Life is the lust of a lamp for the light that is dark till the dawn of the day that we die.
Algernon Charles Swinburne The Heptalogia (1880)
As another is a series that expands the notion of what a favored author is, I submit a poet.
Even those of us who really dig romantic poetry - and if we are men, are comfortable enough in our masculinity to state it - admit that it is an acquired taste. Not so much difficult to acquire as opera, Korean food, or professional soccer (to an american anyway). . .and I have a taste for all those things. . .but still, a taste that takes a little bit of maturity and experience or at least precocity to get. But when one does acquire the taste, it never leaves; start appreciating single malt, you will be drinking it until the day you die.
So with that in mind, let's have a taste of a poet that once acquired, I think will stay with you permanently. You've been warned.
So let's meet Mr. A. C. Swinburne. Hello, Algernon
Algernon Charles Swinburne was from a wealthy family with estates in London and Northumberland, in the north of England along the Scottish border. His father was an admiral and his mother was the daughter of an English earl. The young Swinburne showed a flair for language, poetry and horsemanship, went to Eton college and read poetry at Oxford, although temporarily expelled for supporting the man who had attempted to assasinate Emperor Napolean III. He met a very influential group of people while at Oxford, falling in with the pre-Raphealites, a society of artists that were the avant garde of its day; indeed Swinburne is often labeled a 'decadent' poet with his early focus on strongly erotic themes, sensuality, even lesbianism; as well as his tastes for masochism, his likely homosexuality, and his alcoholism. Quite eyebrow raising in Victorian England, I hardly need state. He never finished his degree at Oxford, but so what? He started writing poetry full time (with it must be admitted the support of his wealthy family and friends) and moved to London where he lived a very louche existence, writing poetry that may not have had the wide appeal of Byron or Keats, but within poets was widely praised, and, as I will show, had a very appealing and musical and dramatic cadence, so that people went about with his verse on their lips. Swinburne really seems to me to be a poet's poet, like Doestoyevski is a writer's writer, you appreciate him to the degree that you understand the artistry of manipulated words.
One of his friends, and influences was the painter Dante Rosetti himself a poet and the founder of the Pre-Raphealites. His work is sensuous, lush, and, for the times, rather audacious. His painting 'Proserpine' serves as a nice visual introduction to one of my favorite Swinburne poems "The Garden of Proserpine"
Some mythological background is in order here: Proserpine, or Persephone was the legendary daughter of Ceres and unwilling bride of Hades, King of the Underworld. Having tasted the pomegranite in Hades, she can never permanently leave, but alternates between time on earth with her mother, and time in the underground. This is why there is Spring, when she arrives back on Earth, and winter when all things wither because she goes to be where the dead are. Also some real life info: The model of the picture was Jane Morris, with whom the artist was to have a passionate if somewhat convoluted and complicated affair
And now the Poem "The Garden of Proserpine"
Here, where the world is quiet;
Here, where all trouble seems
Dead winds' and spent waves' riot
In doubtful dreams of dreams;
I watch the green field growing
For reaping folk and sowing,
For harvest-time and mowing,
A sleepy world of streams.
Note how the poet sets the atmosphere. He continues
I am tired of tears and laughter,
And men that laugh and weep;
Of what may come hereafter
For men that sow to reap:
I am weary of days and hours,
Blown buds of barren flowers,
Desires and dreams and powers
And everything but sleep.
Here life has death for neighbour,
And far from eye or ear
Wan waves and wet winds labour,
Weak ships and spirits steer;
They drive adrift, and whither
They wot not who make thither;
But no such winds blow hither,
And no such things grow here.
Notice how he evokes the distant sea, as a counterpoint to his dreamy garden, heightening the tranquility of the place. Also I really like the rhyme scheme, with it triples and last line that rhymes with the second and fourth, creating in effect a double triple rhyme. That ain't easy.
No growth of moor or coppice,
No heather-flower or vine,
But bloomless buds of poppies,
Green grapes of Proserpine,
Pale beds of blowing rushes
Where no leaf blooms or blushes
Save this whereout she crushes
For dead men deadly wine.
Pale, without name or number,
In fruitless fields of corn,
They bow themselves and slumber
All night till light is born;
And like a soul belated,
In hell and heaven unmated,
By cloud and mist abated
Comes out of darkness morn.
