swinburne’s management of metre guards against this sweeping process. And one may often find on the level of meaning an indication that metrical modification is to be expected. Thus in the last stanza quoted, after the surge of anapaests in the first two lines, spondees, dactyls, and iambs begin to appear. Using conventional scansion the lines would scan:

I have put my days and dreams out of mind ,
       Days that are over, dreams that are done .
Though we seek life {through}, we shall surely find
       There is none of them clear to us now, {not} one.
But clear are {these} things; the grass and the sand,
Where , sure as the eyes reach, ever at hand,
{With} lips {wide} open and face burnt blind,
       The strong sea daisies feast on the sun.                           (6)
[Handwritten syllable stress indicators have been replaced by in-line typographical conventions, viz: no stress; strong stress, {undecided} stress.]

[The present editor feels that “ever at hand” should be scanned “ever at hand”; the author’s indicated scansion “ever at hand ” may be unintentional. J.T.]

The anapaests are still there, of course, but the number of spondees — / / [two successive stressed syllables] — and uncertainly stressed words — [marked {thus}]— increases as the stanza progresses. I am suggesting that as Swinburne wants to suggest the world external to his emotions in the poem he increases deviation from his anapaestic metre. Exhaustive analysis would be necessary to prove this but the example above is sufficient to show one more instance of creative collaboration between the level of form and the level of thematic intention. This provides for variety on the metrical level even while the verse may seem semantically diffuse.
Diffuse can be a word of condemnation only if we think in terms of object and language as separable elements in poetry so that language is considered solely in in respect to its reference to the external objective world. Otherwise diffuseness is a stylistic trait like any other with no pejorative connotations and Swinburne’s diffuseness is the result of letting the operations of his verse become apparent by spreading instead of concentrating his several techniques. This is not to say that Swinburne writes only about writing or that his language is “morbidly” inturned. He uses the referential meaning of words as well as their sounds and shapes in part as a technique for organising his poem.
       Another of Eliot’s objections can help to shed some light on the question
of diffuseness:

“There lived a singer in France of old
       By the tideless, dolorous midland sea,
In a land of sand and ruin and gold
       There shone one woman and none but she.

You see that Provence is the merest point of diffusion here. Swinburne defines the place by the most general word which has for him its own value. ‘Gold’, ‘ruin’, ‘dolorous’; it is not merely the sound that he wants, but the vague association of idea that the words give him.” (7) Indeed Provence can only be thought of as a mere point of departure if we smuggle in external knowledge about the legend of Jaufré Rudel; Swinburne is not talking about Provence; he is talking about “France of old” — a vague place but deliberate in its placing of his language, like beginning a story with “once upon a time” the phrase tells us how much exactitude to expect from the poem; it signals to the reader that the exactitude will not be geographical but emotional. In this it is very far from pejoratively diffuse; it shows that the stanza will be vague about place but exact about emotion. Only in some aspects is the association of idea given by the words vague. “Tideless” and “dolorous” are placed together not only because of their similarity of sound but also because “tideless” would not on its own suggest melancholy. Similarly ,with the addition of “ruin” to “land” “sand “ and “gold”; ruin tells us in what aspect the land, sand, and gold are to be regarded in the poem. The effect is an accumulation round the landscape of attitudes towards it as symbol for the melancholy way in which the story is introduced in the poem. It is a sad story — the lover who sees his beloved but once before he dies — here, however, it is used paradoxically as the type of a happy love compared with that of the poet.
       Swinburne then brings the emotions by the initial sadness of the story into contact with the death of love theme in the whole of “The Triumph of Time”. This begins as early as the first stanza which Ebiot quotes; “singer” tells us that the lover is a symbol for the poet himself; while “shone”, standing out as it does from the language of the generalised description, shows the power of the lady as symbol of life and beauty. The rest of the three stanzas telling the story continue this process:

And finding life for her love’s sake fail,
Being fain to see her, he bade set sail,
Touched land and saw her as life grew cold,
       And praised God, seeing; and so died he.

