Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 16 June 2024

Swinburne, Algernon Charlesfree


Swinburne, Algernon Charlesfree

  • Rikky Rooksby

Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837–1909)

by George Frederic Watts, 1867

Swinburne, Algernon Charles (1837–1909), poet and literary reviewer, was born on 5 April 1837 at 7 Chester Street, London, the second of six children of Admiral Charles Henry Swinburne (1797–1877) and his wife, Lady Jane Henrietta (1809–1896), daughter of George, third earl of Ashburnham (1760–1830), and his wife, Lady Charlotte Percy (d. 1862). Swinburne's father served in the Royal Navy from 1810 to 1836. He loved music and painting, practical activities such as carpentry, and experimented with photography. According to family friend William Sewell, the admiral 'ridiculed and discouraged' (Rooksby, 17) Swinburne's love of poetry when he was a boy. Swinburne had a warm relationship with his mother, a cultured, maternal woman who had spent time in Italy and was able to teach her children French and Italian.

Early years

In his book Boswell's Clap and Other Essays: Medical Analyses of Literary Men's Afflictions (1988), the American physician William B. Ober suggested that Swinburne was a premature baby with mild arrested hydroencephaly. This diagnosis sheds light on the nervous, involuntary movements of the feet and hands which Swinburne exhibited throughout life, as well as his strange, floating walk, difficulty with writing, his habit of covering one eye to read more easily, occasional epileptiform fits, and his masochism.

Swinburne's childhood was passed at East Dene, a large country house in the village of Bonchurch, near Ventnor, Isle of Wight. East Dene commands a fine view of the English Channel, with wooded slopes rising spectacularly to the downs above. The proximity of the sea fostered in Swinburne the intense love of the ocean which permeates his writing. One of his earliest memories was being thrown head first into the sea by his father.

As a child Swinburne was taken on annual visits to Ashburnham Place in Sussex and to his paternal grandfather's estate at Capheaton, Northumberland. Swinburne's uncle Bertram Ashburnham, the fourth earl, amassed an extraordinary library which Swinburne avidly explored when he was older. His beloved grandfather Sir John Edward Swinburne (1760–1860) was prominent in Northumbrian life, owning thousands of acres and heading such bodies as the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle and the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle. The Swinburnes' Northumbrian roots went back to the twelfth century and the poet was proud of his connection with the north of England. He composed and reconstructed ‘border’ ballads, and in later life was fond of calling himself a ‘borderer’. Swinburne saw himself as descended from a line of Catholic and Jacobite exiles whom he romantically portrayed as martyrs in the cause of the Stuarts; he had a lifelong fascination with the figure of Mary Stuart.

William Sewell wrote of the young Swinburne:

the moment he came into the room I saw that he was not a common boy. Very small, delicately formed, very small feet and hands, golden hair—it was not red exactly, pale eyes, freckled complexion, feminine features, a shy manner, but not awkward. And the moment you talked to him as if you respected him, he brightened up, and talked freely, especially of his passion for Shakespeare and Italian poetry. And he was then quite a boy.

Rooksby, 17

Swinburne had four sisters, Alice (1838–1903), Edith (1840–1863), Charlotte (1842–1899), and Isabel (1846–1915), and one brother, Edward (1849–1890). Charlotte's twin brother, Charles John, died aged six months in 1843, when Swinburne was five, and this death may have influenced Swinburne's fond feelings for young children. The family was high-church Anglican. Swinburne wrote of his ecstatic participation in the mass as a child and youth but his later irrevocable rejection of Christianity caused some strain in family relationships.

Early education

In 1848 Swinburne stayed at Brooke rectory in the west Wight with the Revd Foster Fenwick (1790–1858) who tutored him for Eton College. William Sewell suggested to the family that Swinburne would be better placed at Radley College, near Oxford, but on 24 April 1849 Swinburne entered Eton. His cousin Lord Redesdale described Swinburne as 'a fragile little creature',

as he stood there between his father and mother, with his wondering eyes fixed upon me! Under his arm he hugged his Bowdler's Shakespeare … He was strangely tiny. His limbs were small and delicate; and his sloping shoulders looked far too weak to carry his great head, the size of which was exaggerated by the tousled mass of red hair standing almost at right angles to it … His features were small and beautiful, chiselled as daintily as those of some Greek sculptor's masterpieces. His skin was very white—not unhealthy, but a transparent tinted white, such as one sees in the petals of some roses … another characteristic which Algernon inherited from his mother was the … exquisitely soft voice with a rather sing-song intonation … His language, even at that age was beautiful, fanciful and richly varied.

Rooksby, 28

Swinburne lived in the house of his tutor, James Leigh Joynes, and later spoke fondly of the kindness Mrs Joynes showed him at a difficult time when he felt vulnerable and cruelly deprived of East Dene and its environs. Eton stimulated Swinburne's passion for literature. Through its library he discovered writers who remained lifelong enthusiasms, such as Sappho, Catullus, Hugo, and Landor. He encountered Elizabethan and Jacobean drama in the plays of Marlowe and Webster, and Lamb's Specimens of the English Dramatic Poets, and proceeded to write imitations of them. Swinburne celebrated the visit of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to Eton on 4 June 1851 with a poem entitled 'The Triumph of Gloriana'. He avidly read each novel of Dickens as it was published serially. His academic performance was generally good; in 1852 he won the prince consort's prize for modern languages. A family journey north in September 1849 led to the young Swinburne's meeting Wordsworth.

