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Outlines of English and American Literature
Algernon Charles Swinburne
by Long, William J.


This voluminous writer, born in the year of Victoria's accession, is yet so close to our own day that it is difficult to think of him as part of an age that is gone. As a poet he was a master of verbal melody, and had such a command of verse forms that he won his title of "inventor of harmonies." As a critic he showed a wide knowledge of English and French literature, a discriminating taste, and an enthusiasm which bubbled over in eulogy of those whom he liked, and which emptied vials of wrath upon Byron, Carlyle and others who fell under his displeasure. His criticisms are written in an extravagant, almost a torrential, style; at times his prose falls into a chanting rhythm so attractive in itself as to make us overlook the fact that the praise and censure which he dispenses with prodigal liberality are too personal to be quite trustworthy.

His Poetry

We are still too near Swinburne to judge him accurately, and his place in the long history of English poetry is yet to be determined. We note here only two characteristics which may or may not be evident to other readers. In the first place, with his marvelous command of meter and melody, Swinburne has a fatal fluency of speech which tends to bury his thought in a mass of jingling verbiage. As we read we seem to hear the question, "What readest thou, Hamlet?" and again the Dane makes answer, "Words, words, words." Again, like the Pre-Raphaelites with whom he was at one time associated, Swinburne lived too much apart from the tide of common life. He wrote for the chosen few, and in the mass of his verse one must search long for a passage of which one may say, This goes home to the hearts of men, and abides there in the treasure-house of all good poetry.

Among the longer works of Swinburne his masterpiece is the lyrical drama Atalanta in Calydon. If one would merely sample the flavor of the poet, such minor works as "Itylus" and the fine sea pieces, "Off Shore," "By the North Sea" and "A Forsaken Garden" may be recommended. Nor should we overlook what, to many, is Swinburne's best quality; namely, his love of children, as reflected in such poems as "The Salt of the Earth" and "A Child's Laughter." Among the best of his prose works are his William Blake, Essays and Studies, Miscellanies and Studies in Prose and Verse.

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