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  • Swinburne
  • Sara Lyons (bio)

2014 saw the publication of the first monograph devoted to Algernon Charles Swinburne to appear in many years: Yisrael Levin’s Swinburne’s Apollo: Myth, Faith, and Victorian Spirituality (Ashgate). Prior to it, the most recent was Catherine Maxwell’s Swinburne (Northcote House, 2006), but this followed the template of the Northcote House writers-and-their-work series and aimed to provide a concise, introductory overview of his career. For a full-length monograph on Swinburne, we have to cast back to 1990 and Margot K. Louis’s Swinburne and his Gods: The Roots and Growth of an Agnostic Poetry (McGill-Queen’s University Press). In some ways, Levin’s book asks to be read as a companion to Louis’s: he follows her argument that Swinburne’s career can be understood as a progression from an early nihilistic vision to a series of experiments in an affirmative, neo-pagan spirituality. Put another way, both Louis and Levin suggest that Swinburne’s atheism prompts him to break with the Romantic tradition in his early career, only for him to reconstitute Romantic spirituality on his own terms in his later poetry. Yet Levin takes this logic a step further than Louis. Where her book was concerned to demonstrate the brio and intellectual substance of Swinburne’s early iconoclasm as well as to show how it flowered into a more productive vision in his later work, Levin frames this teleological narrative much more starkly. Like the recent volume of essays Levin edited, A. C. Swinburne and the Singing Word: New Perspectives on the Mature Work (Ashgate, 2010), Swinburne’s Apollo seeks to correct the perception that Swinburne’s creative genius consumed itself in and through the publication of his succès de scandale, Poems and Ballads, in 1866. In Swinburne’s Apollo, Levin inverts this familiar narrative: the early poetry, which for him includes the overtly political poetry of the 1870s (Songs Before Sunrise [1871] and Songs of Two Nations [1875]), is inferior to the late work, and interests him primarily insofar as it anticipates the neo-pagan Romanticism of the Putney years, [End Page 336] when Swinburne lived sedately and in semi-seclusion with his friend Theodore Watts-Dunton. Levin’s desire to champion Swinburne’s Putney poetry over the earlier work creates an obvious structural problem for this slim book. For the first 81 pages—just over half its length—Levin engages with the pre-1878 work rather dutifully, only considering it for its proleptic value. Nonetheless, Levin’s patient close readings of what he calls the “mature work” and his rich analysis of the centrality of the myth of Apollo to Swinburne’s poetic imagination makes his book a valuable contribution to Swinburne scholarship. Levin’s lucid and engaging introductory chapter, which situates Swinburne’s investment in the figure of Apollo in relation to nineteenth-century anthropology, mythography, and religious debates, will also be of interest to scholars working on the intersections between poetry, Christianity, and paganism at the fin de siècle.

A significant number of recent essays suggest that Swinburne’s critical fortunes are benefitting from the turn to “neo-formalism” that has been a crucial stand of Victorian studies over the past decade. Although the essays noted here are not especially concerned with addressing political and aesthetic questions simultaneously—the principal commitment of the neo-formalists—there is nonetheless a surge of critical interest in Swinburne’s technical virtuosity, one that is clearly drawing some of its confidence from a wider impetus to recuperate formalism and varieties of aesthetic appreciation. Jason David Hall and Alex Murray’s edited collection, Decadent Poetics: Literature and Form at the British Fin de Siècle (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) exemplifies how this renewed attention to form is prompting scholars to rediscover neglected or long-disparaged tracts of Swinburne’s oeuvre. Nick Freeman’s superb essay “‘The Harem of Words’: Attenuation and Excess in Decadent Poetry” explores the paradoxical effects of Swinburne’s tendency to draw upon a carefully restricted stock of favorite words, and traces the influence of this verbal self-discipline upon the poetry of Arthur Symons and Ernest Dowson. Ana Parejo Vadillo’s “Another Renaissance...


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pp. 336-339
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