Algernon Charles Swinburne
Algernon Charles Swinburne (London, April 5, 1837 - London, April 10, 1909) was an English poet, playwright, novelist, and critic. He invented the roundel
Roundel (poetry)
A roundel is a form of verse used in English language poetry devised by Algernon Charles Swinburne . It is a variation of the French rondeau form. It makes use of refrains, repeated according to a certain stylized pattern...

 form, wrote several novels, and contributed to the famous Eleventh Edition
Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition
The Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition is a 29-volume reference work, an edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. It was developed during the encyclopaedia's transition from a British to an American publication. Some of its articles were written by the best-known scholars of the time...

 of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in every year from 1903 to 1907 and again in 1909.


Swinburne was born at 7 Chester Street, Grosvenor Place, London, on 5 April 1837. He was the eldest of six children born to Captain (later Admiral) Charles Henry Swinburne and Lady Jane Henrietta, daughter of the 3rd Earl of Ashburnham
George Ashburnham, 3rd Earl of Ashburnham
George Ashburnham, 3rd Earl of Ashburnham, KG, GCH, FSA was a British peer.He was the son of the 2nd Earl of Ashburnham and the former Elizabeth Crowley, being styled Viscount St Asaph from birth, and was baptised on 29 January 1761 at St George's, Hanover Square, London, with King George III, the...

. He grew up at East Dene in Bonchurch on the Isle of Wight
Isle of Wight
The Isle of Wight is a county and the largest island of England, located in the English Channel, on average about 2–4 miles off the south coast of the county of Hampshire, separated from the mainland by a strait called the Solent...

 and attended Eton College
Eton College
Eton College, often referred to simply as Eton, is a British independent school for boys aged 13 to 18. It was founded in 1440 by King Henry VI as "The King's College of Our Lady of Eton besides Wyndsor"....

 1849-53, where he first started writing poetry, and then Balliol College, Oxford
Balliol College, Oxford
Balliol College , founded in 1263, is one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford in England but founded by a family with strong Scottish connections....

 1856-60 with a brief hiatus when he was rusticated
Rustication (academia)
Rustication is a term used at Oxbridge to mean being sent down or expelled temporarily. The term derives from the Latin word rus, countryside, to indicate that a student has been sent back to their family in the country, or from medieval Latin rustici, meaning "heathens or barbarians"...

 from the university in 1859 for having publicly supported the attempted assassination of Napoleon III by Felice Orsini
Felice Orsini
Felice Orsini was an Italian revolutionary and leader of the Carbonari who tried to assassinate Napoleon III, Emperor of the French.-Early:Felice Orsini was born at Meldola in Romagna, then part of the Papal States....

, returning in May 1860, though he never received a degree.

He spent summer holidays at Capheaton Hall
Capheaton Hall
Capheaton Hall, near Wallington, Northumberland, is an English country house, the seat of the Swinburne Baronets and the childhood home of the poet Algernon Swinburne. It counts among the principal gentry seats of Northumberland...

 in Northumberland
Northumberland is the northernmost ceremonial county and a unitary district in North East England. For Eurostat purposes Northumberland is a NUTS 3 region and is one of three boroughs or unitary districts that comprise the "Northumberland and Tyne and Wear" NUTS 2 region...

, the house of his grandfather, Sir John Swinburne, 6th Baronet (1762–1860) (see Swinburne Baronets
Swinburne Baronets
The Swinburne Baronetcy, of Capheaton in the County of Northumberland, was a title in the Baronetage of England. It was created on 26 September 1660 for John Swinburne in honour of the loyalty to Charles I of Swinburne's father and grandfather prior to and during the English Civil War. He...

) who had a famous library and was President of the Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle upon Tyne
Newcastle upon Tyne
Newcastle upon Tyne is a city and metropolitan borough of Tyne and Wear, in North East England. Historically a part of Northumberland, it is situated on the north bank of the River Tyne...

. Swinburne considered Northumberland to be his native county, an emotion memorably reflected in poems like the intensely patriotic 'Northumberland', 'Grace Darling
Grace Darling
Grace Horsley Darling was an English Victorian heroine who in 1838, along with her father, saved 13 people from the wreck of the SS Forfarshire.-Biography:...

