In This Article A.C. Swinburne

  • Introduction
  • Major Biographies
  • Bibliographies
  • Reference Works
  • Selections and Anthologies
  • Primary Swinburne Criticism
  • Critical Studies of Swinburne’s Poetry
  • Prosody
  • Studies of Later Poetry
  • Fiction
  • Swinburne’s Criticism
  • Foreign Language Studies
  • The Victorians
  • The Visual Arts
  • The Continent
  • Critical Reception
  • Politics and Gender

Victorian Literature A.C. Swinburne
by
Rikky Rooksby
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0043

Introduction

Algernon Charles Swinburne (b. 1837–d. 1909) was a major Victorian poet and critic, as well as a central figure in the spread of ideas associated with Pre-Raphaelitism, aestheticism, and the Symbolists. After growing up on the Isle of Wight and in Northumberland, he was educated at Eton and Balliol College, Oxford. He left the university without a degree in 1860, having rejected the Christianity of his family upbringing. By then he had met the artists D. G. Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, and William Morris and was determined to be a writer. Swinburne’s second book, Atalanta in Calydon, modeled on Greek tragedy, brought him to the literary world’s attention in 1865. It combined beautiful language with outspoken antitheism. His fourth book, Poems and Ballads (Moxon, then Hotten, 1866), ignited a controversy that made him both a literary phenomenon and a cultural hero to those in Britain and abroad who felt contemporary mores were too restrictive. Bold rhythms and a lyrical style of poetry conveyed controversial political, sexual, and religious themes, as well as those of lost or failed love and transience. After completing the groundbreaking William Blake. A Critical Essay (1868), Swinburne focused his poetic energies on dealing with political events in France and Italy, most notably in Songs Before Sunrise (1871). The republicanism of these poems connects Swinburne to the radical tradition of Blake, Shelley, Landor, Mazzini, Hugo, and Whitman. Other significant books included two more volumes of Poems and Ballads in 1878 and 1889, respectively, and the Arthurian epic “Tristram of Lyonesse.” Alcoholism and depression undermined Swinburne’s health in the late 1860s and 1870s. His move to Putney in 1879 and a more regulated life ensured continuing productivity as a poet and writer. He also wrote two novels, one unfinished. As an intemperate but insightful critic, he championed neglected authors of the past and many contemporary writers. His influence during the second half of the 19th century has still to be fully assessed.

Major Biographies

There have been only seven biographies of Swinburne in English since 1917, of which four post-date 1950. With the exception of La Jeunesse de Swinburne (Lafourcade 1928), the first fifty years of Swinburne biography produced superficial texts. Some studies of Swinburne combine biography with broader discussion of the works, as in the case of Chew 1931 (see Primary Swinburne Criticism) and Welby 1926 (see Critical Studies of Swinburne’s Poetry). Edmund Gosse’s reputation as a critic meant the first biography (Gosse 1917) was taken by many as the final word on Swinburne’s life, a status enhanced by its inclusion (slightly revised) as Volume 29 of The Complete Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne. The presumption of “completeness,” thus made early, passed into literary history and profoundly shaped how Swinburne was read. In the 1960s and 1970s a revival of interest in Swinburne led to the more recent biographies, all indebted to the Swinburne letters edited in Lang 1959–1962 (see Collected Letters). The best two biographies to begin with are Henderson 1974 and Rooksby 1997; Fuller 1968 is less reliable than either, and Thomas 1999 is more narrowly focused. Meyers 2004 radically revises our understanding of Swinburne’s undergraduate friendship with John Nichol.

  • Fuller, Jean Overton. Swinburne: A Critical Biography. London: Chatto and Windus, 1968.

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    The first modern biography, structured in readable short chapters. Following the work of Lang and F. A. C. Wilson, Fuller puts Swinburne’s relationship with his cousin Mary in the center, sometimes in a simplistically romantic manner, which led to factual errors and exaggerations. The book was criticized both by Cecil Y. Lang and by Mary’s granddaughter, Mildred Katherine Leith.

  • Gosse, Sir Edmund. The Life of A. C. Swinburne. London: Macmillan, 1917.

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    Gosse was the only biographer who knew Swinburne personally. Hampered by convention and opposition from Swinburne’s sister Isabel and cousin Mary, Gosse was forced to discuss Swinburne’s alcoholism and taste for flagellation only in a private paper titled “Swinburne’s Agitation,” published in Lang 1959–1962 (cited under Collected Letters).

  • Henderson, Philip. Swinburne: The Portrait of a Poet. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974.

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    Sympathetic, elegant, and generally well balanced, this is still one of the best Swinburne biographies. Henderson makes good use of quotation from Swinburne’s writings and gives a more nuanced account of Swinburne’s relationship with his cousin Mary Gordon than Fuller 1968.

  • Lafourcade, Georges. La Jeunesse de Swinburne. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1928.

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    Massive French-language study. The first volume looks at Swinburne’s life up to 1867. The second volume discusses all of Swinburne’s writing, published and unpublished, known to Lafourcade, up to 1867. It is regrettable that there has never been an English translation.

  • Lafourcade, Georges. Swinburne: A Literary Biography. London: G. Bells and Son, 1932.

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    Based on the extensive research into Swinburne’s first decade of writing Lafourcade undertook for La Jeunesse de Swinburne, this is a still readable account in which the author covers the whole of Swinburne’s life.

  • Meyers, Terry L. “On Drink and Faith: Swinburne and John Nichol at Oxford.” Review of English Studies 55.220 (2004): 392–424.

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    Persuasively demolishes the tradition in Swinburne biography that John Nichol (1833–1894) undermined Swinburne’s faith and led him toward alcoholism.

  • Rooksby, Rikky. A. C. Swinburne: A Poet’s Life. Aldershot, UK: Scolar Press, 1997.

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    The most up-to-date biography. A strict if restricting chronological account includes new information about Swinburne’s time at Eton and Balliol, the death of his sister Edith, some unpublished images, and is sympathetic to Swinburne’s later life and publishing. It is the only biography to benefit from the letter research that led to Meyers 2005 (cited under Collected Letters).

  • Thomas, Donald. Swinburne: The Poet in His World. London: Allison and Busby, 1999.

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    First published in 1979, this is informative on the milieu in which Swinburne made his impact, especially the seedier byways of Victorian book publishing, but Thomas loses interest in Swinburne’s life after about 1872, so the last thirty years of writing are skipped over.

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