Eton also had a less fortunate influence on Swinburne's psychosexual development. Predictably, given his unusual appearance and manner, Swinburne was bullied by the other boys, and neither Joynes nor his parents took this seriously. There is evidence that he both witnessed and experienced Eton discipline through the customary mode of ‘birching’. In adult life Swinburne enjoyed composing scenes in verse and prose in which schoolboys experience the terror and masochistic ecstasy of being beaten by figures of authority such as schoolmasters and fathers. No sexual acts are described, nor obscene words used, and the focus is obsessively on a few motifs. These compositions include 'Eton: another Ode', a flagellant counterpart to his official 'Eton: an Ode', a sequence of poems called 'The Flogging Block', 'The End of a Half', 'The Schoolboy's Tragedy', 'Redgie's Luck', 'Cuckoo Weir', and many others. A handful were published anonymously in Swinburne's lifetime, namely 'Arthur's Flogging', 'Reginald's Flogging', and (probably) 'A Boy's First Flogging' in The Whippingham Papers (1887), 'Charlie Collingwood's Flogging' in The Pearl (September 1879), and 'Frank Fane: a Ballad' in The Pearl (May 1880). It is not known whether this was with Swinburne's prior knowledge or consent. In addition to its presence in his poetry, numerous references to flogging in Swinburne's letters and fiction demonstrate the grip it exercised on his imagination. It is unlikely that Eton alone created this obsession in Swinburne but probable that the more brutal aspects of its regime stimulated a latent masochism, a psychological trait perhaps rooted in the physiological results of the arrested hydroencephaly which Ober has posited. Sadism and masochism feature in many of Swinburne's major works, including Chastelard, Atalanta in Calydon (both 1865), Poems and Ballads, and in the unfinished novel known as Lesbia Brandon.

Swinburne left Eton toward the end of his seventeenth year, either in late 1853 or early 1854. The exact reason for his departure is unknown. There may have been discipline problems, or the masters had recognized Swinburne's sexual temperament and were unsure how to handle a youth whose sensibility was so different. From Eton Swinburne went to Northumberland to be tutored by the Revd John Wilkinson, curate of Cambo, near Capheaton. It may have been at this time that he met Pauline, Lady Trevelyan and her husband, Sir Walter Trevelyan, whose home of Wallington was only a few miles from Capheaton Hall. The Trevelyans were the centre of an important artistic circle and Swinburne formed a respectful relationship with the cultured Lady Trevelyan who attempted to exert a restraining influence when the poet was about to publish the controversial Poems and Ballads.

Swinburne was also tutored by James Russell Woodford, later bishop of Ely, at Lower Easton, near Bristol. Swinburne's youthful imagination and reckless spirit were fired by news of the cavalry charge at Balaklava in 1854. He asked his parents if he could enlist and they refused. In an impulsive demonstration of a courage he thought they thought he lacked, Swinburne risked his life climbing the dangerous Culver cliff, a few miles north of Bonchurch. An account he wrote for his cousin Mary Gordon (1840–1926) claimed that he only just succeeded in reaching the top, and there narrowly avoided losing consciousness and falling off. Between July and August 1855 Swinburne made his first trip abroad in the company of a maternal uncle, Major-General Thomas Ashburnham. They visited France and Germany and Swinburne, ever ready to revel in the elements, was thrilled when they were caught in an unforgettable display of thunder and lightning during the return crossing over the channel. The experience inspired a lyric, 'A Channel Passage', some forty years later.

Oxford, 1856–1860

Swinburne matriculated from Balliol College, Oxford, on 24 January 1856. He did not take to Oxford particularly well. Neither what he described as its foggy damp weather nor its atmosphere of recent theological controversy appealed to him. At Balliol he came under the influence of Benjamin Jowett, classicist and later master of the college. The combination of the impulsive, iconoclastic poet and the even-tempered, reserved Jowett seems an unlikely one, but the two men eventually formed a bond which persisted (with much benefit to Swinburne) until Jowett's death in 1893, and was celebrated in a memorial essay, 'Recollections of Professor Jowett'. Academically, Swinburne did not please Balliol by failing the examination known as ‘responsions’ in his second term; he retook it on 10 December 1856. In the summer of 1856 Swinburne spent a few weeks visiting Radley College. The visit culminated with Sewell's banning him, fearing Swinburne would be a bad influence on the boys because of his 'sinister tenets' (James, 229).

Swinburne's rejection of Christianity was confirmed by his involvement with the Old Mortality Society and his friendship with its leading light John Nichol, later professor of English at Glasgow University, whom Swinburne described as the 'guide of my boyhood in the paths of my free thought and republican faith' (Lafourcade, Jeunesse, 1.122). The two men holidayed together in the western isles of Scotland in the summer of 1857 and in Guernsey in 1876. Old Mortality was convened in November 1856, though the second meeting was not held until May 1857. Over the next two years its term-time meetings were enlivened by Swinburne's papers on such figures as Emily Brontë, Christopher Marlowe, John Webster, Robert Browning, and William Morris. The society published three numbers of a journal, Undergraduate Papers (December 1857–April 1858), to which Swinburne contributed five pieces. Swinburne also had a short account of Congreve published in the Imperial Dictionary of Universal Biography (1857).

Swinburne's time at Oxford was chiefly important for bringing him into contact with the Pre-Raphaelite artists who painted the Oxford Union murals in the autumn of 1857. A mutual affinity was felt between Swinburne and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, and William Morris, whose poetry Swinburne took up with much enthusiasm. Rossetti was delighted to have Swinburne as a model and protégé and introduced him to his brother William Michael Rossetti who became a lifelong friend. The Pre-Raphaelites' passion for all things medieval and Arthurian, coupled with the example of Morris's The Defence of Guenevere (1858), soon had Swinburne writing medievalist poems such as 'Queen Yseult'.

After a second-class pass in moderations Swinburne chose to read for honours in law and modern history. Despite his winning the Taylorian prize for Italian and French in June 1858, his academic studies were steadily eclipsed by other interests. In addition to his membership of Old Mortality, he attended political debates at the Oxford Union, and read widely in the Taylorian Library's holdings in French literature. Above all, Swinburne experimented with a number of poetic forms and voices, some medieval, but also imitating Browning, Shakespeare, Morris, and Keats. Early drafts of his first published works, the plays The Queen Mother, Rosamond, and Chastelard, originate from this period.

