Algernon Charles Swinburne

Algernon Charles Swinburne (5 April 1837 – 10 April 1909) was an English poet, playwright, novelist and critic. He wrote many plays - all tragedies - and collections of poetry such as Poems and Ballads, and contributed to the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica.

Algernon Charles Swinburne
Swinburne aged 52
Swinburne aged 52
Born(1837-04-05)5 April 1837
London, England
Died10 April 1909(1909-04-10) (aged 72)
London, England
OccupationPoet, playwright, novelist and critic
EducationEton College
Alma materBalliol College, Oxford
PeriodVictorian era
Literary movementDecadent movement, Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood
Notable workPoems and Ballads

Swinburne wrote about many taboo topics, such as lesbianism, sado-masochism, and anti-theism. His poems have many common motifs, such as the Ocean, Time, and Death. Several historical people are featured in his poems, such as Sappho ("Sapphics"), Anactoria ("Anactoria"), and Catullus ("To Catullus").[1]


Algernon Charles Swinburne, 1862, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Swinburne was born at 7 Chester Street, Grosvenor Place, London, on 5 April 1837. He was the eldest of six children born to Captain (later Admiral) Charles Henry Swinburne (1797–1877) and Lady Jane Henrietta, daughter of the 3rd Earl of Ashburnham, a wealthy Northumbrian family. He grew up at East Dene in Bonchurch on the Isle of Wight.[2] The Swinburnes also had a London home at Whitehall Gardens, Westminster.[3]

As a child, Swinburne was "nervous" and "frail", but "was also fired with nervous energy and fearlessness to the point of being reckless."[4] He went horseback riding and wrote plays with his first cousin Mary Gordon who lived nearby on the Isle of Wight. They secretly collaborated on her second book, Children of the Chapel, which contained an unusual amount of beatings.[5]

Swinburne attended Eton College (1849–53), where he started writing poetry. At Eton, he won first prizes in French and Italian.[4] He attended Balliol College, Oxford (1856–60), with a brief hiatus when he was rusticated[6] from the university in 1859 for having publicly supported the attempted assassination of Napoleon III by Felice Orsini.[7] He returned in May 1860, though he never received a degree.

Swinburne spent summer holidays at Capheaton Hall in Northumberland, the house of his grandfather, Sir John Swinburne, 6th Baronet (1762–1860), who had a famous library and was president of the Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle upon Tyne. Swinburne considered Northumberland to be his native county, an emotion reflected in poems like the intensely patriotic "Northumberland", "Grace Darling" and others. He enjoyed riding his pony across the moors; he was a daring horseman, "through honeyed leagues of the northland border", as he called the Scottish border in his Recollections.[8]

In the period 1857–60, Swinburne became a member of Lady Trevelyan's intellectual circle at Wallington Hall.

After his grandfather's death in 1860 he stayed with William Bell Scott in Newcastle. In 1861, Swinburne visited Menton on the French Riviera, staying at the Villa Laurenti to recover from the excessive use of alcohol.[9] From Menton, Swinburne went to Italy, where he travelled extensively.[9] In December 1862, Swinburne accompanied Scott and his guests, probably including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, on a trip to Tynemouth. Scott writes in his memoirs that, as they walked by the sea, Swinburne declaimed the as yet unpublished "Hymn to Proserpine" and "Laus Veneris" in his lilting intonation, while the waves "were running the whole length of the long level sands towards Cullercoats and sounding like far-off acclamations".[10]

NPG P416. Swinburne with nine of his peers at Oxford, ca. 1850s (Left to right: 1. Joseph Frank Payne, standing; 2. George Rankine Luke, sitting; 3. John Warneford Hoole, standing; 4. Algernon Charles Swinburne, sitting; 5. Thomas Hill Green, standing; 6. John Nichol, sitting; 7. James Bryce, 1st Viscount Bryce, standing; 8. Albert Venn Dicey, sitting; 9. Aeneas James George Mackay, standing; 10. Thomas Erskine Holland, sitting)[11]

