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Swinburne William Blake A Critical Essay

Encyclopedia Index

Title:

Swinburne, Algernon Charles (1837–1909)

Author:

Kozlowski, Alan E.

Print source:

J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Swinburne, British Victorian poet and critic, may own the second most notorious repudiation of Whitman, behind Ralph Waldo Emerson; however, Swinburne's retraction is more vehement. Yet Swinburne does not entirely deserve his disgrace in Whitman studies, for, despite enthusiasm, his early writings on Whitman are tempered with careful criticism and his late "attack" on Whitman was as much an attack on the excesses of Whitman's devotees as it was criticism of Whitman's poetry.

Swinburne borrowed Whitman's 1855 Leaves of Grass and in 1862 bought a copy of the 1860 edition, finding himself especially taken with "A Word Out of the Sea," later titled "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking." His William Blake (1868) includes a favorable comparison of Blake and Whitman, noting their identical "passionate" advocacy of "sexual [and] political freedom," the similarity of their poetry to "the Pantheistic poetry of the East," and their prophetic stature. Noting that they both have flaws, Swinburne calls William Blake's work more profound but finds Whitman's "fresh and frank," praising "Out of the Cradle" and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" (William Blake 300–304). Swinburne, inspired by political reform in Italy and France, dedicated his collection of poetry Songs Before Sunrise (1871) to Mazzini and included "To Walt Whitman in America," addressing Whitman and the United States as symbols of freedom. Less flattering is Under the Microscope (1872), in which Swinburne complains that the poet and the formalist clash in Whitman, who would better advance the cause of democracy by abandoning his catalogues for his more lyrical expressions. Published in 1887, "Whitmania" is a far cry from the admiration expressed in William Blake. Denying that Whitman is much of a poet, Swinburne criticizes the latest wave of his admirers who would attempt to rank him in the literary "pantheon." Swinburne accords Whitman some praise, granting him enthusiasm, love of nature, faith in freedom, and a dignified attitude toward death, but holds Whitman's work to be underdeveloped rhetoric rather than poetry. Whitman never publicly responded to Swinburne's attack, though the controversy from this famous disavowal kept Whitman in the public eye, ensuring his fame.

Bibliography

Blodgett, Harold. Walt Whitman in England. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1934.

Gosse, Edmund. The Life of Algernon Charles Swinburne. New York: Macmillan, 1917.

Swinburne, Algernon Charles. The Letters of Algernon Charles Swinburne. London: Heinemann, 1918.

———. Songs Before Sunrise. London: Ellis, 1871.

———. Under the Microscope. London: White, 1872.

———. "Whitmania." Fortnightly Review ns 42 (1887): 170–176. Rpt. in Walt Whitman: The Critical Heritage. Ed. Milton Hindus. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971. 199–209.

———. William Blake: A Critical Essay. London: Hotten, 1868. Rpt. in Walt Whitman: The Critical Heritage. Ed. Milton Hindus. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971. 134–136.



There are many reasons which should make me glad to inscribe your name upon the forefront of this book. To you, among other debts, I owe this one—that it is not even more inadequate to the matter undertaken; and to you I need not say that it is not designed to supplant or to compete with the excellent biography of Blake already existing. Rather it was intended to serve as complement or supplement to this. How it grew, idly and gradually, out of a mere review into its present shape and volume, you know. To me at least the subject before long seemed too expansive for an article; and in the leisure of months, and in the intervals of my natural work, the first slight study became little by little an elaborate essay. I found so much unsaid, so much unseen, that a question soon rose before me of simple alternatives: to do nothing, or to do much. I chose the latter; and you, who have done more than I to serve and to exalt the memory of Blake, must know better how much remains undone.


Friendship needs no cement of reciprocal praise; and this book, dedicated to you from the first, and owing to your guidance as much as to my goodwill whatever it may have of worth, wants no extraneous allusion to explain why it should rather be inscribed with your name than with another. Nevertheless, I will say that now of all times it gives me pleasure to offer you such a token of friendship as I have at hand to give. I can but bring you brass for the gold you send me; but between equals and friends there can be no question of barter. Like Diomed, I take what I am given and offer what I have. Such as it is, I know you will accept it with more allowance than it deserves; but one thing you will not overrate—the affectionate admiration, the grateful remembrance, which needs no public expression on the part of your friend

November, 1866.


[In justice to the fac-similist who has so faithfully copied the following designs from Blake's works, the publisher would state they were made under somewhat difficult circumstances, the British Museum authorities not permitting tracing from the copies in their possession. In every case the exact peculiarities of the originals have been preserved. The colouring has been done by hand from the designs, tinted by the artist, and the three illustrations from "Jerusalem" have been reduced from the original in folio to octavo. The paper on which the facsimiles are given has been expressly made to resemble that used by Blake.]

Frontispiece.Gateway with eclipse. A reduction of plate 70, from "Jerusalem."
Title-page.A design of borders, selected from those in "Jerusalem" (plates 5, 19, &c.), with minor details from "Marriage of Heaven and Hell," and "Book of Thel."
P. 200.Title from "Book of Thel."
P. 204.Title from "Marriage of Heaven and Hell."
P. 208.Plate 8, from the Same (selected to show the artist's peculiar method of blending text with minute design).
P. 224.The Leviathan. From "Marriage of Heaven and Hell."
P. 258.From "Milton." Male figures; one in flames.
P. 276.Female figures. A reduction of Plate 81 from "Jerusalem."
P. 282.Design with bat-like figure. A reduction of Plate 33 from "Jerusalem."


1. Life of William Blake. By Alexander Gilchrist. 1863.

2. Poetical Sketches. By W. B. 1783.

3. Songs of Innocence. 1789.

4. The Book of Thel. 1789.

5. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. 1790.

6. Visions of the Daughters of Albion. 1793.

7. America: A Prophecy. 1793.

8. Songs of Experience. 1794.

9. Europe: A Prophecy. 1794.

10. The First Book of Urizen. 1794.

11. The Book of Ahania. 1795.

12. The Song of Los. 1795.

13. Milton: A Poem in Two Books. 1804.

14. Jerusalem, An Emanation of The Giant Albion. 1804.

15. Ideas of Good and Evil. (MS.)

16. Tiriel. (MS.)

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