Swinburne's individualistic behaviour brought him inevitably into conflict with Balliol College. He was officially cautioned in June and December 1858, but matters came to a head in November 1859 when he was reprimanded for failing an examination and showing contempt for the authority of the college by being ‘rusticated’ (sent away from the university) for a term. He spent the first months of 1860 at Navestock in Essex studying law and medieval history with the Revd William Stubbs (1825–1901), later bishop of Oxford. On his return to Oxford he successfully resat his examination in April but his work for finals was interrupted by a fall from a horse at the end of May. He told his mother that if he felt unable to get a distinguished pass he would not sit the examinations. As a consequence, Swinburne left Oxford without a degree. In later years he embroidered this somewhat, describing his Oxford career as ending 'in complete and scandalous failure'.

The death of Swinburne's grandfather in September 1860 had the effect of closing Capheaton Hall to Swinburne, which had been an important home of his childhood and youth.

Early years as a writer in London, 1860–1865

Acceding to Swinburne's wishes, his father gave him an allowance of £400 p.a. on which to live in London. By the end of 1860 his first book, The Queen-Mother, and Rosamond, was published by Basil Montagu Pickering, the cost met by the author. It appears to have attracted only two brief, dismissive reviews. Although Swinburne published no more books until 1865, the quantity of his writing during these years is astonishing, and gradually from the imitative labours of the apprentice an individual voice and themes emerged. At no later period did he match the creativity of the six years between his leaving Oxford and the publication of Poems and Ballads (1866). Apart from scores of individual poems (many lengthy), Swinburne wrote critical essays, a book on William Blake, several verse plays, at least six short stories for a collection provisionally titled the 'Triameron', and a longer narrative published posthumously as Lucretia Borgia, or, The Chronicle of Tebaldeo Tebaldei (1942). By 1862 he had finished the novel A Year's Letters (serialized in The Tatler in 1877, published in 1904 as Love's Cross-Currents) and by 1864 had started a second, Lesbia Brandon.

Through the Pre-Raphaelite set Swinburne met a number of important people in London's artistic society and impressed select gatherings with passionate or hilarious readings. In May 1861 he met Richard Monckton Milnes, Lord Houghton, who granted Swinburne access to his exotic library at Fryston in Yorkshire, and introduced him to the writings of the marquis de Sade in August 1862. Despite epistolary disclaimers, Swinburne became obsessed with de Sade and La nouvelle Justine, ou, Les malheurs de la vertu, frequently quoting or burlesquing this work in his letters. De Sade's example strengthened Swinburne's willingness to use sadistic images and to make explicit his own anti-theism. Another important friendship was with the explorer Richard Burton, whom Swinburne met in June 1861. Burton introduced Swinburne to the freethinking, progressive conversation of the Anthropological Society (which Swinburne formally joined in April 1864) and its wilder offshoot, the Cannibal Club. This relationship encouraged Swinburne's pagan and humanist views, and his drinking, which by 1866 reached alcoholic proportions.

In 1862 Swinburne published a border ballad, 'The Fratricide' (later retitled 'The Bloody Son'), and a short story, 'Dead Love', in George Meredith's Once a Week. In The Spectator Swinburne published a spirited and timely defence of Meredith's Modern Love, and also published the poems 'Before Parting', 'After Death', 'Faustine', 'A Song in Time of Revolution', 'A Song in Time of Order', 'The Sundew', and 'August', all later reprinted in Poems and Ballads. Swinburne also produced three critical articles on Victor Hugo for The Spectator, and championed Baudelaire's Les fleurs du mal within its pages. Swinburne's irrepressible sense of mischief also led him to submit reviews of two non-existent French poets whose tone of moral outrage satirized that of so many contemporary reviews, a plan foiled only by the suspicion of the editor R. H. Hutton.

Georgiana Burne-Jones memorably described Swinburne at this period:

His appearance was unusual and in some ways beautiful, for his hair was glorious in abundance and colour and his eyes indescribably fine. When repeating poetry he had a perfectly natural way of lifting them in a rapt, unconscious gaze, and their clear green colour softened by thick brow eyelashes was unforgettable … He was restless beyond words, scarcely standing still at all and almost dancing as he walked, while even in sitting he moved continually, seeming to keep time, by a swift movement of the hands at the wrists, and sometimes of the feet also, with some inner rhythm of excitement. He was courteous and affectionate and unsuspicious, and faithful beyond most people to those he really loved.

Hyder, 6

One of the people Swinburne truly loved as a friend was Rossetti's wife, Elizabeth Siddal. He was one of the last people to see her alive and testified at the inquest held into her death in February 1862. Swinburne took rooms with Rossetti in Tudor House, Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, from October 1862 until some time in 1864. William Michael Rossetti and George Meredith also nominally participated in this scheme, though neither of them spent very much time at Tudor House, and Swinburne was often away. He suffered a further blow when in February 1863 his favourite sister, Edith, was taken severely ill at Bournemouth with the consumption first diagnosed in 1856. She was expected to die there but recovered sufficiently to be taken back to East Dene. Swinburne went to Paris in March with Whistler, where he met Fantin-Latour and Manet; a visit to the Louvre inspired the sonnet sequence 'Hermaphroditus'. He spent most of the summer at East Dene, where Edith died in September. His feelings about the hopelessness of his sister's death seem to colour certain chapters in Lesbia Brandon. Significantly, about this time he commenced the play that made him famous, Atalanta in Calydon, the central image of which is a person consumed as a brand thrust into a fire, a vivid symbol for the inner wasting fever of consumption.

While the rest of his family went to the continent to escape the painful associations of East Dene with Edith's death, Swinburne stayed at the Isle of Wight residence of the Gordon family, Northcourt. The Gordons were close friends and blood relatives of the Swinburnes. Originally intending to stay only a week Swinburne remained from October until the spring of 1864, the longest period that he and his cousin Mary Gordon had spent together since childhood. This stay marked the closest moment in their relationship. If there were strong feelings on his part for Mary this was probably the time when they were at their most intense, heightened by his loss of Edith. Mary delighted Swinburne when she played Handel on the Northcourt organ, the music filling his mind with new verses. He collaborated on her second book, The Children of the Chapel (1864), to which he contributed a morality play, 'The Pilgrimage of Pleasure'.

