restricted access Swinburne as Poet
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[ 181 Swinburne as Poet1 It is a question of some nicety to decide how much must be read of any particular poet.2† And it is not a question merely of the size of the poet. There are some poets whose every line has unique value. There are others who can be taken by a few poems universally agreed upon. There are others who need be read only in selections, but what selections are read will not very much matter. Of Swinburne, we should like to have the Atalanta entire, and a volume of selections which should certainly contain “The Leper,” “Laus Veneris,” and “The Triumph of Time.” It ought to contain many more, but there is perhaps no other single poem which it would be an error to omit. A student of Swinburne will want to read one of the Stuart plays and dip into Tristram of Lyonesse.3 But almost no one, to-day, will wish to read the whole of Swinburne. It is not because Swinburne is voluminous ; certain poets, equally voluminous, must be read entire. The necessity and the difficulty of a selection are due to the peculiar nature of Swinburne’s contribution, which, it is hardly too much to say, is of a very different kind from that of any other poet of equal reputation. We may take it as undisputed that Swinburne did make a contribution;4† that he did something that had not been done before, and that what he did will not turn out to be a fraud. And from that we may proceed to inquire what Swinburne’s contribution was, and why, whatever critical solvents we employ to break down the structure of his verse, this contribution remains. The test is this: agreed that we do not (and I think that the present generation does not) greatly enjoy Swinburne,5† and agreed that (a more serious condemnation) at one period of our lives we did enjoy him and now no longerenjoyhim;nevertheless,thewordswhichweusetostateourgrounds of dislike or indifference cannot be applied to Swinburne as they can to bad poetry. The words of condemnation are words which express his qualities. You may say “diffuse.” 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. 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. You could not condense “The Triumph of 1920 182 ] Time.” You could only leave out. And this would destroy the poem; though no one stanza seems essential. Similarly, a considerable quantity – a volume of selections – is necessary to give the quality of Swinburne although there is perhaps no one poem essential in this selection. If, then, we must be very careful in applying terms of censure, like “diffuse ,” we must be equally careful of praise. “The beauty of Swinburne’s verse is the sound,” people say, explaining, “he had little visual imagination .”6 I am inclined to think that the word “beauty” is hardly to be used in connexion with Swinburne’s verse at all; but in any case the beauty or effect of sound is neither that of music nor that of poetry which can be set to music. There is no reason why verse intended to be sung should not present a sharp visual image or convey an important intellectual meaning, for it supplements the music by another means of affecting the feelings. What we get in Swinburne is an expression by sound, which could not possibly associate itself with music. For what he gives is not images and ideas and music, it is one thing with a curious mixture of suggestions of all three. Shall I come, if I swim? wide are the waves, you see: Shall I come, if I fly, my dear Love, to thee?7 This is Campion, and an example of the kind of music that is not to be found in Swinburne. It is an arrangement and choice of words which has a sound-value and at the same time a coherent comprehensible meaning, and the two things – the musical value and meaning8† – are two things, not one. But in Swinburne there is no pure beauty – no pure beauty of sound, or of image, or of idea. Music, when soft voices die, Vibrates in the memory – Odours...