For the crown of our life as it closes
Is darkness, the fruit thereof dust;
No thorns go as deep as a rose's,
And love is more cruel than lust.
Time turns the old days to derision,
Our loves into corpses or wives;
And marriage and death and division
Make barren our lives.
(Dolores (Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs), 153-160)
Swinburne was born April 5, 1837, in London, the child of an admiral, Captain Charles Henry Swinburne, and Lady Henrietta Swinburne. He spent his childhood at Capheaton Hall, Bonchurch, the Isle of Wight, moved on to receive his education in classics, French and Italian and metrics at Eton (1849-54) and then Balliol College, Oxford (January 1856), but eventaully left university without a degree in 1860. His first two published works were plays, The Queen Mother and Rosamond, which came out in 1861. In the years before his first triumph, Atalanta in Calydon, published in 1865, Swinburne visited Italy, where he met Walter Savage Landor, and he lived for a time in Cheyne Row, Chelsea, with D. G. Rossetti and George Meredith. In 1864 Swinburne's cousin Mary Julia Charlotte Gordon announced that she would marry (June 1865). This news much disappointed Swinburne and is perhaps reflected in poems like "Dolores." In 1865 Swinburne brought out Chastelard, a Tragedy, the first part of a Mary Queen of Scots trilogy, to be completed by Bothwell (1874), and Mary Stuart (1881). Swinburne published his greatest volume of poems, Poems and Ballads, in 1866. It contains "Dolores," "Hymn to Proserpine," "Faustine," and a dozen other dark, exquisitely musical poems. Their voice has proved unique in English poetry, but they caused an unequalled scandal by flouting accepted Victorian moral, religious and social standards. Controversy spilled over in personal attacks on his character by John Morley (Saturday Review August 4, 1866) and others. Swinburne defended his poems as art for the sake of art, and his interests in sado-masochism as impersonal, in Notes on Poems and Reviews; and W. M. Rossetti followed suit in Swinburne's Poems and Ballads: A Criticism the same year.
Swinburne's later volumes of poetry less often matched the creativity of his early years. These include Song of Italy (1867), Songs before Sunrise (1871), Erechtheus (1876), Poems and Ballads, second series (1878), Tristram of Lyonesse (1882), A Century of Roundels (1883), A Midsummer Holiday (1884), Marino Faliero (1885), Locrine (1887), Poems and Ballads, third series (1889), The Sisters (1892), Astrophel (1894), The Tale of Balen (1896), Rosamund, Queen of the Lombards (1899), A Channel Passage (1904), and The Duke of Gandia (1908).
In 1879 Swinburne's alcoholism caused his legal advisor and friend Walter Theodore Watts-Dunton to take him away from London to The Pines near the bottom of Putney Hill. This personal care extended Swinburne's life by 30 years, during which he wrote astute criticism of Shakespeare, Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, Blake, and Victor Hugo (cf. Essays and Studies ) as well as two novels, A Year's Letters (1877), reissued in 1905 as Love's Cross Currents, and Lesbia Brandon (1952). Swinburne never married. He died 10 April 1909.
Given name: Algernon Charles
Family name: Swinburne
Birth date: 5 April 1837
Death date: 10 April 1909
father: Charles Henry Swinburne
mother: Jane Henrietta Swinburne
sister: Isabel Swinburne
Balliol College, Oxford: 24 January 1856
Second Prince Consort's prize, French and Italian: 1852
First prize, French and Italian: 1853
Taylorian scholarship for French and Italian: 1858
Literary period: Victorian
Isle of Wight
Chester Street, Grosvenor Place, London: 5 April 1837
Capheaton: 1859 to 1860
Holmwood, near Henley-on-Thames: 1866
12 North Crescent, Alfred Place, London: 1873
3 Great James Street, London: 1873
Pneumonia: November 1903
Cause of death: Pneumonia
Buried at: Bonchurch
First RPO edition: 1999