' and others. He enjoyed riding his pony across the moors (he was a daring horseman) 'through honeyed leagues of the northland border'. He never called it the Scottish border.
In the years 1857–60, Swinburne became one of Lady Pauline Trevelyan's intellectual circle at Wallington Hall
Wallington Hall
Wallington is a country house and gardens located about west of Morpeth, Northumberland, England, near the village of Cambo. It has been owned by the National Trust since 1942, after it was donated by Sir Charles Philips Trevelyan, the first donation of its kind...

 and after his grandfather's death in 1860, would stay with William Bell Scott
William Bell Scott
William Bell Scott was a Scottish poet and artist.-Life:The son of Robert Scott , the engraver, and brother of David Scott, the painter, he was born in Edinburgh. While a young man he studied art and assisted his father, and he published verses in the Scottish magazines...

 in Newcastle. In December 1862, Swinburne accompanied Scott and his guests, probably including Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Dante Gabriel Rossetti was an English poet, illustrator, painter and translator. He founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848 with William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, and was later to be the main inspiration for a second generation of artists and writers influenced by the movement,...

, on a trip to Tynemouth
Tynemouth is a town and a historic borough in Tyne and Wear, England, at the mouth of the River Tyne, between North Shields and Cullercoats . It is administered as part of the borough of North Tyneside, but until 1974 was an independent county borough in its own right...

. Scott writes in his memoirs that as they walked by the sea, Swinburne declaimed the as yet unpublished 'Hymn to Proserpine
Hymn to Proserpine
"Hymn to Proserpine" is a poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne, published in 1866. The poem is addressed to the goddess Proserpina, the Roman equivalent of Persephone....

' and 'Laus Veneris' in his lilting intonation, while the waves 'were running the whole length of the long level sands towards Cullercoats
Cullercoats is an urban area of north east England, with a population 9,407 in 2004. It has now been absorbed into the North Tyneside conurbation, sitting between Tynemouth and Whitley Bay. There is a semi-circular sandy beach with cliffs and caves, and the village is a popular destination for...

 and sounding like far-off acclamations'.

At Oxford Swinburne met several Pre-Raphaelites, including William Morris
William Morris
William Morris 24 March 18343 October 1896 was an English textile designer, artist, writer, and socialist associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the English Arts and Crafts Movement...

 and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. After leaving college he lived in London and started an active writing career, where Rossetti was delighted with his 'little Northumbrian friend', a reference to Swinburne's diminutive height—he was just over five feet tall.

His poetic works include: Atalanta in Calydon (1865), Poems and Ballads (1866), Songs before Sunrise
Songs before Sunrise
Songs before Sunrise is a collection of poems relating to Italy, and particularly its unification, by Algernon Charles Swinburne. It was published in 1871 and can be seen as an extension of his earlier long poem, A Song of Italy. Swinburne was partly inspired to write the songs by a meeting with...

(1871), Poems and Ballads Second Series, (1878) Tristram of Lyonesse
Tristram of Lyonesse
"Tristram of Lyonesse" is a long epic poem written by the British poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, that recounts in grand fashion the famous medieval story of the ill-fated lovers Tristan and Isolde . It was first published in 1882 by Chatto and Windus, in a volume entitled Tristram of Lyonesse and...

(1882), Poems and Ballads Third Series (1889), and the novel Lesbia Brandon
Lesbia Brandon
Lesbia Brandon is a pornographic novel by Algernon Charles Swinburne, written between 1859 and 1868 and published posthumously. It was illustrated by Simeon Solomon.-References:Notes...

(published posthumously in 1952).

Poems and Ballads caused a sensation when it was first published , especially the poems written in homage Sappho of Lesbos such as "Anactoria
Anactoria is the name of a woman mentioned by Sappho as a lover of hers in Fragment 16 , often referred to by the title "To an Army Wife, in Sardis." Fragment 31 is traditionally called the "Ode to Anactoria", though no name appears in it Anactoria (or Anaktoria) is the name of a woman mentioned...

" and "Sapphics": Moxon and Co. transferred its publication rights to John Camden Hotten
John Camden Hotten
John Camden Hotten was an English bibliophile and publisher.Hotten was born in Clerkenwell, London to a family of Cornish origins. He spent the period 1848–1856 in America and on his return opened a small bookshop in London at 151a Piccadilly, and founded the publishing firm later known as Chatto...

. Other poems in this volume such as "The Leper," "Laus Veneris," and "St Dorothy" evoke a Victorian fascination with the Middle Ages
Middle Ages
The Middle Ages is a periodization of European history from the 5th century to the 15th century. The Middle Ages follows the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and precedes the Early Modern Era. It is the middle period of a three-period division of Western history: Classic, Medieval and Modern...

, and are explicitly mediaeval in style, tone and construction. Also featured in this volume are "Hymn to Proserpine
Hymn to Proserpine
"Hymn to Proserpine" is a poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne, published in 1866. The poem is addressed to the goddess Proserpina, the Roman equivalent of Persephone....

