Karen Alkalay-Gut

Victorian Institutes Journal , 24, 1996, 141-163.


The most common and most popular accusation against Swinburne’s poetry is that it is meaningless. Gerard Manley Hopkins’ famous censure of Swinburne, “Words only are only words” (157) (ironically appropriating Swinburne’s infamous chiasmic repetition), is echoed in much of the major critical work on the poet, sometimes even criticism attempting to revive interest in his poetry. The encouraging revisionist introduction to a selection of Swinburne’s works by Robert Nye, for example, begins with this statement: “Swinburne’s reputation as an empty vessel making a lot of meaningless if musical noise relates to only about nine-tenths of his poetic production.” (13) Even his greatest admirers appear reluctant to contend that there may be consciousness, control, and direction in his use of language and design, and incline to concentrate instead on the often sensationalist thematics and aesthetic manifestoes. Thus a disproportionate amount of work has been understandably devoted to Swinburne and algolagnia, lesbianism, and masochism. When Swinburne’s language and versification are discussed, as in Isobel Armstrong’s most recent book on Victorian poetry, it is argued that there is really nothing to look at closely since his choice of figures is arbitrary:

The metaleptic chain is Swinburne’s habitual trope. It lends itself both to an inexorable continuity of substitution and to disorganization simply because the substitutions are not exchanges so much as arbitrary replacements of one thing for another. (415)

Given this assumption, it is not surprising that close readings of his work, particularly those of his poems which are not clearly dramatic monologues, seem to be the exception, although attentive examinations—when they do occur—frequently reveal Swinburne’s serious purposes in repetition, layering metaphors, conflating subjects, and making ‘who is doing what to whom’ a syntactical secret. Rather than begin with general theories about Swinburne’s work, then, this essay will concentrate upon a single poem to delineate some of the logical labyrinths through which Swinburne takes his readers in his non-narrative works. The purpose is to determine the function of the apparent subordination of meaning in favor of language and effusive imagery in the development of the poem, as well to reexamine some aspects of Swinburne’s general philosophy of poetic structure.

Let us begin with structure: One of the problems with determining the significance of language in so many of Swinburne’s poems is that it is difficult to establish any kind of narrative or lyric development. In Jerome McGann’s dialogues on Swinburne, the idea is proposed that Swinburne’s poetry

goes no where, that his propensity is toward forms which do not so much move forward as they spin off from a center, accumulating all the while what can be a bewildering variety of figures and images which are constantly interacting with each other. One of Swinburne’s most important intuitions is that discoveries are not made at the end of something, or even along the way, but at the beginning. (McGann 41)

This suggestion of circularity, the first to indicate that Swinburne actually has some kind of systematic principle of formulating a structure, presents a system that is very different from the classical principles of poetic cyclicality, which in the history of English poetry usually indicates wholeness and completion. As Marjorie Nicolson has pointed out, Renaissance poetry is based upon a “A circle that existed in the perfect spheres of the planets, in the circular globe, in the round head of man.” (7)

The circle as imitation of the universe and of the concept of history remains a useful abstraction. But the perfection of the universe is not the model for Swinburne’s forms. Instead the structure of the cycle is employed as a reaction to the Victorian concept of progress and the resulting progressive shape of literature. David Reide has pointed out that Swinburne does not perceive development in history, but observes only changes. (54) Antagonism to the concept of progress that was so central to Victorian culture almost necessitates the undercutting of the progressive poem, and it is not surprising that Swinburne, even in apparently narrative verse, frequently works against the concept of progressive composition. The form and subject of the medieval quest, made popular again in the novel, is frequently examined, parodied, or treated ironically in poetry by Swinburne and his contemporaries. Even in the standard form for a progressive narrative, such as that of the questing knight, Swinburne subverts the possibility of progress by selecting a stagnant segment of the tale. By removing all possibilities of action, Swinburne in “Laus Veneris” forces Tannhauser to reveal his lack of valuable and significant goals to the reader. Browning, Tennyson, Arnold, Morris, and others also play with the contrast between ancient quests and contemporary consciousness, but Swinburne’s use appears more prevalent and systematic.

