The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

V. The Rossettis, William Morris, Swinburne, and Others

§ 11. Swinburne’s prose

In addition to his poetry, Swinburne published from 1868 onwards several volumes of literary criticism. His Essays and Studies and Miscellanies bear the most striking testimony to his comprehensive knowledge and love of poetry and to his scholarly insight. Of his monographs upon individual writers, A Study of Shakespeare takes the first place, not merely as a panegyric in eloquent prose, but as the most stimulating and original contribution made by an English poet to the understanding of the greatest master of English song. His various essays upon the dramatists of Shakespeare’s age, a subject always congenial to him, have the aspect of final pronouncements. His criticism, however, was too much charged with the white heat of enthusiasm to be always judicious: his praise, always lavish, was, at times, extravagant, and his condemnation of his bêtes noires knew no measure. His admirable estimate of Wordsworth in one of the most elaborate of his essays was the fruit of calm and measured judgment: no greater contrast to this could be found than the scorn poured, in the same essay, upon Byron, whose negligent trifling with the gift of verse and occasional vulgarity of execution were, to Swinburne, inexcusable faults without compensation. Thinking and writing in superlatives of praise and blame were natural to him. In the genius of Shakespeare, Shelley and Victor Hugo, “Godstood plain for adoration”: to write of their work was to express the most cherished tenets of a creed of which they were the deities. For those who failed when judged by his standard, who touched the shrine of song with unworthy hands, who misused or paltered with their talent, Swinburne had no mercy: they were the enemies of his creed, to be denounced with the energy of a fanatic. Thus, while his praise constantly glows with the rapture of lyric devotion and his blame draws freely upon the resources of irony and epigram, the unvaryingly rhapsodical tone of his prose, its over-copious periods and unrestrained vocabulary are not a little exhausting to his readers. The “fury in the words” is not seldom out of proportion to the value of the words themselves, and the insight of the poet is dulled by the excessive protestations of the enthusiast.

When Swinburne died in 1909, England lost the most fertile lyric poet of the Victorian era, whose unequalled versatility in the use of lyric form was amazing in its brilliance. Receptive of manifold influences, classical, English and foreign, he reproduced them in a style which was wholly individual. With all his fiercely cherished prejudices and his unsparing condemnation of the dogmas and opinions held most sacred by his countrymen, few poets have been more catholic in their tastes or more ready to recognise and applaud sincerity of purpose in other men’s work. An implacable enemy, he was the most devoted of friends; his cordial admiration for the work of his brother poets was as generous as the selflessness with which Scott praised his contemporaries. His earliest volume was inscribed to Rossetti; Christina Rossetti received the dedication of A Century of Roundels, William Morris that of A strophel, Theodore Watts-Dunton, the constant companion of his later years, that of Tristram of Lyonesse and of later poems. The first series of Poems and Ballads was dedicated to Edward Burne-Jones, and the last volume of Swinburne’s life bore an inscription to the joint memory of Burne-Jones and Morris, the painter and poet of old-world romance, united in life-long brotherhood. In return, his simplicity of character and the unswerving idealism to which he devoted his genius won the admiration and affection of all who knew him. All, indeed, who are aware that truth takes many and diverse forms and value the sincere expression of conviction more than a tame acquiescence in convention pay unconstrained honour to Swinburne’s celebration of his ideals of liberty and justice, clothed in music which is borne upon the wings of the wind and wails and rejoices, now loud with delight in its beauty and strength and now threatening or plaintive in its anger or sadness, like the voice of the sea.