Friday, 5 July 2013


I was once thumbing through a tattered poetry book in a library when some  opening lines caught my eye:

From the depths of the dreamy decline of the dawn through a notable nimbus of nebulous noonshine
Pallid and pink as the palm of the flag-flower that flickers with fear of the flies as they float. . .

I read on. A few lines down, and the alliteration had increased even further:

Surely no spirit or sense of a soul that was soft to the spirit and soul of our senses
Sweetens the stress of suspiring suspicion that sobs in the semblance and sound of a sigh

not to mention:

Made meek as a mother whose bosom beats bound with the bliss-bringing bulk of a balm-breathing baby

The poem, titled ‘Nephelidia’ (‘little clouds’) was by the Victorian poet A.C. Swinburne. I already knew a little about Swinburne, and that he had a reputation for elaborate versification. But even so, how could anyone bring themselves to write poetry quite so over-the-top?

The answer to this is explored below, but first, a little about the man himself:

Swinburne was such an extraordinary character that a list seems the best way to introduce him briefly: Son of an admiral; very short but with a long neck, large head and auburn hair; constantly twitching hands possibly due to brain damage at birth; lifelong interest in flagellation from his Eton schooldays (both writing about it and being whipped himself); close friend of D.G. Rossetti and other Pre-Raphaelites; critic, linguist and classical scholar; disapproving of male homosexuality but enthusiastic about lesbianism; claimed to find the Marquis de Sade’s writings hilariously funny; champion of French poets, especially Baudelaire; rescued from an alcoholic bachelor existence at the age of 42 by a male friend; lived quietly in Putney for the rest of his life, developing an innocent interest in babies and writing many poems about them.

Swinburne was admired for his astonishing versifying skills by all his poetic contemporaries, including the Poet Laureate Tennyson. On the other hand, even his own mother criticised his verbosity, while Robert Browning complained of his ‘never using one word where 100 will do’.

But people certainly took notice of him. His first major collection Poems and Ballads, published in 1866 when he was 29, scandalised the Victorians with its allusions to lesbianism, sadomasochistic sex and other matters. Punch magazine christened him ‘Mr Swine-born’ – though there’s an irony since Swinburne might well still have been a virgin when his book was published.

Swinburne robustly defended his poems, and never sought to suppress them afterwards. Yet he seems to have quickly lost interest in risqué matters: subsequent volumes of poetry choose entirely different subjects such as liberty, the sea, historical and patriotic topics, and of course babies.

More discussion of Swinburne in future posts, I hope. But, in the meantime, how does ‘Nephelidia’ contribute to getting to know him? It was some time after my first reading that I discovered its simple secret: it’s a self-parody. Swinburne was fully aware of his poetic idiosyncrasies, even if he chose not to rein them in, one of these being a  particular fondness for triple rhythms (one two three, one two three. .). He also spread alliteration on with a trowel at the best of times, and so had to go to extreme lengths to parody himself – hence the remarkable lines quoted above. 

I like to think the poem offers a ‘taster’ of Swinburne while excusing oneself from asking what he might be saying under all the verbosity – because the answer in the case of ‘Nephelidia’ is, more than likely, Nothing at all.

[The full text of ‘Nephelidia’ can be found here:
(Although there’s plenty of academic interest in Swinburne today, when if ever he becomes a household name again remains to be seen. . .)]

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