Died, praising God for his gift and grace:
       For she bowed down to him weeping, and said
       “live”; and her tears were shed on his face
       Or ever the life in his face was shed.
The sharp tears fell through her hair, and stung
Once, and her close lips touched him and clung
Once, and grew one with his lips for a space;
       And so drew back , and the man was dead.

O brother, the gods were good to you.
       Sleep, and be glad while the world endures.
Be well content as the years wear through;
       Give thanks for life, and the loves and lures;
Give thanks for life, O brother, and death,
For the sweet last sound of her feet, her breath,
For gifts she gave you, gracious and few,
       Tears and kisses, that lady of yours.

Rest, and be glad of the gods; but I
       How shall I praise them, or how take rest? [...]
Love will not come to me now though I die,
       As love came close to you, breast to breast [Note 8]

The economy with which the narrative action is presented is helped of course by the fact of its simplicity but also by the weight such words as “death” “sleep” “love” “rest” have acquired by this stage in the poem. The extreme condensation of “Give thanks for life O brother, and death” is only possible to understand if the snowball quality of these words is noted. It sounds paradoxical but in the system of alliance and opposition the poem has built up life is not exclusive of death; they complete each other in a happy love. The line does not strike a discordant note, then, as it would if the poem were really diffuse; it is rather a climactic point for which the previous stanzas have been preparing. The words stigmatised as vague and general have a particularity of their own acquired during the interaction between form and theme we have begun to examine. In order to take this examination further we shall switch our view of Eliot’s remarks from the way of indignation to the way of recognition.

