Most of us have, at one time or another, fallen under the spell of Swinburne owing to the genius with which he turned into music the enthusiasm of the heretic. He fluttered through the sooty and Sabbatic air of the Victorian era, uttering melodious cries of protest against everything in morals, politics, and religion for which Queen Victoria seemed to stand. He was like a rebellious boy who takes more pleasure in breaking the Sabbath than in the voice of nightingales. He was one of the few Englishmen of genius who have understood the French zest for shocking the bourgeois. He had little of his own to express, but he discovered the heretic’s gospel in Gautier, and Baudelaire and set it forth in English in music that he might have learned from the Sirens who sang to Ulysses. He revelled in blasphemous and licentious fancies that would have made Byron’s hair stand on end. Nowadays, much of the blasphemy and licentiousness seems flat and unprofitable as Government beer. But in those days it seemed heady as wine and beautiful as a mediaeval tale. There was always in Swinburne more of pose than of passion. That is why we have to some extent grown tired of him. But in the atmosphere of Victorianism his pose was original and astonishing. He was anti-Christ in a world that had annexed Christ rather than served him. Nowadays, there is such an abundance of anti-Christs that the part seems hardly worth playing by a man of first-rate ability. Consequently, we have to remember the circumstances in which they were written in order to appreciate to the full many of Swinburne’s poems and even some of the amusing outbursts of heresy in his letters. Still, even to-day, one cannot but enjoy the gusto with which he praised Trelawney—Shelley’s and Byron’s Trelawney—“the most splendid old man I have seen since Landor and my own grandfather":—
Of the excellence of his principles I will say but this: that I did think, by the grace of Saban (unto whom, and not unto me, be the glory and thanksgiving. Amen: Selah), I was a good atheist and a good republican; but in the company of this magnificent old rebel, a lifelong incarnation of the divine right of insurrection, I felt myself, by comparison, a Theist and a Royalist.
In another letter he writes in the same gay, under-graduatish strain of marriage:—
When I hear that a personal friend has fallen into matrimonial courses, I feel the same sorrow as if I had heard of his lapsing into theism—a holy sorrow, unmixed with anger; for who am I to judge him? I think at such a sight, as the preacher—was it not Baxter?—at the sight of a thief or murderer led to the gallows: “There, but for the grace of——, goes A.C.S.,” and drop a tear over fallen man.
There was, it is only fair to say, a great deal in Swinburne’s insurrectionism that was noble, or, at least, in tune with nobleness. But it is impossible to persuade oneself that he was ever