Often the critic can best provide new insight by going contrary to accepted ideas. The Pre-Raphaelites on Renaissance art, Eliot on the Metaphysicals, a variety of modern artists on the primitive each sought to bring new appreciation to undervalued art. Yet naturally quite often the accepted view seems just, and the critic can do no more than offer a muted assent to the common opinions of others. After making my way through the luxurious yet trackless forest of Swinburne's Poems and Ballads & Atalanta in Calydon, I find myself able only to add my bit to the largely negative verdicts of those who preceded me. Perhaps I can provoke a spirited and revealing response from a devotee of the poet.
Why does the reader of Swinburne's poetry feel a sensation like treading water in a choppy sea? Though impressed with his prosodic virtuosity and his deep classicism, I must agree with all those who have little patience while actually reading him. It is true that he is repetitive and super-literary. His lexicon, though rich in archaic and obscure allusive words, is predominantly composed of general terms: fruit, say, or sea, or heart. Often the narrative, and more often the syntax is confused, dizzied, or intoxicated. Though he is passionate to a fault, his reader does not feel that he is directly describing anything in his lived experience; rather, he constructs a literary code corresponding to his own notoriously stormy consciousness. He creates a spectacle, usually static, which conveys a significant tone. It is for this reason that he resurrected the masque and the mystery play and was prone to symbolism, more often in the old allegorical style than in the underdetermined mode of the most modern French writers of his day.
He was the metrical virtuoso of his era (after him Auden, but after Auden who?). His mastery of verbal music -- not just meters, but rhyme, assonance, alliteration, and other musical patterns -- led Tennyson to say that he was "a reed through which all things blow into music." His rushing anapests, rarely used in recent times in serious poetry, impel the reader forward into the next whirlpool and then to the next. It is true that Swinburne's long poems, and most of them are more or less long, could be either half their length or twice their length with neither loss nor gain. He is a latter day devotee of a sort of literary generosity (or intemperance) for which modern readers have little patience but which medieval critic might have admired as amplificatio or macrologia.
He has a single theme: the enigma of pleasure/pain, love/aggression, virtue/sin, and, suspicious though readers may be of biographical readings, one is surely correct in linking this obsessive preoccupation with Swinburne's thoroughly kinky sexuality. Whereas the first two polarities retain their significance for contemporary readers, the last -- "virtue/sin" -- has altered in a way that makes Swinburne's agonizing semi-Satanic paganism seem not only old-fashioned, but misleading as well. Even Baudelaire can be annoying with his highly dramatized flirtations with the dark side, and, in the case of someone like Aleister Crowley, the pose becomes unendurable.
His verse is a spectacle which can hardly bear close examination. Swinburne might have been speaking of his entire oeuvre when he justly commented on his “Ode to Gautier” in an 1872 letter to Lord Morley, noting the danger of “diffuseness and flaccidity” and “a tendency to the dulcet and luscious form of verbosity which has to be guarded against, lest the poem lose its foothold and be swept off its legs, sense and all, down a flood of effeminate and monotonous music, or lost and split in a maze of what I call draggle-tailed melody.” My own specific notes can add nothing and have a depressing sameness resembling that of their source. Swinburne will have to await another champion.