Victorian Poetry 41.3 (2003) 348-352
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"Death lies dead":
The Allusive Texture of Swinburne's "A Forsaken Garden"
Swinburne's provocative dissent was not usually indirect. His controversial mode had, it is usually assumed, little place for the oblique. With the overt impatience with Christianity inscribed in Poems and Ballads first series (1866), there is no surprise that "A Forsaken Garden" from Poems and Ballads second series (1878) has been taken at face value as a poem about decay, an instance of Swinburne's hyperbolization of a characteristic Tennysonian topos, and a reflection on the mortality of love which has Christianity neither as its theme nor as part of its linguistic register. "'All are at one now, roses and lovers,'" Jerome McGann remarks straightforwardly, "is the theme of 'A Forsaken Garden.'" 1 Murray Pittock thinks the poem similarly about "the change brought by Time to history and places," 2 while Rikky Rooksby regards it as "one of [Swinburne's] finest hymns to the forces of change and decay." 3 Likewise, competing models of temporal movement provide the idea for the most sophisticated of recent readings of the poem. Michael Joyner's "Of Time and the Garden: Swinburne's 'A Forsaken Garden'" (1997) sees the piece comprising an unreconciled "dialogue between the languages of the human and the natural" creating "a world in which neither a Wordsworthian fittedness nor a total separation of humankind and nature is possible." 4
Temporality and movements of decay are, to be sure, the explicit concerns of the poem, however read. But "A Forsaken Garden" works also at subtle levels, and in strata of allusions. If appropriate attention is paid to the specificities of Swinburne's lexis and what haunts them, the poem emerges as distinctive in its under-appreciated investment in theological concepts through resourceful textures of allusion and parody. Edmund Gosse gave authority to a tradition of listening more to the sound of Poems and Ballads second seriesthan to its meaning when he remarked that the volume contained works chiefly remarkable for their "witchery of exquisite sound." 5 Modern critics have continued to put barriers in the way of reading Swinburne's poetry closely. Matthew Reynolds' recent dismissal of Swinburne's contribution to English debate about the Risorgimento lent further substance to the notion that he was "very little interested in the public reaches of the imagination" or, indeed, that his work infrequently [End Page 348] merited the kind of close scrutiny Reynolds successfully applied to Barrett Browning, Clough, and Tennyson. 6 Attentively considered, the indirect imaginative transaction with Christian ideas of death and resurrection in this poem suggest, nonetheless, how subtle and inventive the Swinburnian imagination could be in the mid period of his career, even as it produced the "exquisite sound" Gosse so much admired.
"A Forsaken Garden" draws on Judaeo-Christian discourse. But its invocation of such material in a secular context, its deliberate resituating of the material of religion in an alien context, acts not to Christianize the poem's references but to ironize the discourse it appropriates. Much of the texture of the poem, and its secular energies, derive from such allusions, drained of their theological substance, and made to serve purposes not their own. At the most obvious level, the poem's upsetting of Judaeo-Christian terms is plain in its topography. The Garden of Eden in Genesis is the locus of perfect life and first love, but also the natal place of death and corruption. Swinburne's hidden garden, once the home of love and life, is overtly the fiefdom of death. Although the flower is unpressed by the "foot that falls not" (l. 25), the whole area bears the marks of fall. Nonetheless, it is a garden that, despite its proximity to Eden, is without promise of redemption—Pauline Fletcher is mysterious in her recent comment that "Regeneration is possible, but only after a complete surrender to the forces of extinction"—or hope of life's return. 7 The force of Swinburne's Judaeo-Christian appropriation comes here, as...