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Mr. Swinburne's Poems and Ballads

(THIRD SERIES)

(Pall Mall Gazette, June 27, 1889.)


Mr. Swinburne once set his age on fire by a volume of very perfect and very poisonous poetry. Then he became revolutionary and pantheistic, and cried out against those that sit in high places both in heaven and on earth. Then he invented Marie Stuart and laid upon us the heavy burden of Bothwell. Then he retired to the nursery and wrote poems about children of a somewhat over-subtle character. He is now extremely patriotic, and manages to combine with his patriotism a strong affection for the Tory party. He has always been a great poet. But he has his limitations, the chief of which is, curiously enough, the entire lack of any sense of limit. His song is nearly always too loud for his subject. His magnificent rhetoric, nowhere more magnificent than in the volume that now lies before us, conceals rather than reveals. It has been said of him, and with truth, that he is a master of language, but with still greater truth it may be said that Language is his master. Words seem to dominate him. Alliteration tyrannizes over him. Mere sound often becomes his lord. He is so eloquent that whatever he touches becomes unreal.

Let us turn to the poem on the Armada:

The wings of the south-west wind are widened; the breath of his fervent lips, More keen than a sword's edge, fiercer than fire, falls full on the plunging ships. The pilot is he of the northward flight, their stay and their steersman he; A helmsman clothed with the tempest, and girdled with strength to constrain the sea. And the host of them trembles and quails, caught fast in his hand as a bird in the toils: For the wrath and the joy that fulfil him are mightier than man's, whom he slays and spoils. And vainly, with heart divided in sunder, and labour of wavering will, The lord of their host takes counsel with hope if haply their star shine still.

Somehow we seem to have heard all this before. Does it come from the fact that of all the poets who ever lived Mr. Swinburne is the one who is the most limited in imagery? It must be admitted that he is so. He has wearied us with his monotony. 'Fire' and the 'Sea' are the two words ever on his lips. We must confess also that this shrill singing--marvellous as it is--leaves us out of breath. Here is a passage from a poem called A Word with the Wind:

Be the sunshine bared or veiled, the sky superb or shrouded, Still the waters, lax and languid, chafed and foiled, Keen and thwarted, pale and patient, clothed with fire or clouded, Vex their heart in vain, or sleep like serpents coiled. Thee they look for, blind and baffled, wan with wrath and weary, Blown for ever back by winds that rock the bird: Winds that seamews breast subdue the sea, and bid the dreary Waves be weak as hearts made sick with hope deferred. Let the clarion sound from westward, let the south bear token How the glories of thy godhead sound and shine: Bid the land rejoice to see the land-wind's broad wings broken, Bid the sea take comfort, bid the world be thine.

Verse of this kind may be justly praised for the sustained strength and vigour of its metrical scheme. Its purely technical excellence is extraordinary. But is it more than an oratorical tour de force? Does it really convey much? Does it charm? Could we return to it again and again with renewed pleasure? We think not. It seems to us empty.

Of course, we must not look to these poems for any revelation of human life. To be at one with the elements seems to be Mr. Swinburne's aim. He seeks to speak with the breath of wind and wave. The roar of the fire is ever in his ears. He puts his clarion to the lips of Spring and bids her blow, and the Earth wakes from her dreams and tells him her secret. He is the first lyric poet who has tried to make an absolute surrender of his own personality, and he has succeeded. We hear the song, but we never know the singer. We never even get near to him. Out of the thunder and splendour of words he himself says nothing. We have often had man's interpretation of Nature; now we have Nature's interpretation of man, and she has curiously little to say. Force and Freedom form her vague message. She deafens us with her clangours.

But Mr. Swinburne is not always riding the whirlwind and calling out of the depths of the sea. Romantic ballads in Border dialect have not lost their fascination for him, and this last volume contains some very splendid examples of this curious artificial kind of poetry. The amount of pleasure one gets out of dialect is a matter entirely of temperament. To say 'mither' instead of 'mother' seems to many the acme of romance. There are others who are not quite so ready to believe in the pathos of provincialism. There is, however, no doubt of Mr. Swinburne's mastery over the form, whether the form be quite legitimate or not. The Weary Wedding has the concentration and colour of a great drama, and the quaintness of its style lends it something of the power of a grotesque. The ballad of The Witch-Mother, a mediaeval Medea who slays her children because her lord is faithless, is worth reading on account of its horrible simplicity. The Bride's Tragedy, with its strange refrain of

In, in, out and in, Blaws the wind and whirls the whin:

The Jacobite's Exile--

O lordly flow the Loire and Seine, And loud the dark Durance: But bonnier shine the braes of Tyne Than a' the fields of France; And the waves of Till that speak sae still Gleam goodlier where they glance:

The Tyneside Widow and A Reiver's Neck-verse are all poems of fine imaginative power, and some of them are terrible in their fierce intensity of passion. There is no danger of English poetry narrowing itself to a form so limited as the romantic ballad in dialect. It is of too vital a growth for that. So we may welcome Mr. Swinburne's masterly experiments with the hope that things which are inimitable will not be imitated. The collection is completed by a few poems on children, some sonnets, a threnody on John William Inchbold, and a lovely lyric entitled The Interpreters.

In human thought have all things habitation; Our days Laugh, lower, and lighten past, and find no station That stays.

But thought and faith are mightier things than time Can wrong, Made splendid once by speech, or made sublime By song.

Remembrance, though the tide of change that rolls Wax hoary, Gives earth and heaven, for song's sake and the soul's, Their glory.

Certainly, 'for song's sake' we should love Mr. Swinburne's work, cannot, indeed, help loving it, so marvellous a music-maker is he. But what of the soul? For the soul we must go elsewhere.

Poems and Ballads. Third Series. By Algernon Charles Swinburne. (Chatto and Windus.)


Oscar Wilde