Swinburne's ‘lost love’

In his mid-twenties Swinburne suffered a disappointment in love which made him decide never to marry. The identity of the woman he loved and who inspired some of his finest lyrics remains the most important mystery of Swinburne's life. Swinburne told his first biographer, Edmund Gosse, of this disappointment and its relation to the poem 'The Triumph of Time'. In 1875 Swinburne congratulated Gosse on his impending marriage, adding:

I suppose it must be the best thing that can befall a man to win and keep the woman that he loves while yet young; at any rate I can congratulate my friend on his good hap without any too jealous afterthought of the reverse experience which left my own young manhood ‘a barren stock’—if I may cite that phrase without seeming to liken myself to a male Queen Elizabeth.

Swinburne Letters, 3.51

'The Triumph of Time' clearly states that the woman in question is marrying someone else, and implies in its opening stanza that the speaker may not openly have declared his love. In 1959 Cecil Y. Lang published an article, 'Swinburne's Lost Love', in which he argued persuasively that the most likely candidate for this role was Swinburne's cousin Mary Gordon, who some time in 1863 or 1864 became engaged to Colonel Robert William Disney Leith, a distinguished soldier who returned home a local hero to Aberdeenshire (also the home of the Gordons) after serving in India. They married in June 1865. In her selection of Swinburne's correspondence, The Boyhood of Algernon Charles Swinburne (1917), Mrs Disney Leith denied that there had been any romance between them.

It is not known how or when Swinburne found out about this engagement. After leaving Northcourt in the spring of 1864 he went to France and Italy with Lord Houghton. In Italy he met one of his literary idols, Walter Savage Landor, and Seymour Kirkup, a friend of Blake's. After staying with Lord Houghton at Fryston in August, Swinburne joined his friend John William Inchbold, the Leeds-born painter, in Tintagel, north Cornwall, until November. While in Cornwall Swinburne finished Atalanta in Calydon and wrote an elegy for Landor when news reached him of Landor's death that September. During the stay in Cornwall Swinburne corresponded with Mary and he saw her in London when he returned. Given the lack of evidence, this seems the likeliest time for her to have told him of her decision to marry Colonel Disney Leith.

There has been a persistent ill-informed tendency to devalue Swinburne's writing by stating that it is founded on literature and does not have the authenticity of work which springs from deep, lived experience. In fact, his themes of disappointment in love, in love's transient or illusory nature, of death, sterility, and 'the mystery of the cruelty of things' (Anactoria) can be seen to have a clear source in the emotional losses Swinburne suffered between 1860 and 1865, culminating in the marriage of the woman he loved from childhood. When Swinburne wrote in 'Dolores' that 'marriage and death and division / Make barren our lives', the sentiment came directly out of experience, not out of his reading.

Atalanta in Calydon (1865) and Poems and Ballads (1866)

Atalanta in Calydon was published in March 1865 by Edward Moxon & Co. in an edition of at least 500 copies in a cream binding with a gold ‘roundel’ design by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It drew on a story in Ovid and Apollodorus, and although there was disagreement as to whether as a tragedy Atalanta was truly Greek, reviews were favourable and some went as far as to hail Swinburne as a new poetic talent of the first magnitude. In November 1865 it was followed by a five-act play, Chastelard. Many reviews complained about the immoral nature of the passion of Chastelard for Mary, queen of Scots, and his wilful pursuit of romantic self-destruction. As if in imitation, Swinburne's personal life grew increasingly erratic after 1865. Among his newer friends were the artist Simeon Solomon, the Welsh anthologer George Powell (who appears to have shared to some degree Swinburne's preoccupation with flagellation), and Rossetti's friend Charles Augustus Howell.

In December 1865 there was an important exchange of letters between Swinburne and Lady Trevelyan, who was concerned that he should censor his own forthcoming poems so they could be enjoyed by the greatest number of readers. Swinburne chose largely to ignore this advice. Others whose opinion Swinburne respected, such as Ruskin, gave up trying to counsel the headstrong poet. In March 1866 Swinburne edited a selection of Byron's poems with an introduction that discussed the controversy that had greeted them. Ironically, this anticipated the furore over Swinburne's Poems and Ballads in August 1866.

Poems and Ballads sparked a controversy which has few rivals in English poetry. Even if he had never published anything else, Swinburne's fame was assured by this small green volume of 344 pages. Poems and Ballads contains such important poems as 'Anactoria', 'Hymn to Proserpine', 'Dolores', 'Hesperia', 'Itylus', 'The Garden of Proserpine', and 'Laus Veneris'. It was a dazzling collection. Swinburne had developed an original poetic voice, lyrical and possessed of an energy only matched in the period by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and written in a marvellous variety of stanza forms and metres. Much as Swinburne admired Tennyson, Browning, and Shelley, his work stood clear of theirs. His themes were guaranteed to be shocking to many Victorian readers. The poems espoused republicanism, fulminated against priests and kings, rejected the theology and consolations of Christianity, and celebrated decadent romantic and sexual feelings. The book was learned and cosmopolitan in outlook. It established Swinburne as not only the leading new poet of the day but an international icon for progressive thinkers. In the late 1860s and 1870s Swinburne's very name seemed a trumpet blast for those who wanted a more liberal, less puritanical society.

The first reviews, by Robert Buchanan in The Athenaeum and John Morley in the Saturday Review on 4 August, were very critical. The next day, frightened by rumours of imminent prosecution, James Bertrand Payne, head of Moxon, withdrew the book from sale. After seeking advice from friends, an irate Swinburne struck a deal with John Camden Hotten to reissue the book, despite the fact that Swinburne had that March rejected Hotten as a potential publisher of his work. Poems and Ballads appeared again in September 1866 and the debate over its merits resumed and persisted into 1867, but there was no prosecution. G. W. Carleton printed the book in America, where the controversy served to boost sales. In November Hotten brought out Swinburne's pamphlet Notes on Poems and Reviews. Witty and articulate, it is one of his best critical essays and a crucial document in the history of aestheticism and freedom of expression. Further commentary came from William Michael Rossetti who published Swinburne's Poems and Ballads at the same time.