II Recognition

In Swinburne’s case, Eliot claims, the object has ceased to exist “because the meaning is merely the hallucination of meaning”. [Note 9] In this statement we have a clue as to how the special effects of Swinburne’s verse are obtained. As usual help is gained from looking at the metrical and formal level. In this case we come to the fact that anapaests are most usually obtained by using many adverbial and adjectival phrases; there is thus more of these phrases in the verse than in other kinds of poetry and prose. Now, when meaning works in the ordinary way to lead into a communication about the non-verbal world the grammar stresses nouns and verbs; there are more nouns and verbs in dominant positions than there are other parts of speech. If this process is reversed so that the other parts of speech are continually being brought to the reader’s attention strange things begin to happen when we try to make such poetry correspond to the non-verbal world. I do not mean that nouns and verbs are not stressed in Swinburne’s poetry; most commonly they are the words which take the strongest metrical stress. Simply, the fact of there being so many adjectives and prepositions and adverbs endemic to the construction of the stanza, rhythm, and metre makes us more aware of them than we normally are. In the Jaufre Rudel stanzas quoted above, for instance, “By the tideless dolorous midland sea” “In a land of sand and ruin and gold”, among many other lines and phrases illustrate this process. The stresses still come on nouns for the most part but the stress on “tideless” and “dolorous” brings adjectives into prominence especially as these two words express the melancholy mood of the stanza. But the increase in number of unstressed prepostitional phrases indicating place tells the reader that exactitude of place is not important as the phrases are vague.
       In Swinburne’s work as a whole many adjectives are used as nouns and many nouns as adjectives. In the stanzas quoted above, for example, “Give thanks for life and the loves and lures” “loves and lures” are more important as characterising what is meant by the word “life” than as nouns on their own. Similarly, “For the sweet last sound of her feet her breath” puts prominence on “sweet last” and devalues the meaning of “sound” for it is essential that we do not take the meaning of “sound” so seriously and literally as to apply it to “breath” or we shall get an idea of her panting all over her lover. If the line were to read “For the sweet last of her feet her breath” it would still be intelligible for “last” would be taken as a noun. “Life” and “death”  are often used with adjectival force to suggest the salient characteristics of the group of words they modify. “Life” in the first of the stanzas quoted above has this force; it means, not life in general, but “vitality” as the repetition “as life grew cold” shows. And this wider use permeates the stanzas as a whole. Adverbs define place and position; adjectives define characteristics and qualities. When nouns are used as adjectives they do not, as adjectives do, qualify a single noun or group of nouns; rather they qualify general ideas spread over a wider area. “Life”, for example, in the stanzas quoted points to the emergence of a certain theme which it characterises; it is not opposed to death or non-life as it would be if it were an ordinary noun; it is part of the “death/life” theme where each of these terms presupposes the other.
       Similarly adjectives when used as nouns tend to make the characterisics they define stand out as single and sole entities. “Sweet last” in the stanzas quoted stands out as greater than a qualification of “sound”; the words refer to a complex of ideas which is more general; they sum up the mood of the whole episode. The incidence of verbs in adjectival positions is also important. We find “finding” “being fain to” “seeing” “praising” “weeping” and “shed”. These participial forms take away from the sense of action and lead to a concentration on the sense of continuous states which also feeds the more general implications of the thematic words. The participial forms are in very prominent positions just after the introduction of the “singer” or just after commas at points where the narrative rests for an expansion of the stage reached. Of even the transitive verbs several occur in isolation from their normal object and continue this state of intransitivity where the normal relations between process and object are suspended. “Stung” “clung” and even “grew one” have this effect.
       Thus nouns adjectives and verbs all combine to produce an effect very like Eliot’s “hallucination of meaning” in which each part of speech exists on its own with its own special relation to the theme and only through the theme is connected with each other part of speech. This is different from the normal case in which the theme emerges from the relation among parts of speech. It makes Swinburne’s themes extremely important grammatical devices and thus increases their dynamic quality. Characteristics and states being more important than referents and actions obviously the themes will tend towards a meditative brooding. The relations between objects and ideas are more important than the fact that they exist so that there is some truth in Eliot’s remark that the object has ceased to exist; it is at any rate less important than its place in the general thematic structure. One of the results of this is an accumulation of importance round certain words key to the themes, “love” “death” “soul” which have no certain referent outside the poem but rather form the subject of its meditation. These words which might be supposed to be vague in meaning in fact perform a very precise formal function. They are kept vague, in the manner mentioned above, so that they can perform this function. In the Juafré Rudel stanzas, for example, as soon as the word “love” appears the reader is aware of the significance of the narrative because of the associations accumulated around love in the previous parts of the poem, of the fact that the story is an allegory or exemplum in the poem’s meditation on love and death.
       Each of these words tends to throw up the others; love provokes death and death, life until the extremely condensed “Give thanks for life, O brother, and death”. That line is not quite so paradoxical as it would be normally however for the nouns are used as thematic adjectives and the area of theme to which each refers is not so different as the difference between life and death in another context. The phrase leads onto the next three lines which also show a typical Swinburne manoeuvre. We have noted part of this in the independence of “sweet last”. “Sweet” is a crucial adjective in “The Triumph of Time” as in Swinburne’s work as a whole; it occurs in the climactic passage “I shall never be friends again with roses / I shall loathe sweet tunes where a note grown strong” where we shall examine it in more detail. Here suffice it to say that “sweet” means more than the opposite of “bitter”. In its proximity to “last” it says that sweet things are always last in the world of the poem and last things in this story always sweet. “Sweet” is one of those key words where lexical exactness is out of place because they form part of the theme on which the poem is meditating and where great exactness would militate against their power to control the vague associations of general words. It is precisely the meaning of such words that is questioned in the poem.
       Moreover, this uncertainty of meaning often feeds back — as in the rhyme “death / breath” — through the words which rhyme with these “topic” words into the rest of the line. The extent to which this feedback is present helps the reader to determine how much meaning is appropriate in each instance. More exact meaning, for instance, is required of “tears and kisses” “gracious and few” than is required of breath. There is a more explicit paradox in the first two phrases than in “Give thanks for life, O brother, and death” and one of the ways we know this is the lack of full meaning in “sound... of her breath”, The words whose meaning we must think about in greater precision perform a highlighting function opposite to that of the “topic” words. While the latter indicate an attenuation of meaning and dominance of formal structuring requirements the former represent dominance of meaning. The opposition is not complete, however, for none of the words is meaningless and none is without its part in the formal pattern.
       Swinburne, says Eliot, “is concerned with the meaning of the word in a peculiar way; he employs, or rather ‘works’ the word’s meaning.” [Note 10] This is very true as I have been trying to show above. Swinburne works the meanings of words by using them as part of a technique of selection which will show how much meaning each particular group of words is to carry and thus how much of the theme is present at each particular stage: whether it is the more general aspects of the meditative theme stressed by “topic” words or the more particular instances stressed by “non-topic” words. The adjective “sweet”, for example, is not used in opposition to its normal alternative “bitter” but to mark a thematic point where several strands of theme come together in the form of this one word. This may be seen in the famous stanza:

