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Poems and Ballads and Atalanta in Calydon by…
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Poems and Ballads and Atalanta in Calydon (2000)

by Algernon Charles Swinburne

Other authors: Kenneth Haynes (Editor)

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As the lost white feverish limbs
Of the Lesbian Sappho, adrift
In foam where the sea-weed swims,
Swam loose for the seas to lift...


This is typical: it has Sappho, it has death, it has the sea. He was as much fixated on Sappho because she threw herself into the sea, as because in her he has a spokeswoman for himself and his explorations. Sappho's perfect for him, it's not just that he's a perv.

Swinburne writes endlessly about the sea. I tried his novels and remember a few pages on a drowning man, than which, I thought at the time, I never expect to find a more lifelike experience written down. But the sea's everywhere, and I bet he set himself the task to be like the sea: similar, yes, to itself, yesterday, but infinitely different, and who's bored by the sea? I don't know better sea descriptions.

Poems & Ballads was his first splash and highly notorious. He's more attached to French Decadents than the English Pre-Raphaelites – he was Baudelaire's champion in England. In brief he explores cruelty; first the cruel instincts in love, then outward to the cruelty of the world. His pagans attack Christianity as too optimistic a religion, and in that untrue – as well as being life-negative and anti-sensual.

'Faustine' is about a decadent Roman, a female Faust, a queen given over to evil and evil lusts, but magnificent. One of his gaudy poems, that can be quite funny:

You seem a thing that hinges hold,
A love-machine
With clockwork joints of supple gold –
No more, Faustine.


Is that steampunk?
More gaudy is 'Dolores', a tribute to “Our Lady of Pain”...

What tortures undreamt of, unheard of,
Unwritten, unknown?


Not any more. And published in Victorian England.
But onto more serious poetry. 'Hymn to Proserpine' has a note 'After the proclamation in Rome of the Christian faith'. It's a pagan's lament for things past and lost, and uses the sea again, with ocean-rhythms:

Will ye bridle the deep sea with reins, will ye chasten the high sea with rods?
Will ye take her to chain her with chains, who is older than all ye Gods?
All ye as a wind shall go by, as a fire ye shall pass and be past;
Ye are Gods, and behold, ye shall die, and the waves be upon you at last.


I've spent most time with 'Anactoria', which is Sappho in first person to her absconded lover. She too moves from cruelty towards Anactoria, in her abandonment, to a metaphysical statement. I think 'Anactoria' is a great poem. And once you get past the lesbian sadism, it culminates in Sappho's triumph as a poet. That may be an old claim – I shall not die. I'm a poet – but where is the claim made better?

Sappho is not the weary sort, weary of life and sensation like Faustine; she's healthy, she has far too much self for that. Yes, she swings between moods, and has her exhausted death-moods:

I would the sea had hidden us, the fire
(Wilt thou fear that, and fear not my desire?)
Severed the bones that bleach, the flesh that cleaves,
And let our sifted ashes drop like leaves.


But she's a presence, a personality, as the other women in this book aren't. She has a voice. Though at her lover's feet in one sentence, in the next she is above her, above her love. In her throes she can say, Last year when I loved Atthis, and this year/ When I love thee. You can see why Anactoria ran away. She has Aphrodite under thumb: Mine is she, very mine. Aphrodite offers her redress:

...and she bowed,
With all her subtle face laughing aloud,
Bowed down upon me, saying, 'Who doth thee wrong,
Sappho?'


She's nothing if not possessive:

That I could drink thy veins as wine, and eat
Thy breasts like honey! that from face to feet
Thy body were abolished and consumed
And in my flesh thy very flesh entombed!


Her own cruelty morphs into that of God (singular):

For who shall change with prayers or thanksgivings,
The mystery of the cruelty of things?


And she goes on with a vision of the universe's cruelty. With a God behind it:

Is not his incense bitterness, his meat
Murder? his hidden face and iron feet
Hath not man known, and felt them on their way
Threaten and trample all things and every day?


On behalf of the suffering she declares,

Him would I reach, him smite, him desecrate;
Pierce the cold lips of God with human breath
And mix his immortality with death.


The last third shifts to her victory over Anactoria, and over death, and over God in fact.

Yea, thou shalt be forgotten like spilt wine,
Except these kisses of my lips on thine
Brand them with immortality; but me –
Men shall not see bright fire nor hear the sea...


and so on and so on, without they think of Sappho, or know her, for I Sappho shall be one with all these things. This is her conquest of God:

But, having made me, me he shall not slay...
Of me the high God hath not all his will.
( )
  Jakujin | Mar 10, 2013 |
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Swinburne, Algernon Charlesprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Haynes, KennethEditorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140422501, Paperback)

This volume brings together Swinburne's major poetic works, "Atalanta in Calydon" (1865) and "Poems and Ballads" (1866). "Atalanta in Calydon" is a drama in classical Greek form, which revealed Swinburne's metrical skills and brought him celebrity. "Poems and Ballads" brought him notoriety and demonstrates his preoccupation with de Sade, masochism, and femmes fatales. Also reproduced here is 'Notes on Poems and Reviews', a pamphlet Swinburne published in 1866 in response to hostile reviews of "Poems and Ballads".

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:23:00 -0400)

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