From Christmas 1866 to February 1867 Swinburne stayed with his family at their new home of Holmwood, Shiplake, near Henley-on-Thames, where they had moved after quitting East Dene in 1865. There must have been some tensions between the poet and his parents, sisters, and brother, given the public outcry over his poems and their anti-Christian content. His sense of estrangement is alluded to in the original version of the lyric 'Pastiche', initially published as 'Regret'.

The political phase, 1867–1875

By 1867 Swinburne was consciously moving beyond the art for art's sake position that had underpinned his writing. His long-standing interest in French and Italian politics now inspired him to commence A Song of Italy in the autumn of 1866. This long lyric and the 'Ode on the Insurrection in Candia', both of which appeared in the spring of 1867, signalled this change of direction, which was based on the need to fill the void of belief dramatized in Poems and Ballads. The change was confirmed in March 1867 when Swinburne finally met his hero the Italian patriot Giuseppe Mazzini.

Early in 1868 Swinburne published his ground-breaking Study of William Blake, after five years' research, complete with hand-coloured facsimiles of Blake's illustrated writing. Swinburne's interpretation was a creative misreading that played down the significance of Blake's Christianity and developed some odd parallels with de Sade, but was important because Swinburne was the first critic to take Blake's work seriously. Swinburne's appreciation of the visual arts is evident in two essays published in 1868, 'Notes on some designs of the old masters of Florence' and Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1868 (the latter with William Michael Rossetti).

During the winter of 1867–8 Swinburne had an affair with the American Adah Isaacs Menken, a highly paid popular entertainer who had also outraged public opinion, in her case with what were then judged to be indecorous theatre performances. Swinburne may have helped revise her verses, posthumously published as Infelicia (1868). Photographs of the poet with Menken were displayed in various London shop windows. Swinburne also found sexual diversion in a flagellant brothel in St John's Wood.

In 1868 while on holiday with his friend George Powell at Etretat, Normandy, Swinburne was carried out to sea by strong currents and was saved from drowning by French fishermen. By the late 1860s Swinburne's drinking was damaging his health and alienating his acquaintances. A pattern was established in which Swinburne's health would break down, messages would be conveyed back to his family, and his father would journey to London to take his son back to the calm and sobriety of Holmwood where Swinburne would recover, then return to London only to initiate another round of the cycle. By 1870 friends reported Swinburne exhibiting delirium tremens. His health was further disturbed by ‘fits’ that were reportedly not caused by drink. There were two such fits in July 1868, which led to Swinburne's being taken home by his father and remaining at Holmwood for several months. In 1869 Swinburne reviewed Hugo, published 'Notes on the text of Shelley', continued to scout disaster at the Arts Club by getting drunk and annoying the other members with his outbursts, and visited Vichy with Richard Burton, a holiday commemorated in late poems such as the 'Elegy 1869–91' written after Burton's death.

In 1870 Swinburne published the Ode on the Proclamation of the French Republic in pamphlet form and after many delays in 1871 a collection of philosophical and political verse, Songs before Sunrise. Swinburne's lyrical techniques and energetic metres are still in evidence, though there is a slight narrowing of imagery and vocabulary. The book had generally better reviews than Poems and Ballads, since Swinburne eschewed sexual themes for republican politics and a humanist positivism. Songs before Sunrise has often been judged as less personal than its predecessor, but it contains a personal animus directed at Christianity which Swinburne evidently felt failed him in his hour of need, during the tragedies of the early 1860s. Songs before Sunrise contains at least two of Swinburne's best poems, 'Hertha' and 'Before a Crucifix', as well as the rhetorically impressive 'Hymn of Man'.

Songs before Sunrise was published by F. S. Ellis because Swinburne had grown increasingly suspicious of Hotten, who he believed was reprinting Poems and Ballads without informing the author to avoid paying royalties. The 'Hotten question' is a continual theme in Swinburne's correspondence in the early 1870s, especially with William Michael Rossetti. Another publisher, D. White, brought out the pamphlet Under the Microscope (1872), which was composed of Swinburne's witty animadversions against the Quarterly Review, Alfred Austin, and Tennyson's Idylls of the King. This essay is a key document in the last controversy over the work of the Pre-Raphaelites. In October 1871 poet and critic Robert Buchanan had attacked Dante Gabriel Rossetti in an essay entitled 'The fleshly school of poetry', after Swinburne had published a laudatory review of Rossetti's Ballads and Poems in May 1870. The antipathy between Buchanan and the Pre-Raphaelites dated back at least to 1866, but the dispute proved the last straw for Rossetti's already strained nerves, precipitating a mental breakdown and suicide attempt in the summer of 1872. What first seemed a temporary hiatus in their communication became a permanent break. Some have suggested that Rossetti felt aggrieved at Swinburne for stoking the controversy, and when Rossetti died in 1882, Swinburne stayed away from the funeral.

By this time Swinburne had little contact with Burne-Jones, Morris, Burton (who was often abroad), or Lord Houghton. Simeon Solomon was persona non grata with Swinburne following Solomon's arrest and trial for soliciting in London in 1873. If there were losses, there were some gains. Swinburne remained on good terms with William Michael Rossetti, with whom he kept a learned and relatively sober correspondence. He made occasional trips to Oxford to see Jowett and went to Scotland with the master of Balliol on several reading parties in the early 1870s. In January 1874 the two men visited west Cornwall, staying at Penzance and exploring Kynance cove on the Lizard. Swinburne also befriended Edmund Gosse, his future biographer.

The most significant new relationship was with Theodore Watts, later Theodore Watts-Dunton (1832–1914), a solicitor with literary ambitions, who was part of the Rossetti circle and met Swinburne in the autumn of 1872. Watts's first service to Swinburne was to take on the protracted negotiations with Hotten over Swinburne's publishing. An unexpected resolution came in 1873 when Hotten suddenly died. Control of Hotten's firm went to the more respectable Andrew Chatto who steered the imprint away from the murkier waters that Hotten had dredged, toward more salubrious tides. Eventually, after some fraught negotiations between Watts and Chatto, a deal was struck, and for the rest of his life Swinburne's books were published by Chatto.

