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Mr. Swinburne’s Later Manner
by [?]

Somebody–I forget for the moment who it was–compared Poetry with Antæus, who was strong when his feet touched Earth, his mother; weaker when held aloft in air. The justice of this criticism I have no space here to discuss; but the difference is patent enough between poetry such as this of Herrick–

“When as in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
The liquefaction of her clothes.”

Or this, of Burns–

“The boat rocks at the pier o’ Leith,
Fu’ loud the wind blaws frae the ferry,
The boat rides by the Berwick-law,
And I maun leave my bonny Mary.”

Or this, of Shakespeare–

“When daisies pied, and violets blue,
And lady smocks all silver-white,
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
Do paint the meadows with delight.”

Or this, of Milton–

“the broad circumference
Hung on his shoulders like the moon, whose orb,
Through optic glass the Tuscan artist views
At evening from the top of Fesolé,
Or in Valdarno….”

And such lines as these by Mr. Swinburne–

“The dark dumb godhead innate in the fair world’s life
Imbues the rapture of dawn and of noon with dread,
Infects the peace of the star-shod night with strife,
Informs with terror the sorrow that guards the dead.
No service of bended knee or of humbled head
May soothe or subdue the God who has change to wife:
And life with death is as morning with evening wed.”

Take Burns’s song, “It was a’ for our right-fu’ King,” and set it beside the Jacobite song quoted above, and it is clear at once that with Mr. Swinburne we pass from the particular and concrete to the general and abstract. And in this direction Mr. Swinburne’s muse has steadily marched. In his “Erechtheus” he tells how the gods gave Pallas the lordship of Athens–

“The lordship and love of the lovely land,
The grace of the town that hath on it for crown
But a headband to wear
Of violets one-hued with her hair.”

Here at least we were allowed a picture of Athens: the violet crown was something definite. But now, when Mr. Swinburne sings of England, we have to precipitate our impressions from lines fluid as these:–

“Things of night at her glance took flight: the
strengths of darkness recoiled and sank:
Sank the fires of the murderous pyres whereon wild
agony writhed and shrank:
Rose the light of the reign of right from gulfs of
years that the darkness drank.”


“Change darkens and lightens around her, alternate
in hope and in fear to be:
Hope knows not if fear speak truth, nor fear whether
hope be not blind as she:
But the sun is in heaven that beholds her immortal,
and girdled with life by the sea.”

I suspect, then, that a hundred years hence, when criticism speaks calm judgment upon all Mr. Swinburne’s writings, she will find that his earlier and more definite poems are the edge of his blade, and such volumes as “Astrophel” the heavy metal behind it. The former penetrated the affections of his countrymen with ease: the latter followed more difficultly through the outer tissues of a people notoriously pachydermatous to abstract speech. And criticism will then know if Mr. Swinburne brought sufficient impact to drive the whole mass of metal deep.

A Voice chanting in the Void.

At present in these later volumes his must seem to us a godlike voice chanting in the void. For, fit or unfit as we may be to grasp the elusive substance of his strains, all must confess the voice of the singer to be divine. At once in the range and suppleness of his music he is not merely the first of our living poets, but incomparable. In learning he has Robert Bridges for a rival, and no other. But no amount of learning could give us 228 pages of music that from first to last has not a flaw. Rather, his marvellous ear has taken him safely through metres set by his learning as so many traps. There is one metre, for instance, that recurs again and again in this volume. Here is a specimen of it:–

“Music bright as the soul of light, for wings an eagle,
for notes a dove,
Leaps and shines from the lustrous lines wherethrough
thy soul from afar above
Shone and sang till the darkness rang with light whose
fire is the fount of love.”

These lines are written of Sir Philip Sidney. Could another man have written them they had stood even better for Mr. Swinburne. But we are considering the metre, not the meaning. Now the metre may have great merits. I am disposed to say that, having fascinated Mr. Swinburne, it must have great merits. That I dislike it is, no doubt, my fault, or rather my misfortune. But undoubtedly it is a metre that no man but Mr. Swinburne could handle without producing a monotony varied only by discords.