Swinburne, Algernon Charles (1837-1909)
Algernon Charles Swinburne was born April 5, 1837 in Grosvenor Place, London, the son of Admiral Sir John
Swinburne; but spent most of his boyhood on the Isle of Wight. With Shelley and Byron, he is one of the very few poets
since the days of Raleigh and Sidney to come from the aristocracy.
He had a very orthodox upper-class education, attending Eton and then Oxford. Influenced by the poetry of
Shelley and possessed of the common student leanings toward political radicalism, Swinburne became known, along with
James Thompson, as a kind of Poet Laureate of atheism. At Oxford, he met nearly everyone who would influence his later
Rossetti, Morris, and Burne-Jones, who in 1857 were painting their Arthurian murals on the walls of the Oxford Union. Benjamin
Jowett, the master of Balliol College and translator of Plato, recognized his poetic talent and tried to keep him from being
expelled for his radical leanings and atheism with the statement that he did not want "Oxford to sin twice against
poetry" (the expulsion of Shelley being the first).
Leaving Oxford in 1860, he continued his friendship with the
Rossettis. After Elizabeth Siddall's (Mrs. Rossetti) death in 1862, he and Rossetti moved to Tudor House in Chelsea.
Swinburne had an addictive personality. Throughout the 1860s and 70's, he rode a destructive cycle of alcoholic
binges, dissolution, collapse, drying out in the country, then returning to London where he would begin the cycle all over
again. On several occasions, he collapsed in public in an apparent epileptic seizure, a condition made much worse by drinking
past excess to unconsciousness. More than once while he was living with
Rossetti, he was delivered to the door in the small of the night, dead drunk.
In 1879, with Swinburne nearly dead from alcoholism and dissolution, his legal advisor Theodore
Watts-Dunton took him in, and was successful in getting him to adopt a healthier style of life. Swinburne lived the rest of his days at
Watts-Dunton's home outside London. He saw less and less of his old friends, who thought him "imprisoned",
but his growing deafness accounts for some of his decreased sociability. He died of influenza in 1909.
Swinburne was brought up in the Anglican Church and possessed a detailed knowledge of the scriptures and
of standard interpretative methods, including typology, prophecy, and
apocalyptics. In his poetry, he often used language with biblical associations because his Victorian audience was accustomed
to such allusions when discussing serious issues and perhaps he enjoyed turning the church's own words against them.
He delighted in opposing organized religion and savagely attacked the Roman Catholic Church for its political role in a divided
Italy, using biblical allusion, parodies, and 'blasphemous' satires. Even though Swinburne attacked the religious
establishment, he never became indifferent to its place in his life or his country's, as his poems "Hymn to
Proserpine" and "Hertha" make clear.
Atalantain Calydon (1865) was the first poem to come out under his name and was received
enthusiastically. For the next several years he produced a number of works including
Poems and Ballads and Songs Before Sunrise. Just before his final breakdown and rescue in
1879, he produced the second series of Poems
and Ballads and about a decade later a third series. His works show the
usual greatness in the early works and a slow decline. Some of the better works
in the later series were actually written during his Oxford years.
Swinburne's Arthurian Poetry