The first was Swinburne's enormous Bothwell (1874), his second play to deal with events in the life of Mary Stuart. Six years in the writing, this herculean labour defeated Swinburne's dramatic vision, as his painstaking historical research demanded nothing be left out. The trilogy was completed with Mary Stuart (1881). Unexpectedly, the first edition of Bothwell sold out immediately and brought praise from many quarters, including his family and relations, no doubt relieved he had chosen an uncontroversial topic. The energies expended on Bothwell unfortunately diverted Swinburne from others more worthy, notably his novel Lesbia Brandon, where it was Swinburne's intention to mix prose and verse to create an original form, and his Arthurian poem Tristram of Lyonesse which, although started in 1869, did not appear until 1882.

More political poems were gathered in the vitriolic Songs of Two Nations (1875) which contained sonnets titled 'Dirae' that drew criticism because of their deployment of Christian allusions in a ferocious diatribe. However much he rejected Christian belief, Swinburne could not do without the resonance of its imagery and language. Swinburne ventured into Russian politics with the pamphlet Notes of an English Republican on the Muscovite Crusade (1876). Partly owing to Jowett's classical influence, Erechtheus (1876) returned to the Greek tragedy form of Atalanta in Calydon. Erechtheus has been admired by some but found too abstract and severe in outlook by others. Much of Swinburne's best criticism was collected in Essays and Studies (1875). Swinburne spent some months in the summer of 1874 on the Isle of Wight with Lady Mary Gordon at her house, The Orchard, Niton, only a few miles from East Dene. There he read Homer, swam frequently (almost drowning on one occasion), and worked on the innovative George Chapman (1875). A Note on Charlotte Brontë (1877) challenged the current estimation of George Eliot, by claiming that Charlotte and Emily Brontë were greater writers; Swinburne was a perceptive early admirer of Wuthering Heights. Swinburne's own novel A Year's Letters was serialized in The Tatler in 1877 under the pseudonym of Mrs Horace Manners.

Decline and recovery

The quality of Swinburne's life steadily declined through the middle of the 1870s. In 1876 he spoke of 'the dull and monotonous puppet-show of my life, which often strikes me as too barren of action or enjoyment to be much worth holding on to' (Rooksby, 225). In March 1877 his father died and thereafter his mother was often not well enough personally to undertake the rescue missions to London which the admiral had carried out on many such occasions.

The poems written since 1866 which were elegiac and romantic rather than political were gathered in Poems and Ballads Second Series (1878), a worthy if less controversial successor to the 1866 miscellany. It contains the magnificent elegy for Baudelaire 'Ave atque vale', generally admired translations from Villon, as well as poems like 'At a Month's End', 'Relics', 'A Vision of Spring in Winter', and 'A Forsaken Garden', which spring from a contemplation of the romantic disappointment Swinburne suffered in his twenties. These lyrics have all the mellow yet intense colour of Tiffany stained glass, and, like Songs before Sunrise, represent an extension of his poetry, not a pale imitation of his earlier work.

Swinburne seems to have been very ill during the winter of 1878 (there is a significant gap in his correspondence) and friends such as William Michael Rossetti were concerned about his health. Now suffering from increasing deafness and a lack of money, Swinburne would probably have died within a short space of time of complications arising from alcoholism and self-neglect if Watts had not stepped in and invited the debilitated Swinburne to stay for a time at his sister's house in Putney. Watts was in the process of finding somewhere to live, and the two men reached an agreement to share a house. Swinburne rallied and spent much of the summer at Holmwood with his mother and sisters. In September 1879 Swinburne, Watts, and several other members of Watts's family moved to a house at the bottom of Putney Hill called The Pines. There Swinburne found the orderly life he had never known living on his own. Alcoholic excess became a thing of the past; Watts made sure that the poet drank only a bottle of beer at lunch. Swinburne found in Watts's extended family a partial cure for the loneliness he had experienced in the 1870s, forming an intense friendship with Bertie Mason, the young son of Watts's sister Miranda, which inspired fifty poems of little literary merit but some biographical interest. His life bedded down into domestic routine, if not quite as clockwork as many accounts have liked to state, under Watts's watchful, perhaps over-protective eye. There were yearly holidays, often to Watts's own East Anglia or the south coast.

This change in Swinburne's life also had negative features. Watts starved many of Swinburne's older friendships by not allowing people of whom he disapproved entry to The Pines. Watts coarsened Swinburne's critical judgement, a process aided by the creeping conservatism of age and Swinburne's own temperament which was always drawn to extremes of love or hate. The more comical aspects of this domestic arrangement have formed a literary legend which often substitutes for serious appraisal of Swinburne's later writing.

Last works

The recovery of his health made Swinburne very productive as a writer, with twenty-three volumes appearing after 1879: ten volumes of poetry, six plays, six works of criticism, and his novel A Year's Letters, which found book publication in 1904 as Love's Cross-Currents. Swinburne's literary criticism declined in quality during this period. Genuine insights and discerning value judgements are partially hidden by the over-elaborate and sometimes shrill prose in which they are couched. The apparent recantations in the essays on Whitman (1887) and Whistler (1888) show the baleful influence of Watts's narrower opinions. Swinburne's criticism was published in A Study of Shakespeare (1880), Miscellanies (1886), A Study of Victor Hugo (1887), A Study of Ben Jonson (1889), Studies in Prose and Poetry (1894), and The Age of Shakespeare (1908).

The six plays of this period were Mary Stuart (1881), Marino Faliero (1885), Locrine (1887), The Sisters (1892), Rosamund, Queen of the Lombards (1899), and a fragment, The Duke of Gandia (1908). Although not without some fine writing and a growing compression in form, most of these are not truly dramatic entities. Archaic in form and style, they are damaged by Swinburne's habit of writing for an imagined Elizabethan audience. However, The Sisters is important for the glimpses it gives of Swinburne's early life, his passion for Northumberland, and the emotional loss he suffered as a young man.