Although the day, and the rushes of the field renew themselves, this is not to be a metaphor for rebirth. Instead it is again counterpoint, setting the table for the verses that follow
Though one were strong as seven,
He too with death shall dwell,
Nor wake with wings in heaven,
Nor weep for pains in hell;
Though one were fair as roses,
His beauty clouds and closes;
And well though love reposes,
In the end it is not well.
Pale, beyond porch and portal,
Crowned with calm leaves, she stands
Who gathers all things mortal
With cold immortal hands;
Her languid lips are sweeter
Than love's who fears to greet her
To men that mix and meet her
From many times and lands
So that is who Proserpine is: because of her yearly goings, she is as death to all living things
She waits for each and other,
She waits for all men born;
Forgets the earth her mother,
The life of fruits and corn;
And spring and seed and swallow
Take wing for her and follow
Where summer song rings hollow
And flowers are put to scorn.
There go the loves that wither,
The old loves with wearier wings;
And all dead years draw thither,
And all disastrous things;
Dead dreams of days forsaken,
Blind buds that snows have shaken,
Wild leaves that winds have taken,
Red strays of ruined springs.
So it is not just mortals who die; love dies too, either because the lovers move on, or love dies when they do.
We are not sure of sorrow,
And joy was never sure;
To-day will die to-morrow;
Time stoops to no man's lure;
And love, grown faint and fretful,
With lips but half regretful
Sighs, and with eyes forgetful
Weeps that no loves endure.
But there is comfort, too, in the finality of death: it is an end to sorrow and regret
From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.
Then star nor sun shall waken,
Nor any change of light:
Nor sound of waters shaken,
Nor any sound or sight:
Nor wintry leaves nor vernal,
Nor days nor things diurnal;
Only the sleep eternal
In an eternal night.
I sometimes think that is what I would like read at my own funeral, when that now-distant time shall come.
There are times in life that one always remembers; incidents that have some sort of personal central definition often because they serve as a transition point, where one chapter ends and another begins. Or so it seems to me. And I find that commonly they can be associated with accessible works of art: pop songs serve well; movies or scenes from movies or soundtracks from popular shows. I think that poetry can serve the same purpose
I flash back then - to get really personal here, begging pardon - to the time I ended my senior year and parted from my college girlfriend. We had had a roughly seven week affair to which the words torrential and all-consuming barely seem accurate; we were both young and for maybe the last time in my life had a period with no real responsibility or pressing demands diluted the romantic experience. I thought about her all the time; we were together every night, and, well, lets just re-emphasize the passionate part.
But we knew we were in a sense living on borrowed time, because the semester would end, and then I would graduate and she would go back to her home in New Hampshire. So on that final morning when she had to leave - after staying as long as we could - we were both in tears. Not because we didn't think we'd ever see each other again; we would see each other fairly regularly in the summer and intermittently the next fall when I started in another school four hundred miles away. But we both knew, though neither spoke about it, that it would never be the same again. That life would intrude, and things would move on, and our brief interlude of earth-shaking passion would recede into memory. She left and I just spent the rest of senior week - supposedly a fun time - moping and drinking and thinking about her every other second; and I didn't want to even look at another woman. In fact, when our relationship did permanently end the next spring I was so burned out I didn't get into another one for a year and a half.
So imagine how I interpret the lines from 'Rococo', his poem of how love ends, even as lovers move on:
Take hands and part with laughter;
Touch lips and part with tears;
Once more and no more after,
Whatever comes with years.
We twain shall not remeasure
The ways that left us twain;
Nor crush the lees of pleasure
From sanguine grapes of pain.
We twain once well in sunder,
What will the mad gods do
For hate with me, I wonder,
Or what for love with you?
Forget them till November,
And dream there’s April yet;
Forget that I remember,
And dream that I forget.
Wow, this was it exactly
We have heard from hidden places
What love scarce lives and hears:
We have seen on fervent faces
The pallor of strange tears:
We have trod the wine-vat’s treasure,
Whence, ripe to steam and stain,
Foams round the feet of pleasure
The blood-red must of pain.
Remembrance may recover
And time bring back to time
The name of your first lover,
The ring of my first rhyme;
But rose-leaves of December
The frosts of June shall fret,
The day that you remember,
The day that I forget.