At Oxford, Swinburne met several Pre-Raphaelites, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He also met William Morris. After leaving college, he lived in London and started an active writing career, where Rossetti was delighted with his "little Northumbrian friend", probably a reference to Swinburne's diminutive height—he was just 5'4".[12]

Swinburne was an alcoholic and algolagniac and highly excitable. He liked to be flogged.[13] His health suffered, and in 1879 at the age of 42, he was taken into care by his friend, Theodore Watts-Dunton, who looked after him for the rest of his life at The Pines, 11 Putney Hill, Putney.[14] Watts-Dunton took him to the lost town of Dunwich, on the Suffolk coast, on several occasions in the 1870s.[15]

Swinburne's grave at St. Boniface Church, Bonchurch, Isle of Wight, pictured in 2013

In Watts-Dunton's care Swinburne lost his youthful rebelliousness and developed into a figure of social respectability.[1] It was said of Watts-Dunton that he saved the man and killed the poet. Swinburne died at the Pines[16]: xii  on 10 April 1909, at the age of 72, and was buried at St. Boniface Church, Bonchurch on the Isle of Wight.[17]


16 Cheyne Walk, home to Swinburne
Blue plaque at 16 Cheyne Walk
The Pines, Putney
Blue plaque at The Pines, Putney
Swinburne caricatured by Carlo Pellegrini in Vanity Fair, 1874

Swinburne's poetic works include: Atalanta in Calydon (1865), Poems and Ballads (1866), Songs before Sunrise (1871), Poems and Ballads Second Series, (1878) Tristram of Lyonesse (1882), Poems and Ballads Third Series (1889), and the novel Lesbia Brandon (published posthumously in 1952).

Poems and Ballads caused a sensation when it was first published, especially the poems written in homage to Sappho of Lesbos such as "Anactoria" and "Sapphics": Moxon and Co. transferred its publication rights to John Camden Hotten.[18] Other poems in this volume such as "The Leper", "Laus Veneris", and "St Dorothy" evoke a Victorian fascination with the Middle Ages, and are explicitly mediaeval in style, tone and construction. Also featured in this volume are "Hymn to Proserpine", "The Triumph of Time" and "Dolores (Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs)".

Swinburne wrote in a wide variety of forms, including Sapphic stanzas (comprising 3 hendecasyllabic lines followed by an Adonic):

So the goddess fled from her place, with awful
Sound of feet and thunder of wings around her;
While behind a clamour of singing women
     Severed the twilight.[19]

— "Sapphics", stanza 6

Swinburne devised the poetic form called the roundel, a variation of the French Rondeau, and examples of this form were included in A Century of Roundels dedicated to Christina Rossetti. Swinburne wrote to Edward Burne-Jones in 1883: "I have got a tiny new book of songs or songlets, in one form and all manner of metres ... just coming out, of which Miss Rossetti has accepted the dedication. I hope you and Georgie [his wife Georgiana, one of the MacDonald sisters] will find something to like among a hundred poems of nine lines each, twenty-four of which are about babies or small children". Opinions about these poems vary, some finding them captivating and brilliant while others see them as over-clever and contrived. One of these poems, A Baby's Death, was set to music by the English composer Sir Edward Elgar as the song "Roundel: The little eyes that never knew Light". English composer Mary Augusta Wakefield set Swinburne's May Time in Midwinter to music.

Swinburne was influenced by the work of William Shakespeare, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Catullus, William Morris, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Robert Browning, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Victor Hugo.[16] Swinburne was popular in England during his lifetime but his stature has greatly decreased since his death.

After the first Poems and Ballads, Swinburne's later poetry became increasingly devoted to celebrations of republicanism and revolutionary causes, particularly in the volume Songs before Sunrise.[1] "A Song of Italy" is dedicated to Giuseppe Mazzini; "Ode on the Proclamation of the French Republic" is dedicated to Victor Hugo; and "Dirae" is a sonnet sequence of vituperative attacks against those whom Swinburne believed to be enemies of liberty. Erechtheus is the culmination of Swinburne's republican verse.[1]

He did not stop writing love poetry entirely; indeed his epic-length poem Tristram of Lyonesse was produced during this period but its content is much less shocking than that of his earlier love poetry. His versification, and especially his rhyming technique, remained in top form to the end.[1]