This antipathy to progress may also be the reason that Swinburne found such affinities with the circular forms of the roundel, the rondo, burdens, and “self-enclosed, hypnotic, echoing poetry,” a preference which leads readers to the critical conclusion that these poems have no direction, that although they “fascinate... and absorb,” the poems “in the end go... nowhere.” (McGann, 41) Roundels, Villanelles, and other repetitious closed forms are usually used to illustrate closure and perfection in a recurrent situation, and to negate the value of progress. This concept is best illustrated by Swinburne himself who defines the classical circular pattern in his poem “A Roundel.”

A Roundel is wrought as a ring or a starbright sphere,

With craft of delight and with cunning of sound unsought,

That the heart of the hearer may smile if to pleasure his ear

A roundel is wrought.

Its jewel of music is carven of all or of aught—

Love, laughter, or mourning—remembrance of rapture or fear—

That fancy may fashion to hang in the ear of thought.

As a bird’s quick song runs round, and the hearts in us hear—

Pause answer to pause, and again the same strain caught,

So moves the device whence, round as a pearl or tear,

A roundel is wrought. (V, 161)

This poem indeed goes “no where,” because its subject is the concept of circular fulfillment, but it can only be considered representative of Swinburne’s work in the sense that it acknowledges the significance of the form, for most of Swinburne’s own poems could not exactly be considered “round as a pearl or tear.” (Note the antithetical nature of the similes here -- the pearl’s perfection and the tear’s endless grief become one because of their concrete and abstract circular structure). Their circularity does not appear to indicate perfection, but a need for a ‘wrought’ structure coupled with a fear of linearity, a hunger for order and meaning bound inextricably with so strong a mistrust of direction that content might be dispensed with.

If indeed his poems do go "no where" and there is no direction in Swinburne's work when direction would indicate a developing understanding, it is not surprising that he is so ignored in literary criticism, and that repeated efforts to revive his literary reputation are doomed to failure. As Hopkins' criticism indicates, pure tautology in poetry negates the entire value of poetry.

But it is also possible that the justified prejudice against a lack of direction has reduced our ability to perceive gradations and kinds of direction, that we falsely assume a circular direction to be no direction at all, but a kind of breach of poetic contract, and that without achieved goals there is no power or purpose in a poem. Robert Frost merely reiterated a well-known concept when he said that "a poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom," and anything that does not ato be "progressive" feels incomplete, inconclusive or soporific.

Yet ‘progress’ of sorts is built into even the circular structure. Becaupoems are written and read in a sequential order and are consequently progressive, the principle of Hericlites applies in poetry to all directions, even apparently circular ones: Nothing can be exactly repeated, a line recapitulated echoes its previous occurrence. Consciousness progresses with the accumulated knowledge of previous experience of previous statements. Moreover an awareness of this change of consciousness in repetition without the possibility of progress can itself be part of the subject as well as the structure of a poem.

And it is with this development of consciousness through repetition that Swinburne was indeed concerned. For the purpose of examining the idea of meaningless repetition a poem such as “A Match” is eminently suitable. Particularly ignored even by critics and scholars of Swinburne for its lack of content, yet in form representative of much of his poetry, “A Match” reveals to what extent Swinburne foregrounds this wider consciousness presenting it as well as an alternate concept of poetic development and direction.

If love were what the rose is,

And I were like the leaf,

Our lives would grow together

In sad or singing weather,

Blown fields or flowerful closes,

Green pleasure or grey grief;

If love were what the rose is,

And I were like the leaf,

If I were what the words are

And love were like the tune,

With double sound and single

Delight our lips would mingle,

With kisses glad as birds are

That get sweet rain at noon;

If I were what the words are

And love were like the tune.

If you were life, my darling,

And I your love were death,

We’d shine and snow together

Ere March made sweet the weather

With daffodil and starling

And hours of fruitful breath;

If you were life, my darling,

And I your love were death.

If you were thrall to sorrow,

And I were page to joy

We’d play for lives and seasons

With loving looks and treasons

And tears of night and morrow

And laughs of maid and boy;

If you were thrall to sorrow,

And I were page to joy.

If you were April’s lady,

And I were lord in May,

We’d throw with leaves for hours

And draw for days with flowers,

Till day like night were shady

And night were bright like day:

If you were April’s lady,

And I were lord in May.

