Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909)
From Literary Anecdotes About 19th Century Authors Born After 1829

I HAD sat next, at luncheon, to an old gentleman who owned to eighty-six years, and a fine impressive machine he looked, as he told me how much he had enjoyed his long life. `If a man—or a schoolboy for that matter —', he continued, `does not get on well, it's his own fault. I well remember, when I first went to Eton, the head-boy called us together, and pointing to a little fellow with a mass of curly red hair, said, "If ever you see that boy, kick him—and if you are too far off to kick him, throw a stone." . . . He was a fellow named Swinburne,' he added. `He used to write poetry for a time, I believe, but I don't know what became of him.'

Sitwell, Noble Essences, pp. 112-113.

EMERSON had visited England soon after the publication of Poems and Ballads. In an interview with a journalist he was reported to have said things about the volume which gave deep offence to Swinburne. Swinburne wrote a mild protest, saying he felt sure that Emerson could not have used the words attributed to him. No reply was received. Swinburne was incensed. Some time afterwards Gosse and Swinburne were resting in the Green Park and the conversation turned on Emerson. Gosse learnt for the first time that Swinburne had again written to him. He said, `I hope you said nothing rash.' `Oh, no.' `But what did you say?' `I kept my temper, I preserved my equanimity.' 'Yes, but what did you say?' `I called him', said Swinburne in his chanting voice, `a wrinkled and toothless baboon, who, first hoisted into notoriety on the shoulders of Carlyle, now spits and splutters on a filthier platform of his own finding and fouling.' The letter like its predecessor received no answer

Charteris, Life of Gosse, p.132.

WHEN Swinburne came back from the country to town he was always particularly anxious to recite or read aloud his own poems. In doing this he often became very much excited, and even, in his overwhelming sense of the movement of the metre, would jump about the room in a manner somewhat embarrassing to the listener. His method of procedure was uniform. He would arrive at a friend's house with a breast-pocket obviously bulging with manuscript, but buttoned across his chest. After floating about the room and greeting his host and hostess with many little becks of the head, and affectionate smiles, and light wavings of the fingers, he would settle at last upright on a chair, or, by preference, on a sofa, and sit there in a state of rigid immobility, the toe of one foot pressed against the heel of the other. Then he would say, in an airy, detached way, as though speaking of some absent person, `I have brought with me my "Thalassius" or my "Wasted Garden" (or whatever it might happen to be), which I have just finished.' Then he would be folded again in silence, looking at nothing. We then were to say, `Oh, do please read it to us! Will you?' Swinburne would promptly reply, `I had no intention in the world of boring you with it but since you ask me—' and out would come the MS. I do not remember that there was ever any variation in this little ceremony, which sometimes preluded many hours of recitation and reading. His delivery, especially of his own poetry, was delightful as long as he sat quietly in his seat. His voice, which was of extraordinary beauty, `the pure Ashburnham voice' as his cousin explains to me, rose and fell monotonously, but with a flute-like note which was very agreeable, and the pulse of the rhythm was strongly yet delicately felt. I shall never forget the successive evenings on which he read Bothwell aloud in his lodgings, in particular one on which Edward Burne-Jones, Arthur O'Shaughnessy, P. B. Marston, and I sat with him at his round marble-topped table—lighted only by candles in two giant candlesticks of serpentine he had brought from the Lizard—and heard him read the magnificent second act of that tragedy. He surpassed himself in vigour and melody of utterance that night. But sometimes, in reading, he lost control of his emotions, the sound became a scream, and he would dance about the room, the paper fluttering from his finger-tips like a pennon in a gale of wind.

Sir Edmund Gosse, Portraits and Sketches (1912), pp. 48-49.

I RECEIVED from him one day a curt invitation to dinner, and presented myself, wondering mildly to what this mark of favour could be due. But wonder turned to alarm when, on entering the Master's drawing-room, I discovered in the dim twilight no other figure than his own. His manner, however, though not effusive, was civil, and was certainly fraught with no menace of any coming judgement on my sins. We exchanged some ordinary observations on the weather and kindred topics. Then, looking over his shoulder, he uttered a half-audible word or two, which, being plainly not addressed to me, must have been addressed to somebody else. Presently out of the shadows a somebody else emerged. This was a person remarkable for the large size of his head, his longish hair, his insignificant stature, and his singularly sloping, shoulders. I was introduced to him without catching his name. Dinner was announced forthwith. It was evident that, except for myself, this person was to be the sole guest. In the candle-light of the dinner-table I realized that this person was Swinburne.