", "The Triumph of Time
The Triumph of Time
The Triumph of Time is a poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne, published in 1866. It is in adapted ottava rima and is full of elaborate use of literary devices, particularly alliteration. The theme, which purports to be autobiographical, is that of rejected love...

" and "Dolores (Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs)
Dolores (Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs)
Dolores is a poem by A. C. Swinburne first published in his 1866 Poems and Ballads. The poem, in 440 lines, regards the figure of the titular "Dolores, Our Lady of Pain", thus named at the close of many of its stanzas....

Swinburne devised the poetic form called the roundel, a variation of the French Rondeau
Rondeau (poetry)
This article is about the poetry form. For other uses, see Rondeau.A rondeau is a form of French poetry with 15 lines written on two rhymes, as well as a corresponding musical form developed to set this characteristic verse structure...

 form, and some were included in A Century of Roundels dedicated to Christina Rossetti
Christina Rossetti
Christina Georgina Rossetti was an English poet who wrote a variety of romantic, devotional, and children's poems...

. Swinburne wrote to Edward Burne-Jones
Edward Burne-Jones
Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, 1st Baronet was a British artist and designer closely associated with the later phase of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, who worked closely with William Morris on a wide range of decorative arts as a founding partner in Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, and Company...

 in 1883: "I have got a tiny new book of songs or songlets, in one form and all manner of metres ... just coming out, of which Miss Rossetti has accepted the dedication. I hope you and Georgie [his wife Georgiana, one of the MacDonald sisters
MacDonald sisters
The MacDonald sisters were four British sisters, notable for their marriages to well-known people of the Victorian era. Alice, Georgiana, Agnes and Louisa were four of the seven daughters and 11 children of Reverend George Browne MacDonald , a Methodist minister, and Hannah Jones .- Biographies...

will find something to like among a hundred poems of nine lines each, twenty-four of which are about babies or small children". Opinions of these poems vary between those who find them captivating and brilliant, to those who find them merely clever and contrived. One of them, A Baby's Death, was set to music by the English composer Sir Edward Elgar as the song Roundel: The little eyes that never knew Light
Roundel: The little eyes that never knew Light
"Roundel: The little eyes that never knew Light" is a song with piano accompaniment written by the English composer Edward Elgar in 1897. The words are from the fourth roundel of a poem A Baby's Death written by A. C...


Swinburne was an alcoholic
Alcoholism is a broad term for problems with alcohol, and is generally used to mean compulsive and uncontrolled consumption of alcoholic beverages, usually to the detriment of the drinker's health, personal relationships, and social standing...

 and algolagnia
Algolagnia is a sexual tendency which is defined by deriving sexual pleasure and stimulation from physical pain, often involving an erogenous zone.Studies conducted indicate differences in how the brains of those with algolagnia interpret nerve input....

c, and a highly excitable character. His health suffered as a result, and in 1879 at the age of 42 he was taken into care by his friend Theodore Watts, who looked after him for the rest of his life at The Pines, 11 Putney Hill, Putney
Putney is a district in south-west London, England, located in the London Borough of Wandsworth. It is situated south-west of Charing Cross. The area is identified in the London Plan as one of 35 major centres in Greater London....

 SW15. Thereafter he lost his youthful rebelliousness and developed into a figure of social respectability. He died at the Pines, on 10 April 1909 at the age of 72 and was buried at St. Boniface Church, Bonchurch
St. Boniface Church, Bonchurch
St. Boniface Church, Bonchurch is a parish church in the Church of England located in Bonchurch, Isle of Wight.-History:The church dates from 1847 and 1848 by the architect Ferrey. It replaced Old St. Boniface Church, Bonchurch....

 on the Isle of Wight
Isle of Wight
The Isle of Wight is a county and the largest island of England, located in the English Channel, on average about 2–4 miles off the south coast of the county of Hampshire, separated from the mainland by a strait called the Solent...



Swinburne is considered a decadent
Decadent movement
The Decadent movement was a late 19th century artistic and literary movement of Western Europe. It flourished in France, but also had devotees in England and throughout Europe, as well as in the United States.-Overview:...

 poet, although he perhaps professed to more vice than he actually indulged in; Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde
Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was an Irish writer and poet. After writing in different forms throughout the 1880s, he became one of London's most popular playwrights in the early 1890s...

 stated that Swinburne was "a braggart in matters of vice, who had done everything he could to convince his fellow citizens of his homosexuality and bestiality without being in the slightest degree a homosexual or a bestializer."

His mastery of vocabulary
A person's vocabulary is the set of words within a language that are familiar to that person. A vocabulary usually develops with age, and serves as a useful and fundamental tool for communication and acquiring knowledge...

