This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Algernon Charles Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads (1866), a seminal event in Victorian literary culture. Thirty years ago, such an anniversary may have passed by unmarked; but this year has shown a continued resurgence of interest in Swinburne, particularly among young scholars and early career researchers. The year culminated in a lively conference on Poems and Ballads at St. John’s College, Cambridge, the fruits of which we should begin to see in print next year.
The past year has seen the publication of a new edition of Swinburne’s Selected Verse (Carcanet, 2016), edited by Alex Wong. Coming sixteen years after Kenneth Haynes’s edition of Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads and Atalanta in Calydon (Penguin, 2000), and eleven years after Jerome McGann and Charles L. Sligh’s Major Poems and Selected Prose (Yale, 2004), Wong’s edition is a welcome addition to the growing body of up-to-date critical editions of Swinburne. Wong’s volume is suitable for new students of Swinburne seeking a taste of the range of his work, or as a portable reader containing the highlights of Swinburne’s versecraft. As in Haynes’s edition, Wong’s extensive (though not intrusive) explanatory notes are particularly valuable for their deciphering of Swinburne’s obscure allusions to Ancient Greek and Latin [End Page 394] culture, biblical and Christian myth, and early modern history. Unlike McGann and Sligh’s Major Poems, Wong sacrifices the complete texts of Atalanta and Tristram of Lyonesse (1882), featuring both in long excerpts instead. In place of these long texts, Wong’s Selected Verse provides us with the most representative selection yet of the impressive range of Swinburne’s forms, styles, and subject matter. Of particular interest are the verse-dramas Chastelard (1865) and Bothwell (1874), forgotten pastiches of Elizabethan tragedy that may be among Swinburne’s most critically neglected masterpieces. Wong’s introduction assumes no prior knowledge of Swinburne or his historical context and strikes a balance between Wong’s lucid retellings of some of the more salacious stories that surround Swinburne’s life and more distant appraisal of Swinburne’s place in contemporary literary criticism and poetics.
Sara Lyons’s monograph Algernon Swinburne and Walter Pater: Victorian Aestheticism, Doubt, and Secularisation2 (Legenda, 2015) concerns the complex negotiations between faith and doubt that characterize much of the metaphysical thinking of those English authors we remember as “Decadents” or “Aesthetes.” Lyons’s work is informed by recent challenges to the “secularisation thesis”: that “the conditions of modernity inevitably, or at least irreversibly, relegate religion to the margins of social life and lead to a general disengagement from traditional theologies and supernatural explanations of the world.” The book argues that Swinburne’s theology “move[s] fluidly between a ‘disinterested’ secularism that affirms the poetic value of all religious feelings while affirming the truth of none, and a ‘pagan’ secularism that bids us to return to the world, to sexuality, to life in the here and the now.” Although Swinburne’s relationship with faith and doubt has been explored previously in David Riede’s Swinburne: A Study of Romantic Mythmaking (Univ. of Virginia Press, 1971) and Margot K. Louis’s Swinburne and His Gods: The Roots and Growth of an Agnostic Poetry (McGill, 1990), Lyons grounds her work more thoroughly in Swinburne’s historical context of religious debates. This enables us to understand the theological quandaries of Swinburne’s verse as a social performance as much as an interior psychological struggle.
Among the shorter chapters and articles on Swinburne published this year, critics have continued to explore Swinburne’s relationship with the two generations of canonical Romantic British poets. Kostas Boyiopoulos and Mark Sandy’s volume Decadent Romanticism: 1780–1914 (Ashgate, 2015) contains two chapters on Swinburne: Michael O’Neill’s “‘Stars Caught in My Branches’: Swinburne and Shelley,” and Anna Barton’s “Perverse Forms: Reading Blake’s [End Page 395] Decadence.” Barton’s chapter argues that Swinburne, alone among Blake’s Victorian critics, understood the perverse trickery that makes Blake’s use of the symbol among the most difficult to grasp in the language. According to Barton, Swinburne...