Swinburne never married. His deafness caused him to pass much of his long life in comparative retirement. His last thirty years were spent with his friend, the critic and poet, Theodore Watts-Dunton, at Putney on the Thames, a few miles southwest of London. Swinburne died in 1909 and was buried at Bonchurch in the Isle of Wight.
Works.—In 1864 England was enchanted with the melody of the choruses in his Atalanta in Calydon, a dramatic poem in the old Greek form. Lines like the following from the chorus, The Youth of the Year, show the quality for which his verse is most famous:—
“When the hounds of spring are on
The mother of months in meadow or plain
Fills the shadows and windy places
With lisp of leaves and ripple of rain.”
The first series of his Poems and Ballads (1866) contains The Garden of Proserpine, one of his best known poems. Proserpine “forgets the earth her mother” and goes to her “bloomless” garden:—
“And spring and seed and swallow
Take wing for her and follow
Where summer song rings hollow
And flowers are put to scorn.”
Many volumes came in rapid succession from his pen. In 1904 his poems were collected in six octavo volumes containing 2357 pages. This collection includes the long narrative poems, Tristram of Lyonesse and The Tale of Balen, a faithful retelling of famous medieval stories. He, however, had more ability as a writer of lyrics than of narrative verse.
His poetic dramas fill five additional volumes. Chastelard (1865), one of the three dramas relating to Mary Queen of Scots, is the best of his plays. He had, however, neither the power to draw character nor the repression of speech necessary for a great dramatist. The best parts of his plays are really lyrical verse.
Many critics think that Swinburne’s reputation would be as great as it now is, if he had ceased to write verse in 1866, at the age of twenty-nine, after producing Atalanta in Calydon and the first series of his Poems and Ballads. Although his interests widened and his poetic range increased, much of his work during his last forty years is a repetition of earlier successes. His Songs before Sunrise, however (1871), and the next two volumes of Poems and Ballads (1878 and 1889) contain some poems that rank among his best.
Later in life he wrote a large amount of prose criticism, much of which deals with the Elizabethan dramatists. His A Study of Shakespeare (1880) and his shorter Shakespeare (1905) are especially suggestive. In spite of the fact that the reader must make constant allowance for his habit of using superlatives, he was an able critic.
General Characteristics.—Swinburne’s poetry suffers from his tendency to drown his ideas in a sea of words.