- Generating Interest in Swinburne
A little-known fact is that following Tennyson’s death in 1892, one of the serious candidates to replace him as England’s next Poet Laureate was Algernon Charles Swinburne. Swinburne was never officially offered the position—probably the result of his rather problematic reputation and own lack of interest in serving as the Empire’s poetic figurehead. Still, considering Swinburne’s reception and critical status throughout the twentieth century, it is hard to imagine anybody has ever perceived him as a potential Poet Laureate. Catherine Maxwell [End Page 396] and Stefano Evangelista’s choice to title their edited volume Algernon Charles Swinburne: Unofficial Laureate deliberately addresses the tension between nineteenth-century and later views on Swinburne. As they write in the introduction, “[w]e … hope the collection will generate new interest in Swinburne, invigorate scholarship on him, and stimulate further research.” This is a humble hope since the articles Maxwell and Evangelista chose for their volume not only succeed in generating renewed interest in Swinburne’s work, but also manage to undermine twentieth-century perception of Swinburne as a “minor” poet. Swinburne, they show, was an important part of Victorian poetic history; his work was innovative, influential, and, most important, deeply invested in his cultural reality. Regarding him as a marginal figure not only misrepresents him, but also misrepresents the environment within which he operated.
Unofficial Laureate consists of a collection of eleven essays originally presented at the Swinburne Centenary Conference that took place at the University of London in 2009. The volume is divided into three sections: “Cultural Discourse,” “Form,” and “Influence,” with each section providing a different context in which to read Swinburne’s work. The section on cultural discourse includes four articles that explore Swinburne’s interaction with broad nineteenth-century cultural phenomena. The three articles in the section on form provide an interesting review of Swinburne’s formal innovation and its application. And the final section is dedicated to Swinburne’s personal and creative relationships with other contemporary writers.
The volume opens with Evangelista’s “Swinburne’s French Voice: Cosmopolitanism and Cultural Mediation in Aesthetic Criticism,” which follows a recent trend in Swinburne scholarship―namely, putting greater emphasis on Swinburne’s critical writing. More specifically, Evangelista is interested in Swinburne’s writings on French literature and on his promotion of “a theory of aesthetic cosmopolitanism.” For Swinburne, France functioned as “a source of literary modernity” which he hoped would positively influence what he perceived as the “narrowness of nineteenth-century English culture.” Swinburne’s cosmopolitanism also appears in Julia F. Saville’s article which discusses his aspiration for cosmopolitan republicanism that would lead to “a trans-Atlantic, trans-European, and potentially world-scale federation.” As Saville notes, republicanism is often associated with “images of open-air swimming or bathing in large bodies of water” in Swinburne’s poetry. Unfortunately, those open-air and expansive images did [End Page 397] not prevent Swinburne from adopting a conservative, narrow-minded approach to politics later in his life, which undermined his cosmopolitan claims. Next is Charlotte Ribeyrol’s “Swinburne: A Nineteenth-Century Hellene?” which discusses Swinburne’s resistance to mainstream Victorian Hellenism. While the majority of Victorians perceived “Greek antiquity … as a powerful signifier of rationality, purity, and order,” Swinburne was more concerned with “marginal Hellenic territories” that revealed the “repressed features of ancient Greek culture” through his poetic treatment of Chthonic and non-Olympic deities. Ribeyrol’s observations are remarkably important since they inspire a renewed discussion of Swinburne’s Hellenism. Swinburne, it becomes clear, did not merely adopt Greek myth and tropes in his works, but was rather part of a late-Victorian attempt led by figures such as Jane Ellen Harrison and Andrew Lang to reexamine the principles of Hellenistic thought. Swinburne was very much aware of his own cultural moment and knew how to manipulate it for his own purposes. As Laurel Brake shows, Swinburne’s rarely discussed journalistic career allowed him to control his image as a poet. As she notes, in “the early 1860s, Swinburne...