If you were queen of pleasure,

And I were king of pain,

We’d hunt down love together,

Pluck out his flying-feather,

And teach his feet a measure,

And find his mouth a rein;

If you were queen of pleasure,

And I were king of pain. (I, 48)


The poem is presented as a closed circle, or a collection of closed circles, in the sense that there is no direction or anticipation to the wishes and dreams, and no apparent sequence to or progress in the verses. The logic follows a standard genre of love song in which the riddles of love go beyond the limitations of a real world and logical order. Like the typical “Cherry Tree Love Song” and other popular folk songs in many languages, this poem compares love with symbols of some incomprehensible eternal mystery of life. James Robinson and Samuel Chew have traced the source of Swinburne’s poem to “an old French wooing-song, ‘les Transformations,’” (Chew, 83), but there is an immediate and apparent difference between the source and the ‘adaptation.’

Si tu te mets en dame dans un couvent,

Je m`e mettrai en pretre, gaillard chantant,

Confesserai les dames de ton couvent --

The point of the song is that the speaker’s love will overcome every obstacle to union. Like “les Transformations,” other standard love songs of this nature also present a test of love, in which a conjectural situation is presented and resolved in some way, but in “A Match,” futile theoretical clauses frame and enclose every verse and love or fulfillment can not transcend the logical enclosures. This is true in part because of the pattern of conditional grammar and obscure structure of “If...then...if.” The grammatical framework, then, subverts the genre of the love song.

But the use of standard and conventional poetic images of what William Rossetti in his discussion of this poem derisively called “experiences to which one can only attach a quasi-significance” (84) also confuses the clarity of logic. These objects of “quasi-significance,” such as leaves, flowers and birds, further camouflage content and form, functioning as an apparent decorative overlay, but with similar subversive purposes in the poem. Birds, for example, appear in the second, third and sixth verse, but in deceptively different contexts: “Kisses glad as birds are” is a happy simile which tangentializes the birds into mere poetic explanations for insignificant kisses, and the starling of the third verse is conventionalized into a standard harbinger of spring. Neither of these birds prepares for the transformation of the bird into a central figure of maimed love in the last verse. This use of birds, then, shows the way in which a conventional image, traced to a logical conclusion, twists into an ironic comment on itself.

This strategy of surprise in the arrangement of images is reflected in the entire structure of the poem. A cursory look at this form, even one that initially ignores the puzzling content of the comparisons, reveals that the first two verses, the second two verses, and the last two verses are different in approach, since the first two present the ‘you’ and ‘I’ in terms of ‘love’ and the self, the second two are comparisons between lovers and abstract concepts, and the last two verses idealize positions of power in relation to each other and to love. Furthermore, the last verse appears to be different in kind from the previous verses, using very distinct imagery and associations, and indicating a sort of direction, goal and theoretical solution absent from previous verses. For if the rest of the poem has dealt with lovers’ games—cards and gambling—this verse is concerned with the serious hunting and taming of love, taming it perhaps even into the controlled emcompassable compression of a poetic framework with its “measure” and reined, restricted mouth. Either this verse is incompatible with the rest of the poem, or it brings together and concludes unclearly understood elements of “A Match.” For the surprise this resolution generates by the change of imagery, subject and emphasis, suggests the need for a reevaluation of the rest of the poem.

And indeed a return to the beginning of the poem indicates a repetition of this curious illogical paradigm. The poem begins with a strange equation which sets up the pattern for the poem: if A = X and B = Y then C would naturally follow. This is a theory of proposed action but one with an extremely shaky logical basis. Not only does C not necessarily follow from B, but there is no intrinsic reason to accept the parallel between “Love” and “I,” despite the clear association of rose and leaf. Furthermore love is proposed as a complete identity with rose, whereas “I” is proposed as a theoretical simile:

love = (identity of) rose I = (like) leaf

The conclusion of this concrete yet asymmetrical equation is a nonsequitur, since the discussion is suddenly transformed from illustrations of concrete images into one of the harmony of development. “Our lives” would encompass paradoxes like this naturalized love, circumscribing tame and wild (“blown fields” as well as “flowerful closes”), open and wild, as well as the color spectrum (“green” and “grey”) and apparently opposing of emotions (“pleasure” and “grief.”)