Swinburne is considered a poet of the Decadent school.[20] He wrote about many taboo topics, such as lesbianism, sado-masochism, and anti-theism. His poems have many common motifs, such as the Ocean, Time, and Death. Rumours about his perversions often filled the broadsheets, and he ironically used to play along, confessing to being a pederast and having sex with monkeys.[21]

Renee Vivien, the English poet, was highly impressed with Swinburne and often included quotes of him in her works.[22]

In France, Swinburne was highly praised by the Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, and was invited to contribute to a book in honour of the poet Théophile Gautier, Le tombeau de Théophile Gautier (Wikisource): he answered by writing down six poems in French, English, Latin, and Greek.

In the United States, horror fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft considered Swinburne "the only real poet in either England or America after the death of Mr. Edgar Allan Poe."[23]

T. S. Eliot read Swinburne's essays on the Shakespearean and Jonsonian dramatists in The Contemporaries of Shakespeare and The Age of Shakespeare and Swinburne's books on Shakespeare and Jonson. Writing on Swinburne in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, Eliot wrote Swinburne had mastered his material, and "he is a more reliable guide to [these dramatists] than Hazlitt, Coleridge, or Lamb: and his perception of relative values is almost always correct". Eliot wrote that Swinburne, as a poet, "mastered his technique, which is a great deal, but he did not master it to the extent of being able to take liberties with it, which is everything."[24] Furthermore, Eliot disliked Swinburne's prose, about which he wrote "the tumultuous outcry of adjectives, the headstrong rush of undisciplined sentences, are the index to the impatience and perhaps laziness of a disorderly mind."[25]

Swinburne was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature every year from 1903 to 1909. In 1908 he was one of the main candidates considered for the prize, and was nominated again in 1909.[26][27][28]

Selections from his poems were translated into French by Gabriel Mourey: Poèmes et ballades d'Algernon Charles Swinburne (Paris, Albert Savine, 1891), incorporating notes by Guy de Maupassant; and Chants d'avant l'aube de Swinburne (Paris, P.-V. Stock, 1909). Italian Decadent writer Gabriele D'Annunzio repeatedly emulated Swinburne in his own poetry, and it is believed that his acquaintance with Swinburne was primarily through Mourey's French translations.[29]

Verse drama

  • The Queen Mother (1860)
  • Rosamond (1860)
  • Chastelard (1865)
  • Bothwell (1874)
  • Mary Stuart (1881)
  • Marino Faliero (1885)
  • Locrine (1887)
  • The Sisters (1892)
  • Rosamund, Queen of the Lombards (1899)

Prose drama



^† Although formally tragedies, Atalanta in Calydon and Erechtheus are traditionally included with "poetry".



Major collections

  • The poems of Algernon Charles Swinburne, 6 vols. London: Chatto & Windus, 1904.
  • The Tragedies of Algernon Charles Swinburne, 5 vols. London: Chatto & Windus, 1905.
  • The Complete Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne, ed. Sir Edmund Gosse and Thomas James Wise, 20 vols. Bonchurch Edition; London and New York: William Heinemann and Gabriel Wells, 1925–7.
  • The Swinburne Letters, ed. Cecil Y. Lang, 6 vols. 1959–62.
  • Uncollected Letters of Algernon Charles Swinburne, ed. Terry L. Meyers, 3 vols. 2004.



