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The Irony of Swinburne's Atalanta in Calydon

From: Victorian Poetry
Volume 51, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 1-13 | 10.1353/vp.2013.0000

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The reach and power of Swinburne's irony in Atalanta in Calydon remains unexamined and unappreciated. From its initial reception in 1865, the poem has been recognized for its compelling, virtuosic prosody, its theological provocativeness, its exquisite relationship to Greek tragedy, and its pervasive concerns with fate, love, the treacherous-wonderful net of kinship, and with our inescapable mortalities. Together with Poems and Ballads, published the following year, it established Swinburne as a masterful, challenging, deeply learned, often heretical and offending, and clearly untrammeled acolyte of the muses.

Atalanta invited specific discussions of its Greekness. Had Swinburne produced the most successful, trenchant English drama in the Greek mode; was it importantly flawed; was his Erechtheus perhaps more authentic? These issues variously occupied and fascinated a number of classically-trained Swinburne critics. Especially in the burst of commentaries on Atalanta in the 1920s and early 30s, the depth of his knowledge of Greek tragedy and his ability to recreate it were debated. Marion Wier's published doctoral dissertation, The Influence of Aeschylus and Euripides on the Structure and Content of Swinburne's Atalanta in Calydon and Erechtheus (1920), initiated the contending appraisals. Wier simply aligns passages from the three playwrights to suggest parallels. Others, such as William Rutland and Samuel Chew, are more venturesome in their discussions.

Certain assertions emerge as unarguable: Swinburne was an extraordinarily accomplished classicist; the concerns and even the tone of his drama are consonant with those of the ancients; and the exuberance and sensual playfulness of his prosody and very likely the attitude he assigns to his Chorus (of Calydonian maidens) depart from the conventions of Greek tragedy. Swinburne announced his admiration for Aeschylus and his disdain for Euripides. To those who had bristled that Swinburne violated the strict, spare classical form, Kenneth Haynes more recently responded that they were mistakenly accepting Winckelmann's Greece: "light," "definite," "precise." He sees in the poem the wilder, more embellished style of Aeschylus, adding that "Swinburne found in Aeschylus a language that can be used to express disintegration." "Complementing what I see as the central role of irony," Haynes continues, "'division' and its cognates are key words in Atalanta."

The story of Atalanta, Althea, and Meleager, as Rutland and C. M. Bowra point out, was one of antiquity's best known legends, retold from Homer to Ovid. Sophocles and Euripides each wrote a "Meleager" play and Aeschylus an "Atalanta," all of which—perhaps fortuitously for Swinburne—survive only in the meagerest of fragments (Bowra, p. 223).

Sidestepping the question of how exact Swinburne's scholarship actually was, the amalgam fused into Atalanta is astonishing. Within a luxuriantly lyrical dramatic poem (hardly a familiar quality of Attic tragedy), he achieves a cohesive and coherent simulation of a Greek drama. Distorting what would likely be expressed by a traditional chorus, Swinburne manages to berate whatever gods may be—in a manner that reproduces the attitudes associated, for example, with Sophocles. As Rutland observes, "Atalanta in Calydon is a symphony on the favorite theme of Greek tragedy—'Call no man happy while he lives'" (pp. 172-173). He particularly reminds us of Sophocles's comment in Oedipus at Colonus: "The happiest lot is never to have been born" (p. 189). Bowra suggests Swinburne's drama was "his tribute to Aeschylus and Sophocles, his attempt to reproduce the poetical spirit which he found in both of them" (p. 223).

The models, influences, themes, imagery, and prosody of Atalanta have been frequently discussed. There was a modern renascence of interest in Swinburne, probably seeded by John Rosenberg's 1967 article for Victorian Studies (which became the Introduction to the Modern Library volume of the Selected Poetry), followed in 1971 by this journal's double issue dedicated to the poet, and then Jerome McGann's beguiling conversation, Swinburne: An Experiment in Criticism (1972). Ever since, Swinburne has been reasonably, if unevenly, visible, including in a second dedicated issue of Victorian Poetry in 2009, with an article on Atalanta by Katie Paterson.

And yet—for all the gathering attention paid to Swinburne and to Atalanta itself, and for all of the last century's fascination with irony, there has been stunningly little discussion of this pivotal...

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