May 5, 1894. Aloofness of Mr. Swinburne’s Muse.
There was a time–let us say, in the early seventies–when many young men tried to write like Mr. Swinburne. Remarkably small success waited on their efforts. Still their numbers and their youth and (for a while also) their persistency seemed to promise a new school of poesy, with Mr. Swinburne for its head and great exemplar: exemplar rather than head, for Mr. Swinburne’s attitude amid all this devotion was rather that of the god than of the priest. He sang, and left the worshippers to work up their own enthusiasm. And to this attitude he has been constant. Unstinting, and occasionally unmeasured, in praise and dispraise of other men, he has allowed his own reputation the noble liberty to look after itself. Nothing, for instance, could have been finer than the careless, almost disdainful, dignity of his bearing in the months that followed Tennyson’s death. The cats were out upon the tiles, then, and his was the luminous, expressive silence of a sphere. One felt, “whether he received it or no, here is the man who can wear the crown.”
And Her Tendency towards Abstractions.
It was not, however, the aloofness of Mr. Swinburne’s bearing that checked the formation of a Swinburnian school of poetry. The cause lay deeper, and has come more and more into the light in the course of Mr. Swinburne’s poetic development–let me say, his thoroughly normal development. We can see now that from the first such a school, such a successful following, was an impossibility. The fact is that Mr. Swinburne has not only genius, but an extremely rare and individual genius. The germ of this individuality may be found, easily enough, in “Atalanta” and the Ballads; but it luxuriates in his later poems and throughout them–flower and leaf and stem. It was hardly more natural in 1870 to confess the magic of the great chorus, “Before the beginning of years,” or of “Dolores,” than to embark upon the vain adventure of imitating them. I cannot imagine a youth in all Great Britain so green or unknowing as to attempt an imitation of “A Nympholept,” perhaps the finest poem in the volume before me.
I say “in Great Britain;” because peculiar as Mr. Swinburne’s genius would be in any country, it is doubly peculiar as the endowment of an English poet. If there be one quality beloved above others by the inhabitants of this island, it is concreteness; and I suppose there never was a poet in the world who used less concreteness of speech than Mr. Swinburne. Mr. Palgrave once noted that the landscape of Keats falls short of the landscape of Shelley in its comparative lack of the larger features of sky and earth; Keats’s was “foreground work” for the most part. But what shall be said of Shelley’s universe after the immense vague regions inhabited by Mr. Swinburne’s muse? She sings of the sea; but we never behold a sail, never a harbor: she sings of passion–among the stars. We seem never to touch earth; page after page is full of thought–for, vast as the strain may be, it is never empty–but we cannot apply it. And all this is extremely distressing to the Briton, who loves practice as his birthright. He comes on a Jacobite song. “Now, at any rate,” he tells himself, “we arrive at something definite: some allusion, however small, to Bonny Prince Charlie.” He reads–
“Faith speaks when hope dissembles;
Faith lives when hope lies dead:
If death as life dissembles,
And all that night assembles
Of stars at dawn lie dead,
Faint hope that smiles and trembles
May tell not well for dread:
But faith has heard it said.”
“Very beautiful,” says the Briton; “but why call this a ‘Jacobite Song’?” Some thorough-going admirer of Mr. Swinburne will ask, no doubt, if I prefer gush about Bonny Prince Charlie. Most decidedly I do not. I am merely pointing out that the poet cares so little for the common human prejudice in favor of concreteness of speech as to give us a Jacobite song which, for all its indebtedness to the historical facts of the Jacobite Risings, might just as well have been put in the mouth of Judas Maccabæus.