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

§ 7. Swinburne’s early years

The dedication of The Defence of Guenevere to Rossetti testified to the quickening power exercised over Morris by his association with that less prolific and more fastidious genius. To Rossetti, also, was dedicated, in 1860, the first work of Algernon Charles Swinburne, The Queen Mother and Rosamond, two poetical dramas written in elaborate and intricate blank verse and containing incidental lyrics in English and French. For the time being, the book passed almost unnoticed. Swinburne, born in 1837, belonged to a younger branch of the Northumbrian family of that name. His youth, spent between the isle of Wight and the house of his grandfather, Sir John Swinburne, at Capheaton in the country between Morpeth and Bellingham, fired him with a passionate enthusiasm for the sea and open country, which supplied his verse with an inexhaustible theme. At Eton and Balliol college, Oxford, he developed his inborn love of poetry, and, although he came into close connection and friendship with Rossetti and his circle and shared their love for medieval romance, it was with a taste already formed for other types of verse that exercised little, if any, direct influence upon them. To more than an ordinary Englishman’s pride in his country and her past achievements, his reading of the Athenian drama revealed the meaning and value of the liberty for which Athens and the England of Shakespeare had alike contended. His sympathy with republican freedom was learned from Landor and Shelley and, last but not least, from Victor Hugo, who shared with Shakespeare the shrine of his life-long idolatry. To Victor Hugo’s mastery over the forms of lyric and dramatic verse he owed his most direct impulse; it is not too much to say that, after a certain period, under the conviction that no man could do more than Hugo had done, Swinburne’s poetry became dominated by the ambition of following in his footsteps and ringing changes on the themes already chosen by Hugo’s manifold genius. Of other French poets, Gautier and Baudelaire affected him with their command of form and melody, and it was on this side of his appreciations, open to sensuous impression, that Rossetti’s peculiar vividness of phrase and harmony of music appealed to him. Daringly irreverent in his rejection of all conventions that seemed to repress the freedom of the human spirit, he paid humble and, at times, uncritical homage to works of human genius, even when they were least in sympathy with his fervently held and freely uttered creed of liberty. In the child-like frankness of his denunciation of kings and priests he rivalled the outspokenness of Shelley, whose lyric copiousness and variety he even surpassed. But, while Shelley, of the masters of English song, came nearest to him in point of time and the spirit of his verse, the cadences of his music were also founded upon the Elizabethans and Milton, and no influences moulded his phraseology so completely as the sacred literature, biblical and liturgical, of the religion whose professors were the objects of his tireless invective.