MR. SWINBURNE ON HIS CRITICS.*
MR. SWINIIIIIINE has, as we understand him, reissued with another publisher the volume of poems and ballads which Messrs. Moxon withdrew, and with it a very foolish and furious pamphlet a poems and Ballads, By Algernon Charles flembume. London: John Camden Holten. • Notes on Poems and Beams. By Algernon Charles Swinburne. London: John Camden Hotten. agriinst his critics, in which the clever, over-strong, shrieking words, though often chosen as only a poet could choose them, ex- press nothing but weakness, white rage, studied ferocity, im- measurable thirst for vengeance. We did not criticize this volume when it first appeared. Hearing that it hadbeen with- drawn, we thought it would have been a breach of etiquette to assume that it was withdrawn only by the wish of the publisher and not of the author, and we only expressed therefore incidentally, and with the barest possible reference to the very different charac- ters of some of the pieces of Mr. Swinburne's volume, in a criti- cism on a paper that appeared six weeks ago in the Fortnightly Review, our general conception of the distinction between plainness of imaginative speech, and that high undue relief given to sensual conceptions which indicates that they are not integral parts of an imaginative whole, but grafted on it for their own sakes. That Mr. Swinburne had been repeatedly uilty of this artistic blunder and moral offence, in this volume of poems and ballads, we believed and believe ; and we regret it the more because, both with relation to his Greek play, Atalanta in Calydon, and even his Chastelard, we have recognized in him poetic genius of a very high order, which should be ashamed to condescend to minister to the diseased taste of minds fascinated by sensual thoughts. In neither of these greater works did we see this canker of morbid life. In the latter, indeed, there was much reason to complain that Mr. Swinburne had not contrasted his splendid picture of the impure and stony-hearted queen with any nobler standard of character, that there was no central light, —not even the grand figure of Knox,—to relieve the ghastliness of that voluptuous and bloodthirsty beauty. But still, though there was much missing in Chastelard which true art would have suggested, there were not apparently many touches which a purer art would have pruned away as needlessly and superfluously added to heighten the excitement of a hideous moral subject. And the magnificent dramatic touch with which the play concluded, as the axe was falling on the neck of Chastelard, "Room for my lord of Bothwell—next the Queen !" expressed a scorn for the royal pro- stitute such as redeemed the play from any appearance of glossing over the hideousness of her true character. But this volume of Poems and Ballads is a sad descent from the imaginative and moral level even of Chastelard. There are, indeed, poems in it on subjects far from pleasant or morally beautiful, which, at all events if taken alone, are not justly liable to censure. Shakespeare's Cleopatra is not more morally fascinating than Shylock or Lady Macbeth, but she is as legitimate a theme for a great imagination to paint, and no pure mind was ever tainted by the painting. Faustine seems to us, if taken alone, a picture of some grandeur, I representing, as Mr. Swinburne says, a certain "bitter and vicious loveliness," which has descended in many forms through the ages, "doomed from the first to all evil and no good," and "clad always in the same type of fleshly beauty." We do not know why it is not just as much the work of a poet to paint such forms of evil as those other forms which are always the subject of tragedy, the treacherous ambition which impels to murder, or the twin passions of avarice and revenge. The great law, artistic and moral, is only this,—that evil be painted as evil, and not disguised as good. We hold, with Mr. Swinburne, that literature is to deal "with the full life of man, and the whole nature of things," but it is precisely when measured by that standard that his last volume appears so unmanly, so unworthy, and so impure. Nor do we see bow he mends the matter by asserting, what he does not, if he is sane, believe, that his reviewers are mostly base and scurrilous "press- men," the " infusoria and animalcules" of literature, the discerners of "congenial carrion," men whose virtue "rises chuckling and crowing from the dunghill, its birth-place and its death-bed." Such shrieks of futile anger as these only show Mr. Swinburne's own weakness, though it is weakness that has an ample vocabulary, and no little skill in using it. No one will feel hurt at this sort of thing except Mr. Swinburne, if he comes to look back upon it, when he is older and wiser than he now is :— " I have not studied in those schools whence that full-fledged pbcsnix, the 'virtue' of professional pressmen, rises chuckling and crowing from the dunghill, its birth-place and its death-bed. But there are birds of alien feather, if not of higher flight; and these I would now recall into no hencoop or preserve of mine but into the open and general field, where all may find pasture and sunshine and fresh air; into places whither the prurient prudery and the virulent virtue of pressmen and prostitutes cannot follow ; into an atmosphere where calumny cannot speak, and fatuity cannot breathe ; in a word, where backbiters and im- beciles become impossible."
In another page he addresses his critics in two clever verses, whose invective is no doubt Byronic, but powerful rather as lyric than as satire, since it evidently expresses much better the mea-
sure of Mr. Swinburne's wrath than the measure of his opponents' imbecility :—
" Why grudge them lotus-leaf and laurel,
0 toothless mouth or swinish maw !
Who never grudged you bells and coral, Who never grudged you troughs and straw ?
"Lie still in kennel, sleek in stable, Good creatures of the stall or sty ; Shove snouts for crumbs below the table; Lie still; and rise not up to lie."
