Outlines of English and American Literature Algernon Charles Swinburne byLong, 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
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.