The dinner passed off pleasantly. Swinburne showed himself an intelligent, though by no means a brilliant talker; and as soon as we had returned to the drawing-room, where we drank a cup of coffee standing, Jowett, who had some engagement, abruptly left us to finish the evening by ourselves. On Swinburne the effect of the Master's disappearance was magical. His manner and aspect began to exhibit a change like that of the moon when a dim cloud drifts away from it. Of what we discussed at starting I have not the least remembrance, but before very long Swinburne was on the subject of poetry. His observations at first consisted of general criticisms. Then he began to indulge in quotations from various poems—none of them, I think, from his own; but however this may have been, the music seemed to intoxicate him. The words began to thrill me with the spell of his own recitation of them. Here at last I realized the veritable genius who had made the English language a new instrument of passion. . . . Finally he strayed into quotations from Sydney Dobell, a writer now hardly remembered, with one of which, describing a girl bathing, he made the Master's academic rafters ring—

She, with her body bright sprinkles the waters white,
Which flee from her fair form, and flee in vain,
Dyed with the dear unutterable sight,
And circles out her beauties to the circling main.

He was almost shouting these words when another sound became audible — that of an opening door, followed by Jowett's voice, which said in high-pitched syllables, `You'd both of you better go to bed now.'

My next meeting with Swinburne took place not many days later. He had managed meanwhile to make acquaintance with a few other undergraduates—all of them enthusiastic worshippers—one of whom arranged to entertain him at luncheon. As I could not, being otherwise engaged, be present at this feast myself, I was asked to join the party as soon as possible afterwards. I arrived at a fortunate moment. Most of the guests were still sitting at a table covered with dessert-dishes. Swinburne was much at his ease in an armchair near the fireplace, and was just beginning, as a number of smiling faces showed, to be not only interesting, but in some way entertaining also.

He was, as I presently gathered, about to begin an account of an historical drama by himself, which existed in his memory only—a sort of parody of what Victor Hugo might have written had he dramatized English events at the opening of the reign of Queen Victoria. The first act, he said, showed England on the verge of a revolution, which was due to the frightful orgies of the Queen at `Buckingham Palace'. The Queen, with unblushing effrontery, had taken to herself a lover, in the person of Lord John Russell, who had for his rival `Sir Peel'. Sir Peel was represented as pleading his own cause in a passionate scene, which wound up as follows:

`Why do you love Lord John Russell, and why do you not love me? I know why you love Lord John Russell. He is young, he is beautiful, he is profligate. I cannot be young, I cannot be beautiful, but I will be profligate.' Then followed the stage direction, `Exit for ze Haymarket.' In a later act it appeared that the Queen and Lord John Russell had between them given the world a daughter, who, having been left to her own devices, or, in other words, to the streets, reappears as `Miss Kitty', and is accorded some respectable rank. Under these conditions she becomes the object of much princely devotion; but the moral hypocrisy of England has branded her as a public scandal. With regard to her so-called depravities nobody entertains a doubt, but one princely admirer, of broader mind than the rest, declares that in spite of these she is really the embodiment of everything that is divine in woman. `She may', he says, `have done everything which might have made a Messalina blush, but whenever she looked at the sky, she murmured "God", and whenever she looked at a flower she murmured "mother".'

The vivacity and mischievous humour with which Swinburne gave his account of this projected play exhibited a side of his character which I have never even seen mentioned, and the appreciation and surprise of his audience were obviously a great delight to him. He lay back in his chair, tossed off a glass of port, and presently his mood changed. Somehow or other he got to his own serious poems; and before we knew where we were, he was pouring out an account of Poems and Ballads, and explaining their relation to the secrets of his own experience....

Then, like a man waking up from a dream, Swinburne turned to our host, and said nervously, `Can you give me another glass of port?' His glass was filled, he emptied it at a single draught, and then lay back in his chair like a child who had gone to sleep, the actual fact being, as his host soon recognized, that, in homely language, he was drunk.

W. H. Mallock, Memoirs of Life and Literature (1920), pp. 53-55, 55-57, 58.

AT dinner I talked to — about Swinburne, whom he knew; he was a little in that Arts Club set. He told me Swinburne's quarrel with the Committee was due to the fact not only that he was too constantly drunk there, but that on the final occasion, being drunk and not able to find his hat, he tried others, and as each proved too small for his enormous head he threw it wrathfully on the ground and stamped on it—which naturally brought some complaints to the Committee next day.,/p>

He complained that Gosse (in his Life) had given nothing of Swinburne's humour, much of which indeed was not very printable, though essentially harmless enough—as his invention about Queen Victoria's confession, in French for some reason, presumably because A.C.S. liked talking French—to the Duchess of Kent of her unfortunate lapse from virtue.

Ce n'était pas un prince; ce n'était pas un milord, ni même Sir R. Peel. C'était un misérable du peuple, en nomme Wordsworth, qui m'a recité des vers de son Excursion d'une sensualité si chaleureuse qu'ils m'ont ébranlé—et je suis tombée.'

I quote from memory, very likely not —'s words.

Bailey, Letters and Diaries, p. 175.

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