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  • Swinburne
  • Margot K. Louis (bio)

In the past year Swinburne's voice has been heard freshly in a new collection of his letters and a new selection of his poetry and prose; at the same time, various critics have explored his exploitation and transformation of earlier works (poems by Villon, Milton, Baudelaire, Tennyson, and Swinburne himself), as well as the ways in which he influenced texts by later writers like H.D. and T. S. Eliot. As students of Swinburne look ahead to his centenary in 2009, it seems that a fresh perception of his place in literary history is in rapid formation.

The appearance of Uncollected Letters of Algernon Charles Swinburne, edited and splendidly annotated by Terry L. Meyers (Pickering and Chatto, 2005), should substantially forward such a reassessment. Rikky Rooksby has reviewed Uncollected Letters fully (and glowingly) in a previous issue of VP, and I shall review it in detail shortly in JPRS; so I shall touch here only on a few salient points. These three volumes might have been entitled "Swinburne and his Contexts"; more than half of the work consists of letters from Swinburne (four-fifths of which have not previously been published anywhere), and the remainder chiefly of letters to or about Swinburne, documents which are often fascinating in their own right and which richly illuminate our sense of the many circles, cliques, and movements in which this poet participated. While the volumes will be essential to Swinburne specialists, Victorianists in general will also find Uncollected Letters an invaluable resource on the intellectual and literary networks of the era, deepening our understanding of the world of letters and the arts; of freethinkers (including those whose spirituality was active but non-Christian, or even anti-Christian); and of republican circles. We find Swinburne's detailed views on the Paris Commune, and we see how deeply Karl Blind affected the poet's much-reprobated hostility to Irish independence. A few previously unpublished verses and drafts of poems also appear, along with four lyrics by Swinburne's cousin Mary Gordon Leith, whose important relationship with him is decidedly fleshed out in these volumes. Finally, the rich array of fervently admiring letters from male and female writers in several countries makes possible a fuller assessment of the poet's significance; I hope that Meyers' work will prompt more studies of reader response to Swinburne's work, and more explorations of his influence.

Studies of Swinburne's published works should be stimulated by the appearance of Major Poems and Selected Prose (Yale Univ. Press, 2004), edited by Jerome McGann and Charles L. Sligh. If you own only one volume of Swinburne's writings, this should be it; if you are already serious about Swinburne, [End Page 384] you will hardly need me to recommend this selection—the sight of McGann's name as co-editor will be enough. In these thrifty days, Swinburneans could hardly have hoped for a handsome volume of nearly 500 pages, containing the whole of Atalanta in Calydon and Tristram of Lyonesse, as well as a generous selection from the Poems and Ballads, First Series, a more restrained but judicious range of poems from Swinburne's other verse collections, a dashing selection of the uncollected poems (including "A Ballad of Dead Creeds"and "The Cannibal Catechism") and the most interesting and wide-ranging selection from Swinburne's prose—collected and uncollected-—ever published in one anthology. Short fiction from Swinburne's earlier years; two of his brilliant hoax reviews; excerpts from his invaluable and influential criticism on Baudelaire, Byron, Arnold, Blake, Whitman, Hugo, D. G. Rossetti, and the Brontës; an excerpt from his incomplete novel Lesbia Brandon; and, to round off, Swinburne's moving autobiographical letter to E. C. Stedman in 1875—here is pagan plenty. The excerpts are chosen by editors keenly aware of the latest developments in Victorian studies, and are helpfully subtitled, so that it is easy, for instance, to trace Swinburne's shifting views on art, from the vision of art as torment in Lesbia Brandon and "Arthur's Flogging," through the aestheticism of William Blake, to the defence of political and visionary art in Swinburne's study of Hugo. The...


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