"Notes on Poems and Reviews"

What is Swinburne's line of argument? To what extent is it convincing?

In writing of Blake, what are Swinburne's assertions about the nature of art? (He was one of the first to write favorably of Blake, who had been admired by John Linnell, Samuel Palmer and D. G. Rossetti.)

Can you describe features of Swinburne's prose style? Do these create a powerful effect? (beautiful inversions; falling rhythms; constantly shifting balances; rising and falling cadences)

Do you see a relationship between the principles he here states and his aims in Poems and Ballads?

Which of his descriptions of Baudelaire might also apply to himself?

Is this essay a model of impressionistic criticism? How do its methods compare with the views espoused in Walter Pater's The Renaissance?

Poems and Ballads

Is there any sequence to the arrangement of this volume? For example, is there any psychological progression to the narrators' responses? Which of his poems are dramatic monologues, and which seem to be lyrics in the voice of the author's own persona?

(When attacked for their content, Swinburne claimed that his poems were a series of experiments in moods and points of view. Is this apparent to a careful reader, or may there be cause for confusion?)

What traditions would have suggested the inclusion of (art) ballads?

Swinburne's poetry is preoccupied with themes of death and love, but so were the poems of other Victorian poets; do you find him more elegiac than the others--D. G. Rossetti, Tennyson, Arnold, Hopkins, Browning, and Morris--and if so, why?

What are some resemblances between Swinburne's early poetry and that of Rossetti and Morris? Is his poetry less original because of its use of borrowings? (Morris, 5, 15, 187; Rossetti 6, 115, 117, 186).

What type of female figures appear often in his work? (the fatal or amoral woman, e. g., Dolores)

What seems to be the early Swinburne's view of history? (pain has created our lives)

Swinburne was very young when he wrote these poems; would you describe their attitude toward authority and fate as one of acceptance? rebellion? an alernating mixture of the two?

Could you describe features of his response to life and "love" as masochistic? As sadistic? How can you tell? (seems more the former than latter)

Some poems to consider: "Dedication," "Hesperia," "Triumph of Time," "Hermaphroditus," "Dolores," and "Felise."

Atalanta in Calydon, 1865

What is the play’s Greek source? Would the use of a Euripidean source have added to the poem’s credibility?
What is the significance of the fact that the play is named after Atalanta rather than Meleager or Althea?
Do you find parallels between this poetic drama and any of Swinburne’s other early works? (e. g., “The Triumph of Time”) Poetic dramas by other Victorian poets?
What is added to the story by the fact that it is cast in poetic form? Does it seem to you essentially more dramatic or lyrical?
What are some significant patterns of imagery?
--Artemis associated with fire and wind, the fullness of spring
--Meleager associated with the fire-burning brand and with water
--constant fire images, references to iron
6. What seem to you significant features of the plot? Does it conform to Aristotelian views of tragedy?
7. When we first meet Althea, what seem to be her dominant passions and characteristics? Is she presented as a noble character? (271) What forces or cicumstances does she seem to represent?
Do you find Althea’s responses to be consistent throughout? Why is she a tragic figure? (when she burns him, also burns herself, 273) How does she respond to her murder of her son?
The story of Medea--who killed her husband’s prospective new bride and their two sons--was also popular in the Victorian period. Why do you think the theme of maternal murder may have seemed especially horrific to the Victorians?
What are some of the points of dispute between mother and son? (227, 228) How significant would these seem to be to a Victorian or a modern audience?
Is Atalanta’s grief at her brothers’ death fully explained? (265-67, *268) What was the brothers’ motivation for their deed? What features of early Greek culture do these motifs seem to encode? (Woman’s identification with original kinship unit--even so, seems exaggerated?)
What function is served by the chorus?
--211, defines Artemis
--221, describes fate of man
--235, apostrophizes love, “Oh Love, thou art fair”; love brings fate and death, actively opposes men
--246, indictment of gods
Are some of these ideas or images present in other Victorian poetry, say that of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, G. M. Hopkins, or D. G. Rossetti?
What are some of the attractive lyrical sections of the poem?
What are features of Meleager’s character? (235, passive, stoic) What is his response to death? (290-91, noble, perfect)
What are some of the features of the lyrics? How do these formal qualities reinforce their meaning? (variety pleasant, cmp. “Manfred,” “Prometheus Unbound”)
Are the deaths presented inevitable?
Do you feel this play’s ending provides closure, and if so, what are the conflicts which it resolves? Does it provide its audience with a sense of Aristotelian “catharsis,” that is, emotions of pity and terror?
If you have read “The Triumph of Time” or know anything of Swinburne’s private life, which features of this poem do you think may be autobiographical?

 

Tristram of Lyonesse, 1880

Alfred Tennyson had already used the Tristram legend in his “The Last Tournament,” and Arnold more sympathetically in his “Tristram and Iseult,” but both poets see the lovers’ union as destructive of the more conventional moral and social ties of life. How does Swinburne arrange his material for a different effect?