I shall never be friends again with roses;
       I shall loathe sweet tunes, where a note grown strong
Relents and recoils and climbs and closes,
       As a wave of the sea turned back by song.
There are sounds where the soul’s delight takes fire,
Face to face with its own desire;
A delight that rebels, a desire that reposes
       I shall hate sweet music my whole life long. [Note 11]

The word starts off with a seemingly ordinary use in a single context; the poet says that he will loathe sweet tunes. This context is then extended to cover all music. The opposite is not allowed to be the usual one and what prevents this is an ambivalence on the formal level. It is not clear how we are to stress the first sweet which comes between two normally strong stressed words — “loathe {sweet} tunes ”. And this is also the case with the second sweet — “hate {sweet} mu sic”. If the anapaestic metre is to be kept regular both these occurences of the word must be given a weaker stress than those words on either side but this cannot be a completely weak stress since the word is thematically so important; hence my marking it above with the sign of medium stress. Partly because of this uncertainty of stress “sweet” is not dwelt upon in a swift reading and so does not make the reader think of its opposite. Another reason is that when “sweet” is further characterised in lines 3 to 7 the qualifying clauses seem to apply more to the poet’s state of mind than to sweet music, and, if to music at all, then to any music. “Sweet” is thus made an abstract and general word with many of the qualities of other abstract general words such as “soul”. And these words are almost all nouns. “Sweet” from referring to a quality in an object, music, comes to refer to a wider class of objects — music, roses, all good things. Thus it sums up one of the major themes in “The Triumph of Time”: how the death of love prevents happiness in any other sphere.
       The way in which “sweet” has power over other words is illustrated by the [its] organisation of the lines that explain and expand it:

     I shall loathe {sweet} tunes , where a note {grown} strong
Relents and recoils, and climbs and closes,
       As a wave of the sea turned {back} by song.
There are sounds where the soul’s delight {takes} fire,
Face to face with its own desire;
A delight that rebels, a desire that reposes;
       I shall hate {sweet} music my whole life long.
[Handwritten syllable stress indicators have been replaced by in-line typographical conventions, viz: no stress; strong stress, {undecided} stress.]