This strange incorporation of opposites is no more than what is contained in the title of the poem, “A Match.” As in the logic of the entire poem, the word, “Match,” reinforces this confluence of opposites, with its connotations not only of a love-connection, but also the paradoxical counter-definition of “contest between two opponents,” “equal” and “opposite,” “parallel” and “opponent,” “[friendly ] game,” and “[military] contest,” “suitable and “opposed,” and so on. That a word can mean one thing and its antithesis at the same time – and that both meanings are equally significant and valid in the same context – indicates that language can embody its odestruction, a poem can negate its own statement.

The rest of the poem continues this verse form of paralogical encircling, ending with the relatively banal prospect of encompassing all mysteries and domesticating them through violence in the hunt. The hypothetical participants change throughout, but the continuing pattern reinforces an arbitrary structure in which a theoretical comparison is presented, fulfilled in images, and then repeated as theory as if to enclose the images in an impossible utopia. The slow monosyllabic trimeter of the frame lines also contrasts with the smoother polysyllabic middle four lines, which appear to come alive momentarily in imagination, only to be pulled back to reality with the hypothetical nature of the situation.

Abrupt and arbitrary alterations ultimately are revealed as integral to context here. In the second verse the order of “I” and “love” is reversed, making the self identical with language and love merely comparable with music. This conjectural association of self, desire, and expression should be, of course, the ideal situation of poetry, with fulfilled love as the source of perfect yet honest verse.

It becomes apparent that the tangles of love exist as a subject for poetry, and are more interesting for the speculation they engender than the possibilities of fruition. John Rosenberg has noted that “A Match” is a poem that is “Self-engendered,” and “self-contained,” and “inspired not by the emotion of love but by the emotion of poetry itself...” (xii). And this concept is nowhere more clearly expressed than in the second verse in which the self is equated with language, with love being the “music,” the emotion engendered for the poem. But this should not necessarily be a criticism of the poem. This self-consciousness is not an artificial pursuit, or a lack of seriousness or intensity, but the manifestation of the problem engendered in the first verse. Were love an integral unity, of which the speaker was a part, this unity would be fostered whether poetry were written or not—“in sad and singing weather.” But because of the first fall, the second one also occurs.

“A Match,” then, begins with the assumption of a fall from unity which demands the existence of poetry, despite the limitations of poetry to express or fulfill love, because it too exists in a fallen state. The apparently “decorative” function of the birds, then, accentuates the inconsistent unprogressive direction.

The verses that follow present postulated oppositions between the lovers that increase in their power to control nature, time, and language. In each equation “you and I” appear as antitheses which might be transcended momentarily or intellectually. In the third verse the lovers as life and death might manage to maintain a moment of transcended antitheses of sun and snow, but would be temporally limited by the seasons and the weather, by time and nature, when the sun melts the snow. The next verse presents the lady as “thrall to sorrow” and the speaker as “page to joy,” but their servitude and the artificial games played would allow them to go beyond constrictions of seasons, time, and even the emotions by which they were initially enslaved. The “loving looks” themselves are “treasons” and part of the play that paradoxically liberates them from their opposition. And in the fifth verse they would manage to conquer and confuse day and night as “April’s lady” and “lord of May” by casting the same kind of camouflage the poem itself has used—flowers and leaves. Imagery is also a means for overcoming, or at least blurring, opposites.

The “queen of pleasure” and “king of pain” of the last verse, then, are here not only typical characters from Swinburne’s sadomasochistic menagerie of lovers, but also evolved entities from previous verses. Their need for the inevitable conflation of pleasure and pain is a development from the anticipations and disappointments previously delineated, but their proposed power has become much more focused and specific—from playing and gambling at love and confusing its distinctions to the actual domestication of this elusive emotion. From the organic image of the first verse, in which the love-rose was a model from which the couple might learn to live, to the proposals of harmony in the match, we have moved to a figure of love as a hunted-down creature. The image of grounding a bird and teaching it to dance a formal ballroom step is patently ridiculous and a parody of what poetry does, but it is also a logical conclusion to the quest for control developed in the poem. Control would restrain the wild and organic emotions, just as the rhymes of measure and rein restrict pleasure and pain, turning them into verse. Total control in art, as in love, limits its value and/or makes it ridiculous. Certainty is simply not worth having. This use of the hunting metaphor has been pointed out by Adam Roberts in a discussion of Atalanta in Calydon as “very significant: the activity that is supposed to represent the triumph of civilization has come to stand for the ultimate division against the self.” (761)