I wouldn't say forget, exactly, but there has been so
very much water under the bridge since then.
And the conclusion?
Life treads down love in flying,
Time withers him at root;
Bring all dead things and dying,
Reaped sheaf and ruined fruit,
Where, crushed by three days’ pressure,
Our three days’ love lies slain;
And earlier leaf of pleasure,
And latter flower of pain.
Breathe close upon the ashes,
It may be flame will leap;
Unclose the soft close lashes,
Lift up the lids, and weep.
Light love’s extinguished ember,
Let one tear leave it wet
For one that you remember
And ten that you forget.
The painful irony of the poem is manifest in the title itself: Rococo is a name given to a certain style of eighteenth century art characterized by very idealized, reproduced and overly sentimental romantic figures, cupids, cherubs and so forth. What can seem so florid, but is really just small sculpture.
If you were April’s lady,
And I were lord in May,
We’d throw with leaves for hours
And draw for days with flowers,
Till day like night were shady
And night were bright like day;
If you were April’s lady,
And I were lord in May.
April's lady and lord of May. Yeah, that was Jen. I hope she remembers the one tear; I haven't quite remembered to forget, just yet.
Swinburne was, despite his alcoholism and taste for the bizarre, quite productive, even as he spent the last thirty years of his life living with his (male) friend who looked after him. Don't ask, don't tell. He also wrote perceptive, if florid criticism, particularly of his favorite influences such as Shakespeare and Blake, verse dramas, even a novel or two. But I find I like his poetry best of all, and it seems to me so expressive, so heartfelt, so imbued with feeling that I am in a way puzzled why he is not more widely known and read. He is, or should be, the Vincent Van Gogh of poets.
But be that as it may, one can spend many happy hours with all his verse, and I find I have just scratched the surface. So I conclude with one final work, and an admonishment to google his other poems, they are now in the public domain and readily available on the intertubes. One particularly good website is here
It is the work, Atalanta in Calydon, a retelling of the Greek myth of Atalanta and Meleager, written in a romantic and , again the word, florid style. It takes the form of a greek tragedy - Swinburne was heavily influenced by Greek and Roman mythology, as was most educated artists of his time - with a chorus and cast of characters who tell the ultimately tragic tale. Here is a brief sample, to get the style from the piece:
Before the beginning of years
There came to the making of man
Time with a gift of tears,
Grief with a glass that ran,
Pleasure with pain for leaven,
Summer with flowers that fell,
Remembrance fallen from heaven,
And Madness risen from hell,
Strength without hands to smite,
Love that endures for a breath;
Night, the shadow of light,
And Life, the shadow of death.
Very Swinburnish. But I also see another aspect to this work - one that I think is seldom commented on but I think relevant: I think the poem - and the poet was influenced by a work that I have previously diaried on: Lucretius and his poem, "On the Nature of Things":
Mother of Rome, delight of Gods and men,
Dear Venus that beneath the gliding stars
Makest to teem the many-voyaged main
And fruitful lands- for all of living things
Through thee alone are evermore conceived,
Through thee are risen to visit the great sun-
Before thee, Goddess, and thy coming on,
Flee stormy wind and massy cloud away,
For thee the daedal Earth bears scented flowers,
For thee waters of the unvexed deep
Smile, and the hollows of the serene sky
Glow with diffused radiance for thee!
That Swinburne knew of Lucretius is certain (he mentions him in another of his poems, an elegy to Giordano Bruno) but the really relevant point is this. There are those who think that the diaries here on a primarily political site, those that deal with literature and philosophy and music and art are irrelevant, or at least misplaced. What on earth do Swinburne and Lucretius have to do with electing more and better Democrats? But I think they have everything to do with it. Great art is by nature revolutionary, and I completely subscribe to the remark about 'Poets being the unacknowledged legislators of the world'. And I also think that the same kind of mind who hangs out here can draw inspiration from the art and then work toward the practical end of changing the neurotic and I am afraid to say, somewhat backward aspect of where we live. We are not the same as 'Redstate' or 'Fox Noise' here; we think and feel, and question, and discard old dogmas, and are not afraid of the void. And we like our in some ways very revolutionary poets like Mr. Algernon Charles Swinburne.