The music must be strong as well as sweet to contain such powerful words; its strength is indicated by the number of strong stresses in the scansion. The number of medium stressed words is also important — “back” “takes” “grown” — for these carry the pattern of “sweet” into the body of other lines. Such metrical influence is part of thematic influence as the grammar of “sweet” shifts from that of an adjective to that of a noun. I have already remarked that the other lines refer primarily to the impressions in the poet’s mind rather than to objective qualities in music. The fact that these impresssions are expressed in the context of a description of sweet music gives the adjective a power of referring to the impression also. So that it is not just a class of objects which it names but a class of emotions: those concerned with the “sweet things” theme.
       Thus the adjective acquires the power of a double noun — the name of both objects and emotions — and serves as a link between subjective and objective qualities. It does this without losing its adjectival meaning of “admirable, beautiful, cherished” for this meaning may apply both to the music and to the emotions. This may be seen by substituting “all” for “sweet” in the lines just quoted; they lose their density of reference for this depends on the dual nature of “sweet” as both adjective and noun.
       This is not just a one way process, however; if “sweet” gives much of the stanza’s power it also derives power from its proximity with other abstract words whose referents are uncertain — “soul’s delight” for example. Swinburne’s use of these “topic” words may seem to show important exception to my claim that nouns are devalued in his poetry by becoming like adjectives. In fact, though, these nouns are not important in the same direct ordinary way as, say, “sand” “ruin” “woman” are important. These general “topic” nouns constitute the thematic subject matter of the poem and as such their nature cannot be known in advance or the reader’s prior knowledge of them assumed. The poet must build up their characteristics in his verse according to the function he wishes them to have in its organsisation of forms and themes. In this they somewhat resemble adjectives such as “sweet” whose particular shades of meaning are only apparent in context. Failure on the reader’s part to appreciate the fluid nature of these abstract general words may lead to the kind of mistake Eliot makes in speaking of the lines from the second chorus of Atalanta in Calydon. Of the lines:

Before the beginning of years
       There came to the making of man
Time with a gift of tears;
       Grief with a glass that ran [Note 12]

Eliot says “this is not merely ‘music’ it is effective because it appears to be tremendous statement, like statements made in our dreams; when we wake up we find that the‘glass that ran’ would do better for time than for grief, and that the gift of tears would be more appropriately bestowed by grief as by time.” [Note 13]
       Such criticism only holds good if we think that we know in advance what time and grief mean and are prepared to make a poem fit out ready-made definitions. Whereas it is precisely the nature of time and grief that the poem is bent on exploring. To take part of the chorus of a play out of context like this and to discuss it without reference to its part in the whole play as if it were an isolated lyrical poem is not very just. It is like discusssing a stanza from “The Triumph of Time” without mentioning that we know the chief topic of the poem is unrequited love. Admittedly it would be impossible to read poems at all if we did not take the definitions of many words for granted. I am not trying to claim that the reader does not know what “years” “tears” “gift” “making” and “glass” mean. Simply, the words that express thematic preoccupation and emotional attitude — abstract nouns and ambivalent adjectival phrases — are those whose meaning it is least safe to assume that we know.
       The positive part of Eliot’s remark is its stress on the fact that poetic music will not be found without a working in of the meanings of words; even if the statements only appear tremendous, they must at least appear statements. Which is once more to make the point that Swinburne did not write nonsense, that his poems bear a recognisable, if strange, relation to the rest of the reader’s language and world. There are recognizable meditations on subjects the reader can understand presented in dramatic monologue that uses a persona to imply all that is not covertly stated in narrative. “Laus Veneris” for example is a sophisticated dramatic lyric. It begins by setting the scene — it is the Tannhauser theme of the lover who will not find absolution unless a bare branch bursts into leaf — in the cottage with the two lovers, she dead, he speaking of the great past and beloved present as if she were not dead. In fact we do not know whether the speaker realises that his lady is dead or not, and this gives a kind of sinister undertone to the poem.
       The overt theme is damnation incurred for the sake of love:

There is a feverish famine in my veins;
Below her bosom, where a crushed grape stains
       The white and blue, there my lips caught and clove
An hour since, and what mark of me remains ?

I dare not always touch her, lest the kiss
Leave my charred. Yea, Lord, a little bliss,
       Brief bitter bliss, one hath for a great sin;
Nathless thou knowest how sweet a thing it is.

Sin, is it sin whereby men’s souls are thrust
Into the pit? yet had I a good trust
       To save my soul before it slipped therein,
Trod under by the fire-shod feet of lust.