In this sense “A Match” negates its very basis: the ideals sought for in love would become absurd if actually achieved. “A Match” employs the framework of the love-questions, but ultimately sequesters questions whose answers would negate the value of obtaining love. A bird grounded is no longer a bird.

This sabotage appears in other poems as well. A poem entitled “Rondel,” which begins and ends with the lines “Kissing her hair” for example, appears to maintain the circular structure of the genre, particularly since the desire to “kiss her hair” does not change in the course of the poem. The poem ends with:

Sleep were no sweeter than her face to me

Sleep of cold sea-bloom under the cold sea;

What pain could get between my face and hers?

What new sweet thing would love not relish worse?

Unless, perhaps, white death had kissed me there,

Kissing her hair?

The introduction of the penultimate line with its suggestion of the end of the cycle of love derives its shock value from its embeddedness in the genre. Thus, after the narcotic atmosphere of a repetitive, addictive act of love, comes the shock: “What new sweet thing would love not relish worse? /Unless, perhaps, white death had kissed me there,/ Kissing her hair?” (57). The grammar of “would love not relish worse?” could mean both that love would be improved and that it would be curtailed by death. Although the poem ends with the same line as it begins, it has subverted its cycle of completion. A perfect circle but a diametrically opposite direction.

When is a circle not a circle? When it returns on itself with a twist, like a Moebius loop. This is a circle in which a simple half twist determines that when a full circle has been reached, the traveler on this circle now finds him/herself on the opposite side from where s/he began, which everything appears to be as interchangeable as points on a circle. Yet both sides of the circle are included and both sides of the order are right, with a twist that inverts the meaning and makes the previous order inevitable.

Augustus Ferdinand Moebius, chronologically parallel with Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads, invented the band in which a tape, joined together with a half twist, creates this form of an endless loop. Moving over one side of the loop will take you—not to the beginning—but the other side. Thus by simply adding a twist, a thing can be itself and its reverse at the same time. The philosophy of the Moebius loop, termed by Moebius “non-orientability,” is easily perceived in the more contemporary paintings by Maurice Escher in which the loop is used directly to express infinity, and indirectly to illustrate paradoxes. For example, a row of ants appearing to be on a march are actually merely following each other and going nowhere. The loop indicates that structure and forexist, and its laws can be determined, but these laws lead neither to fulfillment or satiation, but only to endless repetition.

“Non-orientability” may also be a perfect phrase to describe Swinburne’s syntax. A phrase like “With double soand single/ Delight our lips would mingle,” is confusing at best: 1) because it is in the conditional future tense, 2) it treats English like Latin somewhat in the manner of e.e. cummings, making word order irrelevant 3) it mixes not only metaphors but subjects, so that it is not quite clear which is the tenor and which the vehicle. The fact that this kind of technique invades every aspect of “A Match” seems to indicate its intention – that love at least takes place in a non-orientable framework and is therefore as impossible and pervasive as an eternal loop.

Swinburne was in all probability not cognizant of Moebius’ discovery. Nevertheless in the image of the loop is also a clear explanation for the very basis for Swinburne’s pleasure-pain connection: in the confluence of opposites is the only fulfillment, the only unification. Not only is pleasure incomplete, naive, narrow, without pain, but it simply can not be defined as a complete emotion. This image of incompletion appears not only here but also throughout Swinburne’s verse, as in “Stage Love”: “Pleasure with dry lips.... are things she knew not of, that knew not of her/ When she played at half a love with half a lover.” So that the pleasure/pain principle of masochism that “A Match” seems to proffer is best defined a search for unity.

