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Swinburne’s Lyrical Poetry
by [?]

and the rest of the buoyant familiar lines. I confess there is something too obvious, insistent, emphatic, too dapper, to give me more than a slight pleasure; but it is possible that I am prejudiced by a dislike of English anapaests (I am aware that the classic terms are not really applicable to our English metres, but the reader will underhand that I mean the metre of the lines just quoted.) I do not find these anapaests in the Elizabethan or in the seventeenth-century poets, or most rarely. They were dear to the eighteenth century, and, much more than the heroic couplet, are the distinctive metre of that age. They swagger–or, worse, they strut–in its lighter verse, from its first year to its last. Swinburne’s anapaests are far too delicate for swagger or strut; but for all their dance, all their spring, all their flight, all their flutter, we are compelled to perceive that, as it were, they perform. I love to see English poetry move to many measures, to many numbers, but chiefly with the simple iambic and the simple trochaic foot. Those two are enough for the infinite variety, the epic, the drama, the lyric, of our poetry. It is, accordingly, in these old traditional and proved metres that Swinburne’s music seems to me most worthy, most controlled, and most lovely. There is his best dignity, and therefore his best beauty. For even beauty is not to be thrust upon us; she is not to solicit us or offer herself thus to the first comer; and in the most admired of those flying lyrics she is thus immoderately lavish of herself. “He lays himself out,” wrote Francis Thompson in an anonymous criticism, “to delight and seduce. The great poets entice by a glorious accident . . . but allurement, in Mr. Swinburne’s poetry, is the alpha and omega.” This is true of all that he has written, but it is true, in a more fatal sense, of these famous tunes of his “music.” Nay, delicate as they are, we are convinced that it is the less delicate ear that most surely takes much pleasure in them, the dull ear that chiefly they delight.

Compare with such luxurious canterings the graver movement of this “Vision of Spring in Winter”:

Sunrise it sees not, neither set of star,
Large nightfall, nor imperial plenilune,
Nor strong sweet shape of the full-breasted noon;
But where the silver-sandalled shadows are,
Too soft for arrows of the sun to mar,
Moves with the mild gait of an ungrown moon.

Even more valuable than this exquisite rhymed stanza is the blank verse which Swinburne released into new energies, new liberties, and new movements. Milton, it need hardly be said, is the master of those who know how to place and displace the stress and accent of the English heroic line in epic poetry. His most majestic hand undid the mechanical bonds of the national line and made it obey the unwritten laws of his genius. His blank verse marches, pauses, lingers, and charges. It feels the strain, it yields, it resists; it is all-expressive. But if the practice of some of the poets succeeding him had tended to make it rigid and tame again, Swinburne was a new liberator. He writes, when he ought, with a finely appropriate regularity, as in the lovely line on the forest glades

That fear the faun’s and know the dryad’s foot,

in which the rule is completely kept, every step of the five stepping from the unaccented place to the accented without a tremor. (I must again protest that I use the word “accent” in a sense that has come to be adapted to English prosody, because it is so used by all writers on English metre, and is therefore understood by the reader, but I think “stress” the better word.) But having written this perfect English-iambic line so wonderfully fit for the sensitive quiet of the woods, he turns the page to the onslaught of such lines–heroic lines with a difference–as report the short-breathed messenger’s reply to Althea’s question by whose hands the boar of Calydon had died: