Victorian Poetry 41.3 (2003) 435-439
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Margot K. Louis
This has been an extremely thin year for Swinburne studies. Last year I discussed Heather Seagroatt's "Swinburne Separates the Men from the Girls: Sensationalism in Poems and Ballads" (VLC 30 : 41-59), Malcolm Hardman's "Faithful to the Greek?: Swinburnian Patterning (Hopkinsian Dapple)" (YES 32 : 19-35), and Robert Sawyer's "Looking for Mr. Goodbard: Swinburne, Resentment Criticism, and the Invention of Harold Bloom," in Harold Bloom's Shakespeare, so I will say no more of these works. Only a handful of other articles on or partly on the poet have since appeared, along with a poem and a novel. The primary foci for this year are aestheticism, sex, and science.
Jonathan Smith in his excellent article "Une Fleur du Mal? Swinburne's 'The Sundew' and Darwin's Insectivorous Plants" (VP 41 : 131-150) discusses "a cultural fascination with the sundew that extended from the 1860s well into the 1880s" (p. 131). This flower, described sensationally in 1884 as "atrociously and deliberately wicked," full of "murderous propensities" (Grant Allen, quoted in Smith, p. 131), entraps flies and therefore provided a useful metaphor "for Swinburne's subversive exploration of sexuality and gender, and especially of the erotics of sado-masochism" (Smith, p. 133). Smith provides a detailed and perceptive reading of the poem and shows how by 1880 this lyric "was being swept into discussions of the ethical, philosophical, and cultural implications of Darwin's work" (p. 141); we are reminded that "for the Victorians, science and poetry resided on a two-way cultural street" (p. 147). It is interesting that the internal evidence of the poem, as Smith convincingly argues, indicates that the poet was "familiar with the controversy [in the 1860s] over whether the plant was truly insectivorous" (p. 132); could it be relevant that the husband of Swinburne's friend Lady Trevelyan was noted for his geological and botanical researches?
Lene Ostermark-Johansen has this year published three articles on late Victorian prose, all to a greater or lesser extent involving Swinburne. "Swinburne's Serpentine Delights: The Aesthetic Critic and the Old Master Drawings in Florence" (Nineteenth-Century Contexts 24 : 49-72) analyzes [End Page 435] Swinburne's "Notes on Designs of the Old Masters at Florence" (1868) as "heralding an entirely new type of art criticism": "hypnotic language, renaissance images and mythological allusions all merge to form a late romantic aestheticism" (p. 49). "In his prose Swinburne evokes the sinuous rhythm of a serpent's movements, carefully balanced on an 's'-shape: proposition + conjunction + counterproposition" (p. 51), and this sinuosity is powerfully supported by the mass of serpentine imagery and sibilant alliteration in his text. In effect Swinburne "invents a nineteenth-century verbal parallel to the mannerist concept of the figura serpentinata" (p. 59). This style was linked by contemporary critics with the Euphuism of Lyly and with a foreign, decadent mannerism believed to surface repeatedly in English literature; Ostermark-Johansen further relates Swinburne's approach here to the theories of French art criticism, which suggested that the artist in effect mesmerizes the spectator by means of the work of art. This is a valuable article which places Swinburne's early prose in a variety of significant contexts.
Ostermark-Johansen follows up this study with "Serpentine Rivers and Serpentine Thought: Flux and Movement in Walter Pater's Leonardo Essay" (VLC 30 : 455-482) and "The Death of Euphues: Euphuism and Decadence in Late-Victorian Literature" (ELT 45 : 4-25). Both essays focus chiefly on Pater, but also discuss Swinburne's contribution to late nineteenth-century prose, his influence on Pater, and his most striking difference from Pater in the matter of prose style: "The chaos and melodious fury of much of Swinburne's prose carries the energy of the spoken voice," whereas "Pater was composing for the printed page" ("Death of Euphues," p. 19). In "Serpentine Rivers," the serpentine quality of Swinburne's prose is again finely analyzed on pages 461-462 and 473, and Ostermark-Johansen demonstrates that, despite their differences, Swinburne and Pater, along with...