Body and spirit are twins: God only knows which is which.Algernon Charles Swibure
A Series of Sonnets on the Death of Browning
by Algernon Charles Swinburne
What secret thing of splendour or of shade
Surmised in all those wandering ways wherein
Man, led of love and life and death and sin,
Strays, climbs, or cowers, allured, absorbed, afraid,
Might not the strong and sunlike sense invade
Of that full soul that had for aim to win
Light, silent over time’s dark toil and din,
Life, at whose touch death fades as dead things fade?
O spirit of man, what mystery moves in thee
That he might know not of in spirit, and see
The heart within the heart that seems to strive,
The life within the life that seems to be,
And hear, through all thy storms that whirl and drive,
The living sound of all men’s souls alive?
Swinburne had an eccentric reputation as a young man in London’s middle class drinking establishments. An Oxford educated spectacular drunk, he cultivated an image of hyper-sexuality and depravity, which if it was believed likely would have landed him in jail, but because nobody did, just added to his muddled mystique. (Don’t ask about the story about the monkey….) Short, slight, sickly in appearance, with a head too large for his body, Swinburne physically was a caricature of a bon vivant. His temperament was erratic, his mental health disposed to what today might be diagnosed as bi-polar and he suffered from seizures and chronic clumsiness that altogether often left him bruised and bloodied in appearance. Combine all of that with his tendency towards excessive intake of alcohol, it is remarkable he was productive as a poet at all. But productive he was and his talent had fans, most notably Theodore Watts-Dunton, his friend and literary agent, who intervened at a time when Swiburne was dangerously ill. Watts-Dunton took him in his early 40’s and helped him to sobriety. The two forged a remarkable friendship, with Swinburne living with him in relative calm for the next three decades. It was said that Watts-Dunton saved the man, but killed the poet, as Swinbure published very little in the following years.
I find Swinburne’s poetry erratic, not a surprise based on that history. But there are some lovely poems and given his ill health, his love poems are all the more charming in my mind.
Love and Sleep
By Algernon Charles Swinburne
Lying asleep between the strokes of night
I saw my love lean over my sad bed,
Pale as the duskiest lily’s leaf or head,
Smooth-skinned and dark, with bare throat made to bite,
Too wan for blushing and too warm for white,
But perfect-coloured without white or red.
And her lips opened amorously, and said –
I wist not what, saving one word – Delight.
And all her face was honey to my mouth,
And all her body pasture to mine eyes;
The long lithe arms and hotter hands than fire,
The quivering flanks, hair smelling of the south,
The bright light feet, the splendid supple thighs
And glittering eyelids of my soul’s desire.
2 thoughts on “I Wish Not What”
I can never get Swinburne somehow. The second piece today is about as close as I’ll get to appreciating his work, even if the erotic element in it doesn’t fully connect for me on my first pass at it.
However, in reading about the early Modernists and Modernist-adjacent writers of the 1900-1920 generation, it seems a lot them started out with a collection of Swinburne in their youthful pockets.
Well said. I think it might be a combination of when his reputation was still fresh and the particularly lurid stories were still be retold among those who had heard it from a friend of a friend of a friend, that the combination of the poetry and the mystique was a more powerful influence than just the words today. I have a collection of A. E. Housman and although there are several lovely poems by and large much of his stuff I am generously tepid in my enthusiasm.
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