Are there other ways in which one could compare or contrast Swinburne’s long epic with Victorian treatments of love in historically displaced settings by Tennyson, Robert Browning, or William Morris (e. g., “The Lovers of Gudrun”)?

How do the epics differ in their historical specificity and their respective views of fate?
--Swinburne offers little characterization, emphasizes role of fate rather than character
--sees “Love” as a generalized abstraction, akin to a life force
--there are parallels with the view of love presented in “The Defence of Guenevere,” where Guenevere is overtaken in the garden by her fate.

What are some reasons Swinburne might have chosen the Tristram legend (rather than say, the story of Launcelot and Guinevere) as the subject of his Malorian epic? (literary and biographical)

What seems to be the conception of love elaborated in this poem? Is it an altogether happy and affirmative emotion?
--Love seems more an abstract ecstatic emotion rather than a particularized experience. Palomedes asks Mark for Iseult, but Tristram wins her in battle (she a trophy) and for three months they live together in the forest.

What are the poem’s repeated patterns of imagery? How would you characterize them? (mingle the abstract and the concrete)
--web, veil
--light/shadow
--fire
--bird, song, lyre
--wind
--jewels
Do you find them sufficiently varied? In aggregate do they provide a unitive vision?

Are these images similar to those found in other contemporary writers, such as Walter Pater (in “The Conclusion” to The Renaissance) or D. G. Rossetti’s “The House of Life”?
What function is served by the introductory catalogue of lovers? (evokes literary rather than historical sphere) Of the evocation of the parable of original sin? (yet lovers here are guiltless)

How has his style here shifted from that of “The Triumph of Time”? What are some features of the poem’s rhythms and use of language?

What poetic function is served by the use of hyphenated words? How does the poet employ synesthesia?

Are there ways in which this poem approximates music, that is, in which sound may be said to determine sense?

Book II

What role is played by King Mark?

What is the lovers’ response to their sexual union, and what psychological point, if any, is made by this portrayal?

Book III

What experience does Tristram undergo after he leaves his love?

What are Tristram’s motives for his marriage? Is the transition to his marriage adequately explained?

What is the significance of imagery of the sun god? (a topical subject of time, with interest in comparative mythologies centering on the figure of the sun-god, Max Muller)

What philosophical attitudes does Tristram express in his soliloquy to the sea and sun? (62-63) Does he accept the flow of reality?

What significance--formal or thematic--may reside in the use of triplets for stanzas and lines--3/3/3--3 3’s--not a traditonal epic form?

Book IV The Maiden Marriage

What do we learn about the participants’ past in this book? What does this information add to our sense of the issues involved?

What has been Tristram’s attitude toward the sea? Does this remind you of the attitude of any other Swinburne protagonists?

Book V Iseult at Tintagel

What seems Iseult’s conception of love, and how does it seem to differ from that of previous Victorian peotic heroes or heroines, such as Guinevere or Elaine? How does her soliloquy on love differ from that of Morris’s Guenevere or Alice in “Sir Peter Harpdon’s End”?

What seems to be her relationship to God?

What are some examples of foreshadowing throughout? (as in her final prayer)

Does the tale gain in intensity as it develops? Can it carry its great length?

What symbolism seems inherent in the idea of marriage? (a Victorian literary marriage frequently operates as an emblem of fate, cmp. Hardy)

Book VI Joyous Guard

What is the motivation for the lovers’ escape to the northerly tower? (motif of escape from castle familiar from “The Eve of St. Agnes”; Swinburne often takes familiar romantic and Victorian motifs and extends them)

What are some symbolic aspects of the landscape? (two towers and sea)

What is the purpose of introducing a celebration of Merlin’s union with nature? How does this poem value Merlin differently than had Tennyson in “Merlin and Vivien”?

Book VII The Wife’s Vigil

What is the narrator’s attitude toward Iseult of Brittany? What emotions does she feel towards the lovers? Does she differentiate this in her responses?

What had been Guenevere’s attitude towards Iseult and Iseult’s towards Guenevere; and why is this important?

Do you find the characterization of Iseult consistent?

What effect is served by the mannerism of repeated questions?

Do we feel the speaker's resonse is morally just?

VIII The Last Pilgrimage

What causes Tristram to leave the Joyous Guard?

What are features of his final fight with Urgan? Can you see parallels with the Old English account of Beowulf? (he must win as well as lose) With the combats presented in Morris’s Sigurd the Volsung? What are Tristram’s emotions as he fights?

How do the lovers differ in their expression of love? Do you find them satisfactorily differentiated? (cmp. Peter and Alice)

What do you make of the motif of the double Iseult and the double Tristram? Does it suggest other Victorian poetic doublings? (dark and innocent ladies, as in nineteenth-century stereotypes)

Which of the participants has engaged in an unselfish quest?

Do you find the poem moving? Sentimental? Troubling? Do you feel the sections of the poem are sufficiently integrated?

How would you compare Swinburne’s poetry with that of Tennyson? What are the respective merits of each?

Do you prefer Swinburne’s shorter or longer poems, his lyrics or his epics?