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  • Transport and Anxiety over the Music of the Future: Swinburne and Pfeiffer on Wagner’s Lohengrin Prelude
  • Karen Dieleman (bio)

By the 1890s, British Wagnerism “had become a self-propelling cultural movement,” manifested in opera attendance, political and mystical movements, literary allusions and retellings, and other cultural forms (Sutton 3). This prolific fin-de-siècle Wagnerism had its roots in the 1850s to early 1880s, during which time Richard Wagner twice visited London: in 1855, by invitation of the Philharmonic Society; and in 1877, via agent arrangement (Christiansen 48, 63). Neither visit was a full success, financially, musically, or popularly, but the second was a notable improvement on the first. In 1855, the London music establishment still preferred the classical over the contemporary, the commercial over the ideal, and melody over tonal instability; consequently, most people found Wagner’s music “freakish, marginal” (Christiansen 78). By 1877, however, British critics were taking Wagner’s musical aims more seriously, even as the public was becoming more interested in musical novelty. As a result, Wagnerian opera assumed “a central position in the vanguard of Victorian culture” (Christiansen 78).

Contributing to the shift were the London performances of Lohengrin in 1875 and Tannhäuser in 1876. The Tannhäuser myth had already entered British literary culture through poems such as Algernon Charles Swinburne’s “Laus Veneris” (1866) and William Morris’s “The Hill of Venus” (1870), and its continuing influence can be seen in Aubrey Beardsley’s unfinished Venus and Tannhäuser (1896/1907). The Lohengrin myth, by contrast, seems to have entered Victorian poetry mainly after the opera’s arrival in London, with Lohengrin-based poems proliferating from the 1870s to the 1890s.Despite this musical impetus, many of the Lohengrin poems focused on the moral implications of the legend rather than the music that Wagner brought to it: the story of false accusation brought against Elsa after her brother Gottfreid’s apparent death; the arrival in a swan-drawn boat of an unnamed knight to defend her honour; the knight-Elsa marriage on condition that Elsa never ask his identity; her eventual question; his subsequent departure; and the metamorphosis of the swan into Gottfried, now freed from a wicked spell. Consequently, narrative poems generally related the entire story, while lyric [End Page 269] poems centred on or sprang from Elsa’s distress—the best of these being Amy Levy’s sonnet “Lohengrin” (1886).1

At least two poets, though, eschewed these moral and narrative preoccupations in favour of attention to the opera’s instrumental Prelude. Swinburne and Emily Pfeiffer each created short lyric poems on the subject but from significantly different positions regarding Wagner and his aesthetic claims. In this article, I first describe the aesthetic of spiritual vivification as it appears in the Lohengrin Prelude. I then illustrate how Swinburne’s roundel on the Prelude affirms the transcendent effect of the Wagnerian aesthetic as an impressionist program built on repeating forms and aural effects. Subsequently, in the final portion of the article, I explore how Pfeiffer’s paired sonnets on the Prelude deliver a more fraught response that likely represents the more mixed reaction to Wagner of many Victorians. I consider the sonnets’ interlocutions with the discourses of psychology and mesmerism, and the musicological debate about Wagner as evolutionary genius. Lacking a firm sense of resolution as to the value of Wagner’s music, Pfeiffer’s poems are among the earliest in English to address a specific Wagnerian opera. Together with Swinburne’s roundel, they attest to the transport and anxiety that this music provoked.

Wagner’s double stature as musician and cultural critic had grown across Europe from the late 1840s onward, aided in large part by his publication of “Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft” (1850). In this essay, Wagner expresses his belief in a utopian future in which the arts will be synthesized into a form representing an idealized human nature. No longer will opera be “mere entertainment for the jaded bourgeoisie in a world of money-grubbing capitalism” (Furness 75). Rather, “music-drama” (Wagner’s term for his own operas) will lead the way in creating a more exalted life experience in which Love will triumph over...


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