John Skelton



Mr. Swinburne and his Critics



His language, at least, is purely and supremely simple; it is marred by none of the faults characteristic of youth; it is neither stilted, affected, pompous, nor crude. One, indeed, is almost tempted to say that, for a young writer, his speech is too faultless. The artist who, like Michael Angelo, strives after a lofty ideal, may be sometimes inarticulate and sometimes uncouth; but even the coarsest strokes of his chisel are grand and vehemently intellectual, and suggest a grasp of spiritual power, of which the smoother work of feebler men is destitute. Mr. Swinburne must beware lest he be tempted to conceal poverty of thought and monotony of feeling under an almost unrivalled variety, facility, and splendour of verse.

Although many of Mr. Swinburne's poems are wanting in chastity, reserve, selection, and such qualities, yet his prodigality is not undetermined by law. His profuseness is not confusion, his luxuriance does not run to weed. He knows instinctively, as a Greek did, what form, order, proportion, and similar terms truly mean. So that this natural riot is never artistically unseemly. His passion is never inarticulate, – it is limpid even when most impure. Yet something is wanting something that will give firmer outline to, if it do not throw clearer light on, his conceptions. When we finish his volume, and recur to the table of contents, we find difficulty in distinguishing (with three or four notable exceptions, of course) one poem from another. There is no such difficulty with Tennyson. Go over his table of contents; and the mere mention of The May Queen, Godiva, Sir Galahad, The Miller's Daughter. Lady Clara Vere de Vere, Ulysses, or Guinevere, recalls directly the subject of which it treats. This is not due to familiarity alone; it is because in each of these poems the poet has seized a sharply defined and well marked mood of passion or thought. As a rule, these bright, sudden, characteristic moments are the moments which lyric poetry should seize. Mr. Swinburne neglects this rule. Apart from Dolores, St. Dorothy, The Masque of Queen Bersabe, and a few more, one poem runs into another; and thus, were it not for the marvellous charm of the music, the volume, as a chronicle of human feeling or story, would become monotonous. To select a distinct mood of emotion, or a well defined character or situation, and work it out consistently resisting strenuously the temptation to fall into the beaten track, which has grown easy, pleasant, and habitual involves intellectual labour, no doubt, but labour that strengthens, braces, and stimulates the mind. There can be no doubt that Mr. Swinburne is fit for this kind of work, if he choose. He has already in many ways shown the possession of the dramatic capacity; in the present volume in The Hymn to Proserpine, The Masque of Queen Bersabe, St. Dorothy, and Laus Veneris. These poems are, as Mr. Browning says of a volume of his own, 'though lyric in expression, always dramatic in principle, and so many utterances of so many imaginary beings.' Some of them, in construction at least, are imitative, such as The Masque of Queen Bersabe, which might have been [644] written by one of the old monks who wrote the miracle-plays; or St. Dorothy, which is in the manner of Chaucer; or A Ballad of Death, which is in the manner of Dante, – but in one, and the best sense, they are thoroughly original. Whoever compares the miracle-play in Mr. Longfellow's Golden Legend with The Masque of Queen Bersabe will see what we mean. Mr. Longfellow's is the conscientious work of a mimic who wears his mask very cleverly; whereas Mr. Swinburne enters into the humour and spirit of the representation; he becomes for the nonce the old monk; and his scriptural familiarities and chronological confusions cannot properly be said to be borrowed. This is undoubtedly the dramatic instinct, or at least one side of it; yet we do not wish Mr. Swinburne to cease to be a lyrist. Mr. Browning's definition shows that the two characters can be conjoined; and Mr. Swinburne, in such a poem as the Hymn to Proserpine, proves that he knows how the union is achieved.

It is in some such direction as this, indeed, that we look for Mr. Swinburne's success. For in his lyrical faculty lies, after all, his characteristic strength, and we urge him to use the dramatic form only in so far as needful to give variety and modulation to the passion of the lyrist. The lyrical is, of all faculties, the most exquisite and mysterious. The lyrist's soul moves melodiously; his whole being, as it were, echoes and repeats harmonies which are unheard by the common ear; he takes this hard earth, which lies so heavily upon the rest of us, and makes it tuneful. To him the minstrel impulse involves no painful effort; by a necessity of his nature he must sing. Such a faculty, so fresh, original, and intuitive, so little dependent upon the training and cultivation which mortal schoolmasters can bestow, is one which, whenever it shows itself, ought to receive a quite peculiar welcome. We can make orators and statesmen. critics and professors, steam-engines and telegraphs; but the whole force of a people cannot make a lyric, till God sends us a singer. We believe that Mr. Swinburne is a true lyric singer, and so believing, we should think it madness and worse to gag him. On this ground, at least, he is genuine. He does not compose poetic sentiment and painfully adapt it to appropriate metres; the song wells from him, if one may so speak, as water from a perennial spring; the strong light of true passion, how ever disastrously clouded at times, shines upon it; in all its movements it keeps the harmony and the rhythm of life. This charming lyrical openness and frankness, this blithe May-like movement, this natural grace of passion, cannot be counterfeited, and are inconsistent with the notion of any clever trick of composition. Imitators may successfully mimic didactic or dramatic poetry (because in these forms the imaginative processes are more conscious), but to escape detection by the clumsiest critic, a lyric must ring true.





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country.
Bd. 74, 1866, November, S. 635-648.


Unser Auszug: S. 643-644.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).

Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country   online

Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country   inhaltsanalytische Bibliographie
The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals, 1824-1900.
Hrsg. von Walter E. Houghton. Bd. 2. Toronto 1972.





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Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer