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No. 3391 July 3, 1909.
1. Swinburne: Personal Recollections. By Edmund Gosse
(To be continued.)
Wildfowl and Parlakimedi. By Edmund Candler
A Man of Impulse. By St. John Hankin
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SWINBURNE: PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS.
Men who to-day have not passed middle age can scarcely form an impression of what the name and fame of Algernon Charles Swinburne meant forty years ago to those who were then young and enthusiastic candidates for apprenticeship in the fine arts. Criticism now looks upon his work-and possibly it is right in so lookingrather as closing than as opening a great poetic era. The conception is of a talent which collects all the detonating elements of a previous illumination, and lets them off, once and for all, in a prodigious culminating explosion, after which darkness ensues. But such a conception of Swinburne, as the floriated termination of the romantic edifice, or again to change the image, as one who brought up the rear of a long and straggling army, would have seemed to his adorers of 1869 not merely paradoxical but preposterous. It was not doubted by any of his admirers that here they held an incomparable poet of a new order, "the fairest first-born son of fire," who was to inaugurate a new age of lyric gold.
This conception was shared alike by the few who in those days knew him personally, and by the many who did not. While the present writer was still in that outer class, he well remembers being told that an audience of the elect to whom Swinburne recited "Dolores," had been moved to such incredible ecstasy by it that several of them had sunk on their knees, then and there, and adored him as a god. Those were blissful times, when poets and painters, if they were attached to Keats' "little clan," might hope for honors which were private, indeed, and strictly limited, but almost divine. The extraordinary reputation of Swinburne in the later 'sixties was con
structed of several elements. It was built up on the legend of his mysterious and unprecedented appearance, of the astonishing verbal beauty of his writings, but most of all of his defiance of the intellectual and religious prejudices of his age and generation. He was not merely a poet, but a flag; and not merely a flag but the Red Flag incarnate. There was an idea abroad, and it was not ill-founded, that in matters of taste the age in England had for some time been stationary, if not stagnant. It was necessary to wake people up; as Victor Hugo had said: "Il faut rudoyer le genre humain," and in every gesture it was believed that Swinburne set forth to "rudoyer" the Philistines.
This was welcome to all young per sons sitting in bondage, who looked up to Swinburne as to the deliverer. He also enjoyed, in popular belief, the advantage of excessive youth. In point of fact, his immaturity was not so dazzling as was reported by the newspapers, or alas! as he then himself reported. When Poems and Ballads appeared, he was in his thirtieth year, yet he was generally understood to be only twenty-four. This is interesting merely because there are five or six years of Swinburne's early manhood which seem to be without any visible history. What did he do with himself between 1860, when The Queen-Mother was still-born, and 1865, when he flashed into universal prominence as the author of Atalanta in Calydon? On the large scale, nothing; on the small scale the bibliographer (aided by the indefatigable Mr. Thos. J. Wise) detects the review of Baudelaire's in Fleurs du Mal the "Spectator" (1862), and a dim sort of short story in prose, called Dead Love (1864). No
doubt this was a time of tremendous growth in secret; but, visibly, no flame or even smoke was ejected from the crater of the young volcano. Swinburne told me that he wrote the Baudelaire in a Turkish bath in Paris. (There were stranger groves of Academe than this.) No doubt the biographers of the future, intent on rubbing the gold-dust off the butterfly's wings, will tell us everything, day by day. Meanwhile, these early years continue to be delightfully mysterious, and he was nearly thirty when he dawned in splendor on London.
Swinburne's second period lasted from 1865 to 1871. This was the blossoming-time of the aloe, when its acute perfume first filled the literary salons, and then emptied them; when, for a very short time, the poet emerged from his life-long privacy and trod the social stage. The experiment culminated, I suppose, in his solitary public utterance. He might be called "Single-Speech Swinburne," since positively his only performance on his legs was an after-dinner oration, in May, 1866, when he responded to the toast of "The Imaginative Literature of England" at Willis's Rooms. This, I conjecture, was the occasion, of which I remember Browning telling me, when Sala coupled with a toast "the names of the moral (though I cannot say clever) Mr. Tupper, and the clever (though I cannot say moral) Mr. Swinburne." I believe this not unpleasing anecdote to be ben trovato, but it is quite in the 1866 manner.
This second period was brilliant, but stormy. Swinburne was constitutionally unfitted to shine in mixed society. The events in his career now came fast and thick. The Atalanta, acclaimed in 1865, had been followed later in the same year by Chastelard, which made old men begin to dream dreams, and in 1866 by Poems and Ballads, which roused a scandal unparalleled since
Byron left England exactly half a century before. Then, when the fury of the public was at its height, there was a meeting between Jowett and Mazzini, at the house of Mr. George Howard (now the Earl of Carlisle), to discuss "what can be done with and for Algernon." And then there came the dedication to the Republic, "the beacon-bright Republic far-off sighted," and all the fervor and intellectual frenzies were successfully diverted from "such tendrils as the wild Loves wear" to the luminous phantasms of liberty and tyrannicide, to the stripping of the muffled souls of kings, and to all the other glorious, generous absurdities of the Mazzini-haunted Songs before Sunrise (1871). This was the period when, after an unlucky experience of London society, the poet fled to the solitudes again, and nearly lost his life swimming in the harbor of Etretat. The autumn of 1870 saw him once again in London. It is at this moment, when Swinburne was in his thirty-fourth year, that the recollections which I venture to set down before they be forgotten practically begin. They represent the emotional observations of a boy on whom this mysterious and almost symbolical luminary turned those full beams which were then and afterwards so thriftily withdrawn from the world at large.
That I may escape as quickly as possible from the necessity of speaking for myself, and yet may detail the credentials of my reminiscences, let me say that my earliest letter from Swinburne was dated September 14th, 1867, when I was still in my eighteenth year, and that I first saw him about that time, or early in 1868. I was not presented to him, however, until the last week in 1870, when, in a note from the kind hostess who brought us together, I find it stated: "Algernon took to you at once, as is seldom the case with him." In spite of this happy