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Swinburne and the Möbius Strip: Circumvented Circularity in A Century of Roundels

From: Victorian Poetry
Volume 51, Number 3, Fall 2013
pp. 297-309 | 10.1353/vp.2013.0019

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Although Algernon Charles Swinburne and his later works have begun to receive more critical attention, his cycle A Century of Roundels (1883) is frequently neglected. The strict, eleven line form and the topics the poems discuss often cause them to be dismissed as uncharacteristically domestic and simplistic compared to his more bombastic, bawdy works: Edmund Gosse believed that they were merely an exercise in "self-discipline . . . to curb his Pegasus with a rigidly-determined fixed form," and Jean Fuller remarked that they are "a charming series of rather slight pieces." Behind the placid façade of the poems, however, Swinburne's incorporation of medieval lyric forms reveals linguistic pyrotechnics aplenty. He created his roundel form by appropriating elements of the rondeau, rondel, and triolet, all forms he learned from studying one of his literary idols, the fifteenth-century poet François Villon. Villon's influence can also be seen in Swinburne's style, since both poets value puns, paradoxes, and oxymorons and structure their poems by circumventing expected meanings. Throughout this poem cycle, Swinburne consistently subverts the circularity inherent both in the roundel form and in the cyclical Century, playing on repetition with a twist.

Karen Alkalay-Gut has associated Swinburne's poetic subversion with the Möbius strip, a curious topological loop formed by a band twisted and connected to itself. This mathematical concept, first articulated by August Ferdinand Möbius in 1858, has the remarkable property that, although it appears to have two sides, it in fact only has one. Starting on one side and following the loop results in a return to the starting point, but on the "other side" of the surface; what was the outside becomes the inside. Alkalay-Gut has shown that this topological surface is a perfect illustration of Swinburne's paradoxes and oxymorons, since both techniques involve two opposites uniting while simultaneously being separate, as well as of the structure of some of his seemingly circular poems (p. 151). However, although she applies this illustration to some works from Poems and Ballads and Laus Veneris, she omits an examination of A Century of Roundels, instead saying that such poems, and "A Roundel" in particular, are so circular that they cannot be considered "representative of Swinburne's work" other than "in the sense that" they acknowledge "the significance of the form" (p. 142). In fact, these works subvert the expected circularity, and her suggestive mathematical parallel can also illuminate the overall structure of A Century of Roundels, the structure of the individual roundels themselves, and Swinburne's method of appropriating both medieval subject matter and lyric forms; each functions as a Möbius strip, ending by returning to its beginning with an inverted perspective.

The most intricate examples of circumvented cyclicality are the individual roundels themselves. The refrain of a roundel, drawn from the first word or phrase of the first line, repeats at the end of the first and last stanzas. This verbal pattern would seem to lead us in a circle, back to the ideas of the beginning. Instead, Swinburne alters the refrain, using the repetition subversively, a characteristic that the second part of the first poem in the volume, "In Harbor," clearly demonstrates:

Outside of the port ye are moored in, lying
Close from the wind and at ease from the tide,
What sounds come swelling, what notes fall dying

They will not cease, they will not abide:
Voices of presage in darkness crying
Pass and return and relapse aside.

Ye see not, but hear ye not wild wings flying
To the future that wakes from the past that died?
Is grief still sleeping, is joy not sighing

Since the word "outside," the poem's refrain, delineates a strict boundary, one might expect "outside" to be a stable term. Instead, a question mark follows the refrain when it appears again at the end of the first stanza, making the word change in tone from confidence in delineation to uncertainty. This uncertainty concerns the boundary of the harbor as well; although the speaker claims to be protected from the violently crashing waves in the open sea outside the harbor, the "swelling" and "dying" sounds of the ocean echo the...

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