1. THE EXOTIC BIRD
Swinburne was an absurd character. He was a bird of showy strut and plumage. One could not but admire his glorious feathers; but, as soon as he began to moult—and he had already moulted excessively by the time Watts-Dunton took him under his roof—one saw how very little body there was underneath. Mr. Gosse in his biography compared Swinburne to a coloured and exotic bird—a “scarlet and azure macaw,” to, be precise—and the comparison remains in one’s imagination. Watts-Dunton, finding the poor creature moulted and “off its feed,” carried it down to Putney, resolved to domesticate it. He watched over it as a farmer’s wife watches over a sick hen. He taught it to eat out of his hand. He taught it to speak—to repeat things after him, even “God Save the Queen.” Some people say that he ruined the bird by these methods. Others maintain that, on the contrary, but for him the bird would have died of a disease akin to the staggers. They say, moreover, that the tameness and docility of the bird, while he was looking after it, have been greatly exaggerated, and they deny that it was entirely bald of its old gay feathers.
There you have a brief statement of the great Swinburne question, which, it seems likely, will last as long as the name of Swinburne is remembered. It is not a question of any importance; but that will not prevent us from arguing it hotly. The world takes a malicious joy in jibing at men of genius and their associates, and a generous joy in defending them from jibes. Further, the discussion that interests the greatest number of people is discussion that has come down to a personal level. Ten people will be bored by an argument as to the nature of Swinburne’s genius for one who will be bored by an argument as to the nature of Swinburne’s submissiveness to Watts-Dunton. Was Watts-Dunton, in a phrase deprecated by the editors of a recent book of letters, a “kind of amiable Svengali”? Did he allow Swinburne to have a will of his own? Did Swinburne, in going to Putney, go to the Devil? Or did not Watts-Dunton rather play the part of the good Samaritan? Unfortunately, all those who have hitherto attempted to describe the relations of the two men have succeeded only in making them both appear ridiculous. Mr. Gosse, a man of letters with a sting, has done it cleverly. The others, like the editors to whom I have referred, have done it inadvertently. They write too solemnly. If Swinburne had lost a trouser-button, they would not have felt it inappropriate, one feels, for the Archbishop of Canterbury to hurry to the scene and go down on his knees on the floor to look for it.... Well, no doubt, Swinburne was an absurd character. And so was Watts-Dunton. And so, perhaps, is the Archbishop of Canterbury.