Swinburne's later poetry comprises Studies in Song (1880), Songs of the Springtides (1880), The Heptalogia (1880, published anonymously), Tristram of Lyonesse (1882), A Century of Roundels (1883), A Midsummer Holiday (1884), Poems and Ballads, Third Series (1889), Astrophel (1894), The Tale of Balen (1896), and A Channel Passage (1904). Watts was largely responsible for the audaciously misrepresentative but frequently reprinted Selections from Swinburne (1887), where Swinburne allowed the bulk of his poetry prior to 1879 to be expunged in favour of more recent poems describing landscapes and the sea, subjects of which Watts approved.

Contrary to common belief, Swinburne did not ‘die’ as a poet in 1879. It is true that a large proportion of this later verse is unrewarding and mechanical, especially where the topics of choice were babies, Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, Shakespeare, Hugo, Landor, or queen and country. But the patient reader will find poems not only very good in their own right but that show Swinburne exploring new territory. These include 'By the North Sea', 'Evening on the Broads', 'On the Cliffs', 'Thalassius', 'In Memory of John William Inchbold', 'Loch Torridon', 'To a Sea-mew', 'The Lake of Gaube', 'In a Rosary', and 'A Nympholept', and pre-eminently Tristram of Lyonesse (1882).

Its nine cantos of lyrical heroic couplets retell the story of Tristram and Iseult in a manner that starkly contrasts with the versions by Arnold and Tennyson. Much of the success of Tristram of Lyonesse arises because the story had multiple personal resonances for Swinburne. He vivifies the legend by including landscape descriptions based on his knowledge of Northumberland, his visit to the Longships lighthouse in 1859, and to Cornwall in 1864 and 1874. The poem is a compendium of almost all his major themes and preoccupations, including romantic love, sexuality, death, time, and transience. Its hymning of the beauty and energy of the natural world, especially the sea, has an intensity which is almost mystical. Despite their tragic fate, the lovers enjoy a fully consummated love. If, as Swinburne wrote in 'Triumph of Time', 'Let come what will, there is one thing worth, / To have had fair love in the life upon earth', then for a while Tristram and Iseult do indeed possess 'the one thing worth'. In poetic terms at least Tristram of Lyonesse for its author reverses the 'reverse experience' of his lost love.

Swinburne's philosophical position develops from the atheistic 1866 poems through the humanism of Songs before Sunrise to an attempt to create a mythos in which Apollo as sun-god becomes god of poetry and life, as seen in a poem such as 'By the North Sea'. This in turn dissolves into an outlook arguably agnostic. In later poems such as 'Loch Torridon' or 'The Lake of Gaube' there is a fascinating tension between Swinburne's intellectual resistance to the notion of consciousness surviving death and an emotional desire to believe that it does. This tension is mirrored in the stylistic conflict between the prose organization of the poetry (what it says) and its lyricism (the way it says it). As with W. B. Yeats, Swinburne's later poetry exhibits a recurring engagement with death. He wrote many elegies in later years, some inspired by the deaths of relatives and close friends (Swinburne was survived only by his youngest sister, Isabel).

At the end of the 1880s Swinburne seems to have exchanged letters with his cousin Mrs Disney Leith. As Mary confessed, her marriage had caused 'something of a gap in our constant correspondence and intercourse' (Leith, 26–7), though Swinburne had kept in touch with her mother, Lady Mary Gordon. After Colonel Disney Leith died in 1892, Swinburne and Mary wrote more often, in a humorous cipher, and shared amused fantasies about schooldays and flagellation. She also visited him at The Pines. In the early 1890s Swinburne composed more flagellatory prose and poetry. He dedicated 'Eton: another Ode' to 'M. G.'. Some critics have seen in Mary's own novels and poetry an imaginative attempt to ‘work out’ the legacy of psychological conflict centred on her choice of marriage partner.

In 1892 Gladstone considered Swinburne as a possible candidate for poet laureateship on Tennyson's death but after correspondence with Lord Acton took his candidacy no further. A bout of pneumonia in 1903 left Swinburne a little weaker than he had been, although he continued to take his daily morning walk across Wimbledon common regardless of the weather, to sleep after lunch, and then work in the afternoon and after dinner in the evening. There were occasional visitors admitted to have lunch with the great poet and personally be shown some of the bibliographical treasures in his library. In 1904 his Collected Poems appeared in six volumes, followed by Collected Plays in five volumes a year later. He declined an honorary degree from Oxford in May 1907, and a civil-list pension in 1908. He was unsuccessfully short-listed for the Nobel prize for literature. Swinburne died peacefully at The Pines of pneumonia on 10 April 1909. His funeral at Bonchurch on the Isle of Wight on 15 April was not without controversy. His wish that the Church of England's burial rite should not be conducted over his grave was in some measure disregarded.

Posthumous reputation

Following his death, Swinburne was the subject of books by Georgian poets Edward Thomas (1912) and John Drinkwater (1913). T. S. Eliot's 'Swinburne' as poet (The Sacred Wood, 1920) was less sympathetic, at once acknowledging Swinburne's achievement yet making it seem irrelevant to modern concerns. Edmund Gosse and T. J. Wise edited Posthumous Poems (1917), Swinburne's letters (1918), Contemporaries of Shakespeare (1919), and the twenty-volume Bonchurch Collected Works (1925–7) which included a revision of Gosse's 1912 biography, the first ‘life’. Two studies with a specific focus were W. B. Drayton Henderson's Swinburne and Landor (1918) and William Rutland's Swinburne: a Nineteenth Century Hellene (1931). Georges Lafourcade's La jeunesse de Swinburne (1928), Swinburne's Hyperion (1927), and a biography in English in 1932 remain valuable.

Interest in Swinburne declined from about 1930 to 1960, owing in part to a general reaction against the Victorians, and the influence of Eliot, F. R. Leavis, and the new criticism. Despite this decline in critical currency, however, Swinburne figured in Mario Praz's The Romantic Agony (1933), Clyde K. Hyder published the excellent Swinburne's Literary Career and Fame (1937), and Randolph Hughes edited the hitherto unpublished Lucretia Borgia: the Chronicle of Tebaldeo Tebaldei (1942), Pasiphae (1950), and Lesbia Brandon (1952).

