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A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature/Swinburne, Algernon Charles

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Swinburne, Algernon Charles (1837-1909). -- Poet, s. of Admiral S. and of Lady Jane Ashburnham, dau. of the 3rd Earl of A., b. in London, received his early education in France, and was at Eton and at Balliol Coll., Oxf., where he attracted the attention of Jowett, and gave himself to the study of Latin, Greek, French, and Italian, with special reference to poetic form. He left Oxf. without graduating in 1860, and in the next year pub. two plays, The Queen Mother and Rosamund, which made no impression on the public, though a few good judges recognised their promise. The same year he visited Italy, and there made the acquaintance of Walter Savage Landor (q.v.). On his return he lived page 369for some time in Cheyne Row, Chelsea, with D.G. Rossetti (q.v.), and G. Meredith (q.v.). The appearance in 1865 of Atalanta in Calydon led to his immediate recognition as a poet of the first order, and in the same year he pub. Chastelard, a Tragedy, the first part of a trilogy relating to Mary Queen of Scots, the other two being Bothwell (1874), and Mary Stuart (1881). Poems and Ballads, pub. in 1866, created a profound sensation alike among the critics and the general body of readers by its daring departure from recognised standards, alike of politics and morality, and gave rise to a prolonged and bitter controversy, S. defending himself against his assailants in Notes on Poems and Reviews. His next works were the Song of Italy (1867) and Songs before Sunrise (1871). Returning to the Greek models which he had followed with such brilliant success in Atalanta he produced Erechtheus (1876), the extraordinary metrical power of which won general admiration. Poems and Ballads, second series, came out in 1878. Tristram of Lyonnesse in heroic couplets followed in 1882, 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). Among his prose works are Love's Cross Currents (1905) (fiction), William Blake, a Critical Essay (1867), Under the Microscope (1872), in answer to R. Buchanan's Fleshly School of Poetry, George Chapman, a Critical Essay (1875), A Study of Shakespeare (1879), A Study of Victor Hugo (1886), and A Study of Ben Jonson (1889).

S. belongs to the class of "Poets' poets." He never became widely popular. As a master of metre he is hardly excelled by any of our poets, but it has not seldom been questioned whether his marvellous sense of the beauty of words and their arrangement did not exceed the depth and mass of his thought. The Hymn to Artemis in Atalanta beginning "When the hounds of Spring are on Winter's traces" is certainly one of the most splendid examples of metrical power in the language. As a prose writer he occupies a much lower place, and here the contrast between the thought and its expression becomes very marked, the latter often becoming turgid and even violent. In his earlier days in London S. was closely associated with the pre-Raphaelites, the Rossettis, Meredith, and Burne-Jones: he was thus subjected successively to the classical and romantic influence, and showed the traces of both in his work. He was never m., and for the last 30 years of his life lived with his friend, Mr. Theodore Watts-Dunton, at the Pines, Putney Hill. For some time before his death he was almost totally deaf.