1] A version of the traditional greeting to the Emperor extended by gladiators entering the amphitheatre: "Hail, Faustina the Empress, they who are about to die salute you."
Swinburne responded to venemous reviews of this and other poems in his first volume of verse. His Notes on Poems and Reviews (London: John Camden Hotten, 1866) is edited in Complete Works by Sir Edmond Gosse and Thomas James Wise, Prose Works, Vol. VI (London: William Heinemann, Ltd., 1926): 353-73. Of "Faustine," Swinburne has the following to say:
I have heard that even the little poem of `Faustine' has been to some readers a thing to make the scalp creep and the blood freeze. It was issued with no such intent. Nor do I remember that any man's voice or heel was lifted against it when it first appeared, a new-born and virgin poem, in the Spectator newspaper for 1862. Virtue, it would seem, has shot up surprisingly in the space of four years or less -- a rank and rapid growth, barren of blossom and rotten of root. `Faustine' is the reverie of a man gazing on the bitter and vicious loveliness of a face as common and as cheap as the morality of reviewers, and dreaming of past lives in which this fair face may have held a nobler or fitter station; the imperial profile may have been Faustina's, the thirsty lips a Mænad's, when first she learnt to drink blood or wine, to waste the loves and ruin the lives of men; through Greece and again through Rome she may have passed with the same face which now comes before us dishonoured and discrowned. Whatever of merit or demerit there may be in the verses, the idea that gives them such life as they have is simple enough; the transmigration of a single soul, doomed as though by accident from the first to all evil and no good, through many ages and forms, but clad always in the same type of fleshly beauty. The chance which suggested to me this poem was one which may happen any day to any man -- the sudden sight of a living face which recalled the well-known likeness of another dead for centuries: in this instance, the noble and faultless type of the elder Faustina, as seen in coin and bust. Out of that casual glimpse and sudden recollection these verses sprang and grew.
Of the poem in which I have attempted once more to embody the legend of Venus and her knight, I need say only that my first aim was to rehandle the old story in a new fashion. To me it seemed that the tragedy began with the knight's return to Venus -- began at the point where hitherto it had seemed to leave off. The immortal agony of a man lost after all repentance -- cast down from fearful hope into fearless despair -- believing in Christ and bound to Venus -- desirous of penitential pain, and damned to joyless pleasure -- this, in my eyes, was the kernel and nucleus of a myth comparable only to that of the foolish virgins and bearing the same burden. The tragic touch of the story is this: that the knight who has renounced Christ believes in him; the lover who has embraced Venus disbelieves in her. Vainly and in despair would he make the best of that which is the worst -- vainly remonstrate with God, and argue on the side he would fain desert. Once accept or admit the least admixture of pagan worship, or of modern thought, and the whole story collapses into froth and smoke. It was not till my poem was completed that I received from the hands of its author the admirable pamphlet of Charles Baudelaire on Wagner's Tannhäuser. If any one desires to see, expressed in better words than I can command, the conception of the mediæval Venus which it was my aim to put into verse, let him turn to the magnificient passage in which M. Baudelaire describes the fallen goddess, grown diabolic among ages that would not accept her as divine. In another point, as I then found, I concur with the great musician and his great panegyrist. I have made Venus the one love of her knight's whole life, as Mary Stuart of Chastelard's; I have sent him, poet and soldier, fresh to her fierce embrace. Thus only both legend and symbol appear to me noble and significant. Light loves and harmless errors must not touch the elect of heaven or of hell. The queen of evil, the lady of lust, will endure no rival but God; and when the vicar of God rejects him, to her only can he return to abide the day of judgment in weariness and sorrow and fear. (364-66)
4] Faustine: made of the stuff of Faust, the scholar in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus tempted by Mephistopheles to sell his soul for knowledge, power, and earthly pleasures.
49] Jesus, exorcising the prostitute Magdalene of her sin.
61] sarcophagus: stone coffin (literally, `flesh-eating stone').
90] teen: suffering.
99] Bacchanal: worshipper of Bacchus (101), god of wine.
117] Sapphic: of Sappho, an ancient Greek female poet of love.
118] Mitylene: Lesbos.
122] gin: device, engine.
130] epicene: characterized by the traits of both sexes.
146] The Lampsacene: one from Lampsacus, a city of Mysia on the Hellespont (Lamsaki in modern times).
Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department
of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.
Original text: Swinburne's Collected Poetical Works, 2 vols. (London: William Heinemann, 1924): I, 106-12.
First publication date: 31 May 1862
Publication date note: Spectator (May 31, 1862): 606-07. Poems and Ballads (1866): 122-29.
RPO poem editor: Ian Lancashire
RP edition: RPO (1999).
Recent editing: 2:2002/5/2
Other poems by Algernon Charles Swinburne