The iconoclastic 1960s and the rediscovery of the Pre-Raphaelites brought about a Swinburne revival. Cecil Y. Lang laid the foundation for modern Swinburne studies with his indispensable The Swinburne Letters (1959–62), some important articles (notably 'Swinburne's Lost Love', 1959), and New Writings by Swinburne (1964). Clyde K. Hyder edited Swinburne Replies (1966) and Swinburne as Critic (1972), and Francis J. Sypher provided a scholarly text of A Year's Letters (1974). John D. Rosenberg's preface to Swinburne: Selected Poems and Prose (1968) is an essential appraisal. There were biographies from Jean Overton Fuller (1968), Philip Henderson (1974), Donald Serrell Thomas (1979), and Rikky Rooksby (1997). Jerome McGann's Swinburne: an Experiment in Criticism (1972) set the bench-mark for sophisticated discussion of Swinburne as a major poet. Thomas Connolly (1964), Robert L. Peters (1965), David Riede (1978), Kerry McSweeney (1981), Anthony Harrison (1988), and Margot Louis (1990) have all written books on various aspects of Swinburne, while Terry L. Meyers has patiently assembled and annotated a collection of unpublished letters by and to Swinburne, which will supplement Lang's original compilation of the correspondence. By the close of the twentieth century Swinburne had been re-evaluated as a central figure in aestheticism, and there was also a renewed appreciation of his poetry, fiction, and criticism.


  • R. Rooksby, A. C. Swinburne: a poet's life (1997)
  • R. Rooksby and N. Shrimpton, eds., The whole music of passion: new essays on Swinburne (1993)
  • W. B. Ober, Boswell's clap and other essays: medical analyses of literary men's afflictions (1988)
  • The Swinburne letters, ed. C. Y. Lang, 6 vols. (1959–62)
  • Mrs D. Leith, The boyhood of Algernon Charles Swinburne (1917)
  • E. W. Gosse, The life of Swinburne (1912)
  • G. Lafourcade, La jeunesse de Swinburne (1928)
  • G. Lafourcade, Swinburne: a literary biography (1932)
  • C. K. Hyder, Swinburne: the critical heritage (1970)
  • J. D. Rosenberg, ‘Preface’, Swinburne: selected poems and prose (1968)
  • D. S. Thomas, Swinburne: the poet in his world (1979)
  • L. James, A forgotten genius: Sewell of St Columba's and Radley (1945)


  • Balliol Oxf., MSS and letters to T. Spencer Baynes
  • BL, letters to Karl Blind, Add. MSS 40125–40126
  • BL, letters to Charles Augustus Howell, Ashley MS 5081
  • BL, letters to Joseph Knight, Add. MS 62697
  • BL, letters to William Morris, Add. MS 45345
  • BL, corresp. with D. G. Rossetti, Ashley MSS 4995, 5074
  • FM Cam., letters to Edward Burne-Jones; literary MSS, incl. proofs of Atalanta in Calydon; poems
  • Georgetown University, Washington, DC, Edith S. and John S. Mayfield collection
  • Mitchell L., Glas., corresp. with John Nichol [copies]
  • Ransom HRC, corresp. with Robert Browning
  • Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, letters, mainly to William Michael Rossetti, and literary MSS
  • Trinity Cam., letters to Lord Houghton
  • U. Edin. L., corresp. with James Halliwell-Phillipps
  • U. Leeds, Brotherton L., letters to Sir Edmund Gosse
  • U. Newcastle, Robinson L., letters to Lady Trevelyan


  • G. Richmond, group portrait, watercolour, 1843 (Swinburne and his sisters), NPG
  • albumen print, 1851–1859, NPG
  • W. B. Scott, oils, 1860, Balliol Oxf.
  • E. Burne-Jones, group portrait, oils, 1861 (The adoration of the magi), Tate collection
  • D. G. Rossetti, watercolour, 1861, FM Cam.
  • Elliott & Fry, carte-de-visite, 1865, priv. coll.
  • photograph, 1865, Hult. Arch.
  • G. F. Watts, oils, 1867, NPG [see illus.]
  • Elliott & Fry, photograph, 1890–1899, repro. in The Bookman (June 1909)
  • W. Rothenstein, chalk drawing, 1895, Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin
  • R. P. Staples, chalk drawing, 1900, NPG
  • R. M. B. Paxton, oils, 1909, NPG
  • Ape [C. Pellegrini], caricature, watercolour study, NPG; repro. in VF (21 Nov 1874)
  • M. Beerbohm, drawing (posthumous), Tate collection
  • M. Beerbohm, drawing (posthumous), Merton Oxf.
  • M. Beerbohm, drawing (posthumous), AM Oxf.
  • A. Bryan, cartoon, sepia, NPG
  • H. Furniss, caricature, pen and ink sketch, NPG
  • H. M. King, group portrait, photograph, NPG
  • London Stereoscopic Co., cartes-de-visite, NPG
  • W. B. Scott, photograph, NPG

Wealth at Death

£24,282 10s. 8d.: probate, 14 May 1909, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Page of
University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Robinson Library
Page of
Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Page of
Mitchell Library, Glasgow
Page of
University of Edinburgh Library
Page of
Balliol College, Oxford
Page of
Eton College, Berkshire
Page of
Huntington Library, San Marino, California
Page of
W. E. Gladstone , ed. M. R. D. Foot & H. C. G. Matthew, 14 vols. (1968–94)
Page of
State Library of New South Wales, Mitchell Library, Sydney
Page of
Harvard University, Houghton Library
Page of
Merton College, Oxford
Page of
Trinity College, Cambridge
Page of
private collection
Page of
Hulton|Archive, Getty Images, London
Page of
National Portrait Gallery, London
Page of
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Page of
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Page of
National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh
Page of
Boston Public Library, Massachusetts
Page of
Duke University, William R. Perkins Library, Durham, North Carolina
Page of
Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas
Page of
University of Leeds, Brotherton Library
Page of
British Library, London