This understanding of his structure may well influence the way Swinburne’s work may be grasped in general. Isobel Armstrong’s criticism, quoted at the beginning of this essay, for example, can be reevaluated with the loop in mind. As proof of Swinburne’s erratic use of figures and structure, Armstrong offers a case of a few lines from Atalanta in Calydon that no longer seems to show a random chain at all, but a very inevitable one:

Before the beginning of years

There came to the making of man

Time, with a gift of tears;

Grief, with a glass that ran;

Pleasure, with pain for leaven;

Summer with flowers that fell;

Remembrance fallen from heaven,

And madness risen from hell;

Strength without hands to smite;

Love that endures for a breath:

Night, the shadow of light,

And life, the shadow of death.

The punctuation and enjambment seem to indicate, even if blurredly, that the chronology introduced with human genesis is a source of all arbitrary distinctions, the central ones of which are understood only through the serendipitous minor ones. That is, death and life are comprehended through the understanding that time creates change, which leads to the knowledge that future pain gives definition to present pleasure, that memory and knowledge lead to the escape from consciousness of madness. The ‘strength’ given by consciousness does not impart power, nor does love impart the temporal equivalence of power, stability and/or control over time. The list continues with a kind of inevitability until the last line in which life is the shadow of death, indicating that even in the concept of creation is the specter of destruction, that in fact, the fall occurred together with creation and not after. This wrench of the traditional tale is a twist in the cycle of the fall and redemption that makes both the fall and redemption opposite sides in the same process and gives these lines a similar pattern as “A Match.”

This structural thesis incorporates and helps to explain and clarify numerous other aspects of Swinburne’s subjects and techniques, and to distinguish it from more contemporary manifestations. Although restricted by a purely circular model, Chris Snodgrass has pointed out some of the manifestations of the loop, both thematic and stylistic. “As Sappho demonstrates in ‘Anactoria’,” Snodgrass notes in a thematic discussion, “every sadistic act is also simultaneously masochistic...” (79). Accurate as a description of Swinburne’s conception, this confluence of opposites is appropriate to the framework of the Moebius loop. Snodgrass, however, continues in a different direction, perceiving this use of opposites as chaotic. He notes for example: “For in a world in which one’s own image has pervaded all existence, not merely ontological distinctions but all human distinctions are obliterated; and man is plunged, without any clear sense of direction, into a sea of flux. One road becomes as good as another; each element contains its opposite.” (81) The two statements contained in the last sentence do not connect. “Each element contains its opposite” suggests an imperative order that the first statement denies.

This distinction is crucial, for Swinburne cannot be included among those writers who were left without a center when philosophical thought was freed from absolute truth. Marjorie Nicolson’s idea of the ‘breaking of the circle’ and Derrida’s concept of the freedom of relativistic thought in the nineteenth century is apparently one step ahead of Swinburne. Swinburne’s poetry does indeed go nowhere at times, but this is precisely the point. The fact that the Moebius loop was introduced, even if only as an explanation of a topological phenomenon, at the same time that Swinburne was obsessively writing poems that obsessively follow this very pattern suggests an alteration of the view of epistemology in the nineteenth century. This is not yet a world in which the center does not hold, but one in which there is a logical dimension of infinity, and the limitations of man to go beyond the trap of nature and logic has become manifest. Instead of the cycle of wholeness and completion, there is the endless repetition of obsession and antipodes.

Yet in order to comprehend Swinburne’s work, it is necessary to perceive that he does not perceive a world in which there is no meaning or order. Things have not yet fallen apart, and the poet, despite a hunger for liberty, is confined by this perception, and uses these confines as the basis for his art. The freedom and anarchy of literature in a post-Nietzschean world is still to be born.

To some extent Swinburne’s structure is not only an illustration of, but also an explanation for the epistemological limitations of poetry of the period, limitations unacknowledged by the progress-obsessed genre of the novel. For the shape of the Moebius loop lends significance to many of the problematic aspects of Victorian poetry. Not only is the rejection of progressive plot and the suspicion of infinite frustration everywhere evident in the curtailed narratives of poems by Tennyson, Arnold, Morris and of course Swinburne, but is parallel in many ways to the development within Rossetti’s sonnet sequence and Fitzgerald’s Rubiyat. Swinburne is merely the only poet to have embraced this principle so completely in his lyrics and ballads.




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