, rhyme
A rhyme is a repetition of similar sounds in two or more words and is most often used in poetry and songs. The word "rhyme" may also refer to a short poem, such as a rhyming couplet or other brief rhyming poem such as nursery rhymes.-Etymology:...

 and metre
Meter (poetry)
In poetry, metre is the basic rhythmic structure of a verse or lines in verse. Many traditional verse forms prescribe a specific verse metre, or a certain set of metres alternating in a particular order. The study of metres and forms of versification is known as prosody...

 is impressive, although he has also been criticized for his florid style and word choices that only fit the rhyme scheme rather than contributing to the meaning of the piece. He is the virtual star of the third volume of George Saintsbury
George Saintsbury
George Edward Bateman Saintsbury , was an English writer, literary historian, scholar and critic.-Biography:...

's famous History of English Prosody, and A. E. Housman
A. E. Housman
Alfred Edward Housman , usually known as A. E. Housman, was an English classical scholar and poet, best known to the general public for his cycle of poems A Shropshire Lad. Lyrical and almost epigrammatic in form, the poems were mostly written before 1900...

, a more measured and even somewhat hostile critic, devoted paragraphs of praise to his rhyming ability.

Swinburne's work was once quite popular among undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge, though today it has gone out of fashion. This is at least somewhat contextual, as it tends to mirror the popular and academic consensus regarding his work, although his Poems and Ballads, First Series and his Atalanta in Calydon have never been out of critical favour.

It was Swinburne's misfortune that the two works, published when he was nearly 30, soon established him as England's premier poet, the successor to Alfred Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning
Robert Browning
Robert Browning was an English poet and playwright whose mastery of dramatic verse, especially dramatic monologues, made him one of the foremost Victorian poets.-Early years:...

. This was a position he held in the popular mind until his death, but sophisticated critics like A. E. Housman felt, rightly or wrongly, that the job of being one of England's very greatest poets was beyond him.

After the first Poems and Ballads, Swinburne's later poetry is devoted more to philosophy and politics (notably, in favour of the unification of Italy, particularly in the volume Songs before Sunrise
Songs before Sunrise
Songs before Sunrise is a collection of poems relating to Italy, and particularly its unification, by Algernon Charles Swinburne. It was published in 1871 and can be seen as an extension of his earlier long poem, A Song of Italy. Swinburne was partly inspired to write the songs by a meeting with...

). He does not stop writing love poetry entirely (including his great epic-length poem, Tristram of Lyonesse), but the content is much less shocking. His versification, and especially his rhyming technique, remain in top form to the end.

T. S. Eliot
T. S. Eliot
Thomas Stearns "T. S." Eliot OM was a playwright, literary critic, and arguably the most important English-language poet of the 20th century. Although he was born an American he moved to the United Kingdom in 1914 and was naturalised as a British subject in 1927 at age 39.The poem that made his...

 read Swinburne's essays on the Shakespearean and Jonsonian dramatists in The Contemporaries of Shakespeare and The Age of Shakespeare and Swinburne's books on Shakespeare and Jonson. Writing on Swinburne in 'The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism', Eliot found that as a poet writing notes on poets, he had mastered his material, writing "'he is more reliable to them than Hazlitt
William Hazlitt
William Hazlitt was an English writer, remembered for his humanistic essays and literary criticism, and as a grammarian and philosopher. He is now considered one of the great critics and essayists of the English language, placed in the company of Samuel Johnson and George Orwell. Yet his work is...

, Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was an English poet, Romantic, literary critic and philosopher who, with his friend William Wordsworth, was a founder of the Romantic Movement in England and a member of the Lake Poets. He is probably best known for his poems The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla...

, or Lamb: and his perception of relative values is almost always correct." However, Eliot disliked Swinburne's prose. About this he wrote "the tumultuous outcry of adjectives, the headstrong rush of undisciplined sentences, are the index to the impatience and perhaps laziness of a disorderly mind."


  • A Century of Roundels, London: Chatto and Windus 1883
  • The poems of Algernon Charles Swinburne, 6 vols. London: Chatto & Windus, 1904.
  • The Tragedies of Algernon Charles Swinburne, 5 vols. London: Chatto & Windus, 1905.
  • Poems and Ballads & Atalanta in Calydon ed. Kenneth Haynes. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2000
  • The Complete Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne, ed. Sir Edmund Gosse and Thomas James Wise, 20 vols. Bonchurch Edition; London and New York: William Heinemann and Gabriel Wells, 1925-7.
  • Tristram of Lyonesse. London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1917.
  • William Blake: A Critical Essay, 2nd edn. London: John Camden Hotten, 1868.


Further reading

External links

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