And now, leaving this boyish rage, let us see what Mr. Swinburne has to say in defence of the morality of his volume. Of the poem of Anactoria, one of the worst, if not the worst, he only says that it is an attempt to reproduce freely, as he failed to translate with any satisfaction to himself, the thought and verse of Sappho. If it is right to translate, he asks, how can it be wrong to paraphrase, to render freely into English the passion of Sappho ? That ques- tion is easily answered. Plato and Aristophanes have given us a graphic and fearful picture of the most popular vices of Athens in their age. It is important, historically, artistically, in every point of view, that the true rottenness at the core of the brilliant Athenian society should be understood. No one hesitates to translate faithfully their picture. But how, if for mere love of the subject, any one should try to emphasize such things in a free English reproduction of the themes of Plato or Aristophanes ? How if, in departing widely from the text in order to repro- duce with greater verve and life the spirit of Plato's dialo- gues or Aristotle's comedies, he should take care to give especial prominence and emphasis not only to the general character- istics of beauty, or humour, or play of thought, for the sake of which ostensibly this was done, but also to the more hideous traits, belonging exclusively to the era of an almost extinct depravity, and should so rekindle the embers of ghastly passions long burnt out? Would it not be justly said that in the exact proportion inwhich he had assumed the freedom of reproducing his theme in a new form, and with new illustrations, was the dis- grace of reproducing, and byreproducing emphasizing, monstrosities of moral evil that had become as strange to our time as they were always hideous? While you keep close to the antique form, his- torical accuracy is the sufficient justification of your translation. It is well to know how much real beauty, and intensity, and fire is compatible with passions which we now loathe. But if you leave the antique form in order to give more life and animation to what you create, you must either leave behind also what is now monstrous moral deformity, or be guilty of the attempt to modern- ize and restore the vital spark to what deserves only to be re- garded with loathing. The difference between Faustine and I Anactoria is that in the one Mr. Swinburne delineates as hideous what is hideous, in the other he beautifies, or tries to beautify, with his own imagination, forms of evil which no manly mind desires even to conceive.
The same radical vice reappears in many of the other poems, in "Dolores," in " Laus Veneris," worst of all, we think, in "The Leper," the vice, we mean, which falsifies nature, and tnerefore true art, by giving a spurious emphasis to the most morbid ele- ments of sensual feeling. Mr. Swinburne fastens on such subjects and feasts on them with a greedy and cruel voracity, like a famished dog at raw meat. "Stinging lips," "wounding lips," lips that "bite," "ravenous teeth" that "smite through kisses," in short, all the horrid savagery of lust, runs through poem after poem, till we lay down the volume with positive loathing. Here is his own account, for instance, of the drift of a part of the poem called Dolores :— " The spirit, bowed and discoloured by suffering and by passion (which are, indeed, the same thing and the same word), plays for awhile with its pleasures and its pains, mixes and distorts them with a sense half humorous and half mournful, exults in bitter and doubtful emotions—
'Moods of fantastic sadness, nothing worth.' It sports with sorrow, and jests against itself; cries out for freedom and confesses the chain ; decorates with the name of goddess, crowns anew as the mystical Cotytto, some woman, real or ideal, in whom the pride of life with its companion lusts is incarnate. In her lover's half shut eyes, her fierce unchaste beauty is transfigured, her cruel sensual eyes have a meaning and a message ; there are memories and secrets in the kisses of her lips. She is the darker Venus, fed with burnt-offering and blood-sacrifice; the veiled image of that pleasure which men im- pelled by satiety and perverted by power have sought through ways as strange as Nero's before and since his time; the daughter of lust and death, and holding of both her parents ; Our Lady of Pain, antagonist alike of trivial sins and virtues; no Virgin, and unblessed of men ; no mother of the Gods or God; no Cybele, served by sexless priests or monks, adored of Origen or of Atys ; no likeness of her in Dindymns or Loreto."
Mr. Swinburne says with some truth that Shelley has written some things as liable to criticism as his own. No doubt. Shelley's poetry has a diseased element in it that crops out not unfre- quently. Here and there, there is a snaky horror and poison in his poetry, which mars the ensemble of a great poem. But no picked volume of Shelley's poetry of equal length would show one hundredth part as much of this as this volume of Mr. Swinburne's. If the "full life of man, and the whole nature of things," should, as Mr. Swinburne asserts, be imaged in poetry, we say that this volume is utterly distorted. So far from dwelling with imaginative universality and impartiality on all the range of sub- jects within his ken, he flutters back and back, like a bird fasci- nated by a snake, to one subject, and that a repulsive one. It is precisely the unmanliness of the book, the want of large masculine interests in it, the heated breath of it, that is so suffocating. There are a few pictorial poems, a few revolutionary poems, and almost all the rest is of one kind. We hold that, in this volume at least, Mr. Swinburne is both unmasculine and unfeminine. He is unmanly or effeminate, which you please, and they mean morally the same thing. We are no purists in the sense of wish- ing to debar the imagination from the legitimate treatment of all classes of human themes, evil and good. But certainly the silly screaming of this pamphlet against the scurrilities of "professional pressmen," will not tend to convince the sincerest culture of the day that Mr. Swinburne has not in his recent work lent a remark- able genius to very debasing ends, will not, indeed, produce any effect upon their minds, except regret for the impenitence which he parades and the silly vindictiveness with which he parades it.