"The Triumph of Time" (from Poems and Ballads)
1. What first strikes you about Swinburne's use of language? Is it melodic? powerful? excessive? What linguistic devices does he use to achieve variety and intensify emotion?
2. What are some striking features of the poem's use of sounds? What are its stanza form, rhyme scheme and rhythms? What types of metaphors keep recurring?
3. What are some features of the poem's diction? (use of piled monosyllables to create effects of rapidity, biblical cast)
--paradox of bittersweetness; biblical and Tennysonian echoes
4 . Can you discern contradictions or paradoxes in some of the poem's rhetorical formulations? What kinds of literary references does the poem offer?
5. What are some repeated image patterns within the poem, and what do they suggest? Do these remind you of features of other authors you have read, especially nineteenth-century poets?
6. Please pick one favorite stanza and pick out metaphors, oxymorons, patterns of line and sound balance, alliteration and assonance, and any other poetic features you can discern.
7. Who is the speaker, and what can you discern about his character and situation? Whom does he address? Would you call this poem a dramatic monologue in the conventional sense?
8. What topics seem to preoccupy the speaker? What seems to be his main problem and deepest regret? Does he seem to blame the person from whom his life has been forever divided?
9. What for him was the most important experience in life? Why can't he now stand "with the souls that stand/In the sun's light, clothed with the light of the sun"?
10. What seems to be the speaker's conception of erotic fulfillment? Of love? Is the object of his love described sufficiently so as to seen an actual person?
11. What effect is created by his vision of what might have been had she loved him? (paradise, ll. 41ff.; instead turns to bleak reality, 55ff.) Does Swinburne's speaker seem to have experienced a sense of divided identity?
12. What does he mean in speaking of the woven raiment of nights and days being cast off from him? What should be the result? Is this a death wish, and if not, why?
13. What are features of Swinburne's poetic landscape in this poem?
14. What do you make of the poem's use of repetition in ideas and language? What effect is created by the biblical cast of the speaker's rhetoric? (looping structure and biblical resonances suggest the depth and fixated nature of his emotions, provide a sense of eternal return, even of his estrangements and resentments)
15. What is the progression of the poem's emotions? (turns from what might have been to a kind of farewell, with its attendant sense of control and power, 165ff; a sense of wave-like motion both in his psyche and in imagery; moves from love of an individuated woman to love of the force of all life, his mother the sea, then finds an image of courtly love in another poet, notes that his own cry will not be heeded--yet ends with an appeal and a question)
16. Can you defend the poem against the charge of monotony? What propels it forward, if not plot?
17. Do you find any of the speaker's statements inconsistent, and if so, what effect does this create? (sense of paradox, impasse)
18. What are some of the inherent paradoxes of Swinburne's style and conception of existence? According to the early twentieth-century critic William Empson, a major feature of poetry is its ability to convey tension within a poem, to make seem as bonded apparent contradictions. According to this definition, is “The Triumph of Time” a successful poem?
19. Which literary figure has attained the poet's ideal? What is the effect of recounting this story (rather than, say, his own)? What is the speaker's relation to him?
20. What is his final response to his loved one? (prays to her, a stance suggestive of courtly love conventions, 230ff; and one which incorporates his sense of self-abasement but also permits a form of controlled, sublimated relationship)
21. What experience seems to comfort him most? What symbolism is associated with his return to the sea?
22. What psychological patterns seem associated with his description of the sea as the ultimate mother and lover of men? From a Freudian/psychoanalytical point of view, what attachments does this seem to suggest? (mingled erotic and death wish, 255ff; astounding passage expressing wish for paradoxical union with barren mother; feels such a union will cause him to be reborn, 280ff; emotion of this attraction propels speaker into a distancing trance, 310ff)
23. What effect is created by the ending? In what ways, if at all, may it be said to provide closure?
--at last the speaker achieves a kind of distancing from life, 200ff; is able to bury himself metaphorically, and thus perhaps to bury his turbulent emotions as well;
--can mourn himself, offering solace of self-attachment, 350ff
--sense of elegy, 81ff.; rises to death wish, 112ff.; imagines resurrection in grave, 125 ff.
--final expression of alienation
24. What do you make of the statement, “I shall hate sweet music my whole life long”? What contraries of emotion does it convey? What are some implications of his desire for his loved one to feel his heart trod to dust and death?
25. What seems the implied answer to his final question? (apparently no, she will not know or care; but the poet will)
26.To what extent does this poem seem to be autobiographical, and if so, does this alter in any way your reading of it?
27. What is its final tone and effect of the poem? What do you think are its ultimate themes?
28. Do you find the poem entirely despairing? What seem the answers, if any, to the poet's final uncertainties? Does the poem end with any sense of comfort or consolation?
29. Does this poem allow for any audience participation in interpreting or assuaging its problematic emotions?
30. Swinburne was highly popular in the generation that succeeded the Victorians. Can you reconstruct why this may have been the case?
"The Lake of Gaube"
1. According to the notes, what legend was associated with the Lake of Gaube? With the salamander?
2. What scene does the poet describe? What changes in rhythm occur in the different sections, and what effect is created by these changes?
3. What are features of Swinburne's language? What is striking about lines such as "Flowers dense and keen as midnight stars aflame"? What are some examples of onomatopoeia?
4. What comparison does the poet make between the salamander and the swimmer? Why does he choose the image of the swimmer to convey his pont?
5. What happens to the swimmer as he dives? What kind of spiritual/mental state is the poet attempting to convey?
6. What does the poet mean when he says, "Might life be as this is and death be as life that casts off time as a robe,/ The likeness of infinite heaven were a symbol revealed of the lake of Gaube"?
7. What is the purpose of the poem's final section? Why does it begin with a series of questions? What resolution is offered by the poet in the final lines?
8. What is meant by the claim that we should never fear "For aught that a lie saith"? Might the final statement be a paradox? What is the "lie" that we must transcend through courage?
9. Did you like this poem? How might you compare it to Tennyson's "In Memoriam" or Arnold's "Dover Beach"?
Hymn to Proserpine
Who was Proserpine (Proserpina)? Why might you suppose someone would write a hymn to her? What clue is given by the words in parenthesis?
What is the poem’s meter? What may this add to the presentation of its subject? Could the same points have been made as effectively in a sixteen line poem?
What do we know about the speaker? On what grounds does he praise Proserpina? To what qualities does he find her rites superior?
How does the speaker characterize the “new gods”? What can he object to about their traits of mercy and compassion? What have they eliminated?
What are some features of Christianity (as practiced in the Middle Ages) which he criticizes?
What sublime vistas does the speaker prefer?
What biblical echoes reside in the poem, and how do these affect the reader’s interpretation? Are these echoes chiefly from the New or Old Testaments?
What fate does he predict for “the pale Galilean” and other Christian saints?
Can you cite other 19th century European writers who made similar criticisms of Christianity?
What final vision comforts the poet and ends the poem? How does her image differ from that of Mary the mother of Christ, as presented in Christian iconography?
What fate does the speaker predict for himself?
Is the ending of the poem effective? Moving? If so, why?
Why in your opinions did many Victorians find this poem (and other early Swinburne poems) shocking? Liberating?
Swinburne wrote a parodic sequence of poems imitating the features of the poetry of his famous contemporaries, "Seven Against Sense." Among these he included himself.
After reading "Nephelidia" aloud, can you identify at least five features of the parody which do resemble Swinburne's own work?
What are some qualities of his poetry which are not captured in the parody--that is, what makes poems such as "The Triumph of Time" more than merely linguistic set-pieces?
What may have been Swinburne's motive in writing a self-parody?