For if mine eyes fail and my soul takes breath,
I look between the iron sides of death
       Into sad hell where all sweet love hath end,
All but the pain that never finisheth. [Note 14]

Here the word “bitter” does appear juxtaposed with “sweet” but the occurences of  “sweet” contain greater ramifications: the “brief bitter bliss” seems to be equated with “how sweet a thing it is” by the fact that they both refer to “one great sin”. There is even a suggestion, due to the vagueness of “thing”, that it is sweet to have brief bitter bliss. This may be explained by Eliot’s remark in amplification of how Swinburne “works the word’s meaning”, “it is not merely the sound that he wants, but the vague associations of idea that words give him.” [Note 15] But the vagueness of “thing” is a very circumscribed vagueness; the word can refer to “sin” “bitter bliss” and more generally to the sweetness of the sinful love; that is all. And there is an important difference between a word that is totally vague in its referent and a word that merely oscillates between several posssible referents within a stanza or poem. In the first case we should be entitled to claim, with Eliot, that the poet is diffuse and doesn’t know very clearly what he is talking about; in the second case, the poet is only diffuse within a very limited and articulate area of his verse and with the purpose of fulfilling a special effect of enlargement on the words in question beyond their each separate meaning.
            This oscillation of meaning differs, then, from Eliot’s “hallucination of meaning” in that meaning is part, an essential part, of the technique, and none of it is to be lost. The several contexts in which the words on the page interact set limits to the oscillations of verbal meaning and it is only within these limits that the words can be called vague.
       The same is true of “topic” words though here these limits are set by the place the word has in the thematic strands of the poem. This is observable in the next stanza with its rhetorical question, “Sin, is it sin whereby men’s souls are thrust / Into the pit?”. What seems a rhetorical question — for of course it is sin that sends people to hell — conceals a more profound meditation on whether this love which everyone seems to think is sinful can in fact be so since it brings such great happiness. This is a serious question in any context and to say that Swinburne lived entirely among words and made the objective world cease to exist is to ignore the large part of his language which contains that world, presupposes its existence, questions and meditates on its properties.
       The use of adjectives as nouns and nouns as adjectives is not a way of confusing these categories in either the mind of the reader or the world of objects. It is a way of placing each in new contexts sO that different aspects of their meaning may appear. “Souls” and “soul” in the third stanza above are “topic” words which partake of the nature of adjectives because they qualify other more definite nouns in the theme — “salvation” “damnation” “sin” — and assume a bundle of connotations without which those other nouns would lose their importance. “Sin” “men’s” and “the pit” call forth the word “soul” as “bliss” calls up “brief”; and once the word is there it limits the senses in which the calling words may be taken. Again, the context of “sin” and “To save” requires “soul” which is then set against the sinful physical world in “lust”. These topic words are progressively defined by defining other words but they keep a sense of mystery since the definitions are only momentary instances in the flow of the poem and new qualifications constantly appear. “Soul” in the beginning of “Laus Veneris” does not mean quite the same as here nor does either mean quite the same as it does at the end.
       As I have suggested nouns take on the characteristics and some of the functions of adjectives. Such for example is “whereby men’s souls are thrust / Into the pit” where “souls” defines which particular pit is in question. The same thing happens with time and grief in the Atalanta chorus; they lend their connotations to tears and hour-glasses. Which is why so many mistakes are made if we approach poetry with fixed ideas about the ways in which words may mean, for we are then unable to notice the oscillations on the thematic level and are likely in consequence to think of the poems are monotonous and diffuse.
