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More than a century after his death, for the majority of readers, Swinburne was still considered to be the bad boy of Victorian poetry. On the one hand, this view served Swinburne scholarship as it made him stand out among his poetic contemporaries. On the other hand, however, as is usually the case with bad boys, readers of Victorian poetry tended to dismiss him as poet provocateur who enjoyed shocking his audience for no real purpose. And yet, over the last decade or so, we have seen more and more studies that choose to look beyond Swinburne’s provocations and treat his work as a medium for serious contemplations. The items I review this year adopt this attitude and present Swinburne as an insightful thinker, very much aware of the central debates of his time.

Readers of Swinburne have gradually become more interested in his critical writings and, more specifically, in his thoughts on visual art. Swinburne was in fact a subtle and careful commentator on the artistic scene of his days, and his insights, so it seems, are certainly worth further exploration. Last year I reviewed Stefano Evangelista’s “Swinburne’s Galleries” (Yearbook of English [End Page 389] Studies 40, no. 1–2 [2010]: 160–179), which discussed Swinburne’s rather un-orthodox approach to art criticism. This year Julie Codell joins Evangelista in her “The Art Press and Its Parodies: Unraveling Networks in Swinburne’s 1868 Academy Notes” (Victorian Periodicals Review 44, no. 2 [2011]: 165–183), which also discusses Swinburne’s unique approach to the world of Victorian art criticism. Codell’s article focuses on Swinburne’s Notes on the Royal Exhibition (1868). Co-written with William Michael Rossetti, Notes provided Swinburne with an opportunity to parody the Academy Notes, the publication that accompanied the Royal Academy’s annual spring exhibit. As Codell’s writes, “Academy Notes permitted the spectating public to share a catalogue and a discourse that guided aesthetic judgment within regulated cultural norms” (p. 165). In other words, the Academy Notes created a “network,” using Codell’s phrasing, that presented and sustained middle-class Victorian values. Victorian subjects who read the Academy Notes became, therefore, part of an “imagined community of spectators, critics, and artists” (p. 166) who shared similar values and taste. Swinburne, on the other hand, “did not want to educate his readers,” writes Codell. Instead, he wished to “parody the educational function of Academy Notes, a genre that was, after all, informative only in the most cursory way that merely reinforced existing taste” (p. 166). Swinburne parodies the Academy Notes in his own Notes by dedicating them to six Dante Rossetti paintings that have never been presented in the Royal Academy exhibition, and that have never been seen by the public. In doing so, Swinburne implies that “great art was produced outside the network of critics, spectators, Academy, and exhibition system,” thereby “emphasizing the transgressive nature of his critical enterprise” (p. 171). What made his critical heritage so trangressive was his insistence on forsaking Ruskin-esque objectivity and the use of “critical language [that] could only speak a private sensory experience before art, the very experience the old network marginalized or downright condemned” (p. 173). By celebrating the critic’s personal response to a work of art, Swinburne was able to form an alternative network to the one established by the Academy Notes, and in doing so comment not only on Victorian art criticism, but also on Victorian society. Codell’s reading of Swinburne’s Notes is both insightful and illuminating, especially when she weaves into her discussion Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital as a means of explaining the motive behind Swinburne’s resistance to Royal Academy standards and taste. What seems to be missing from her discussion, however, is a broader Swinburnean context. After all, Notes was published the same year as Swinburne’s William Blake, where he vehemently advocates for the idea of art for art’s sake, an idea that informs, in many respects, his approach to art criticism in Notes. Also, many of Swinburne’s republican poems were composed around 1868, which suggests that his resistance to the middle-class values promoted...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1530-7190
Print ISSN
0042-5206
Pages
pp. 389-394
Launched on MUSE
2012-11-07
Open Access
No
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