See also



  • Joshi, S. T. (1993). Lord Dunsany: a Bibliography / by S. T. Joshi and Darrell Schweitzer. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. p. 2.
  1. ^ a b c d e Walsh, John (2012), An Introduction to Algernon Charles Swinburne, Bloomington: The Algernon Charles Swinburne Project, retrieved 4 December 2015
  2. ^ "Algernon Charles Swinburne". Retrieved 3 May 2016.
  3. ^ Cox, Montagu H; Norman, Philip. "No. 3 Whitehall Gardens Pages 204-207 Survey of London: Volume 13, St Margaret, Westminster, Part II: Whitehall I. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1930". British History Online. Retrieved 7 August 2020.
  4. ^ a b "Algernon Charles Swinburne Facts, information, pictures | articles about Algernon Charles Swinburne". Retrieved 3 May 2016.
  5. ^ Mitchell, Jeremy; Powney, Janet (11 May 2023), "Gordon [married name Leith], Mary Charlotte Julia [known as Mrs Disney Leith] (1840–1926), novelist and Icelandic traveller", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, doi:10.1093/odnb/9780198614128.013.90000382399, ISBN 978-0-19-861412-8, retrieved 2 September 2023
  6. ^ Swinburne, Algernon (1919), Gosse, Edmund; Wise, Thomas (eds.), The Letters of Algernon Charles Swinburne, vol. 1–6, New York: John Lane Company, retrieved 4 December 2015
  7. ^ Everett, Glenn. "A. C. Swinburne: Biography". Victorian Web. Retrieved 4 December 2015.
  8. ^ Swinburne, Algernon (2013), Delphi Complete Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne (Illustrated), Delphi Classics, ISBN 9781909496699, retrieved 4 December 2015
  9. ^ a b Ted Jones (15 December 2007). The French Riviera: A Literary Guide for Travellers. Tauris Parke Paperbacks. pp. 185–. ISBN 978-1-84511-455-8.
  10. ^ Scott, William (1892), Autobiographical Notes of the Life of William Bell Scott, London: Forgotten Books, retrieved 4 December 2015
  11. ^ ’’Algernon Charles Swinburne with nine of his peers at Oxford’’
  12. ^ Edmund Gosse, The Life of Algernon Swinburne, 1917 (The Macmillan Company), p. 258, cited (w/ a Google-book link) at "Before Dawn by Algernon Swinburne". Archived from the original on 12 May 2015. Retrieved 26 November 2012..
  13. ^ John O‘Connell (28 February 2008). "Sex and books: London's most erotic writers". Time Out. Archived from the original on 10 April 2019. Retrieved 26 November 2015.
  14. ^ Blue Plaques Listing for London, English Heritage, Accessed December 2009.
  15. ^ W.G.Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, Harvill 1998 / Vintage 2002 pp. 161-66
  16. ^ a b Maxwell, Catherine (2012), "Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837–1909)", The Cambridge Companion to the Pre-Raphaelites, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 236–249, doi:10.1017/CCOL9780521895156.018, hdl:1880/43796, ISBN 9781139017183
  17. ^ Wilson, Scott. Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons, 3d ed.: 2 (Kindle Locations 45952-45953). McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. Kindle Edition
  18. ^ Walter M. Kendrick, "The secret museum: pornography in modern culture", University of California Press, 1996, ISBN 0-520-20729-7, p.168
  19. ^ Swinburne 1889, p. 229.
  20. ^ Alkalay-Gut, Karen (2000). "Aesthetic and Decadent Poetry", in The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry, edited by Joseph Bristow. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 228. ISBN 978-0521646802.
  21. ^ Everett, Glenn (June 2000). "A. C. Swinburne: Biography". Archived from the original on 27 April 2022. Retrieved 6 December 2007.
  22. ^ "Renée Vivien | French poet | Britannica". 15 April 2024.
  23. ^ H.P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters: Volume 1. Sauk City: WI: Arkham House, 1965, p. 73
  24. ^ Eliot T.S. Reflections on Vers Libre New Statesman 1917
  25. ^ Eliot, T. S. (1998). The Sacred Wood and Major Early Essays. Mineola NY: Dover Publications. p. 10. ISBN 978-0486299365.
  26. ^ "Algernon Charles Swinburne". The Nomination Database for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Nobel Foundation. April 2020. Retrieved 14 March 2021.
  27. ^ Helmer Lång, 100 nobelpris i litteratur 1901–2001, Symposion 2001, pp. 25, 56.
  28. ^ Wilhelm Odelberg, Nobel: The Man and His Prizes, p. 97.
  29. ^ Brown, Calvin S. (June 1940). "More Swinburne-D'Annunzio Parallels". Publications of the Modern Language Association of America. 55 (2): 559–567. doi:10.2307/458461. ISSN 0030-8129. JSTOR 458461.