       In the fourth stanza quoted the movement is around two nodal phrases, “sad hell” and “sweet love”. Significantly both these phrases stand out as exceptions to the anapaestic metre. The line scans “Into sad hell where all sweet love hath end”; both phrases are spondees which hover between trochee — “sad hell” and iamb -”sweet love”. Each aspect could be stressed in alternative readings of the lines and these alternatives correspond to the thematic oscillation or balancing between love and damnation which is the poem’s theme.
       I am not suggesting that Swinburne is falling victim to the fallacy of imitative form. Simply, disturbance on the thematic level is often first recognised -consciously or unconsciously — through disturbance on the level of formal pattern.
That “sweet” and “sad” perform some noun functions is easily demonstrated; the line would still be intelligible if it read, “Into sad where all sweet hath end”. The contrast is between the meanings of sad and sweet rather than between the meanings of hell and love. Similarly “hell” and “love” perform some adjective functions or even adverbial ones; they indicate the particular characteristics of what is sad and what is sweet and where in relation to each other both in place and time sad and sweet are situated. “Hath end” merely amplifies the idea that love is doomed to lead to hell; hell and love set the limits to the emotional landscape of the poem and are thus also the attributes of the poet’s mind.
       I said above that whereas nouns and verbs give the poem’s theme, in Swinburne’s work adjectives and adverbs contain the emotional reaction to the theme and indicate the attitude the reader should adopt. There is continual coming and going between theme and attitude. Especially is this so when “topic” nouns that are also part of the theme are in question and therefore function partly as adjectives. This oscillation is still further increased when they are accompanied by adjectives functioning partly as nouns.
       In a larger context the same movement may be observed in the relation between overall theme and particular illustration. In “The Triumph of Time” this was seen in the manner in which Swinburne developed the Jaufré Rudel legend to suit his own purposes: to contrast a happy love with his own unhappy love. In “Laus Veneris” the relationship of the “I” to his lady and to God is a particular instance of the relationship of the individual to the power of love — the lady as incarnation of Aphrodite — and to the moral power of fatality. In Atalanta in Calydon the story of Meleager’s doomed life and Althaea’s fatal love is taken as an instance of the powerlessness of the human will in its dealings with fate. Atalanta herself is a type of Artemis. Such a general interpretation finds its incarnation in the alternation between immediate detail and abstract meditation in each of these works, these constant changes of perspective are part of the works’ technique. The choruses in Atalanta are balanced by the action just as the abstract strands of thinking in other poems are balanced by particular details. In the four stanzas from “Laus Veneris” such details are the description of the intimate relation between lover and lady in “I dare not always touch her, lest the kiss / Leave my lips charred”. And the abstract general statement of the love/ hell theme is made more concrete by the mention of “fat “fire-shod feet of lust” and “iron sides of death”.
       In conclusion Eliot’s remarks are valuable because they help us to see how Swinburne uses meaning as a point of interaction between the subjective and objective parts of his poems. He achieves this effect by subtle shifts in variation between noun and adjective which are pointed by metrical variation. Eliot says, “it is in fact the word that gives him the thrill, not the object” [Note 16]. We are able, I think, to conclude that what gives Swinburne’s reader a thrill is this particular way in which words alter, and interact with, the themes which are objects for the attention of the poem.

Swinburne as Poet: references

[1] “Swinburne as Poet” Selected Essays (Faber, London,1951) p.327

[2] Ibid.

[3] Poems and Ballads, Collected Poetical Works (Heinemann, London, 1919) p.37

[4] “Swinburne as Poet” p.324

[5] Stories and Poems (ed. Donald Morrison, intro. J.I.M. Stewart, Everyman Library, Dent, London, 1970) p.186

[6] Poems and Ballads p.35

[7] “Swinburne as Poet” pp. 325-6

[8] Poems and Ballads pp. 44-45

[9] “Swinburne as Poet” p. 327

[10] Ibid., p.325.

[11] Poems and Ballads pp.45-6

[12] Atalanta in Calydon, Swinburne’s Poems IV (Chatto and Windus, London 1911) p.258

[13] “Swinburne as Poet” p. 326

[14] Poems and Ballads p. 17

[15] “Swinburne as Poet” p. 326

[16] Ibid.

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