Commentary

Selected Criticism

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.


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