Myers Literary Guide:
ALGERNON CHARLES SWINBURNE (1837 - 1909)
Swinburne, though born in London, was early removed from it and disliked it throughout his life. The son of an admiral, he was brought up on the Isle of Wight, but spent a good part of each summer at Capheaton Hall, the house of his grandfather, Sir John Swinburne (1762-1860) who had a famous library and was President of the Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle until 1837. Swinburne considered Northumberland to be his native county, ' the crowning county of England - yes the best!' He used to ride his pony over to Cambo, where the perpetual curate, John Wilkinson prepared him, somewhat desultorily, for Eton. He was too clever and would never study,' complained the curate.
Despite Swinburne's later fame as a poet, it is in his novel Lesbia Brandon that we find the spell of the North at its strongest. The splendid landscape and seascape - what Swinburne called 'the joyful and fateful beauty of the seas off Bamburgh' are certainly Northumbrian, while Herbert's exhilarating contact with the sea mirrors the pain which for Swinburne was notoriously inseparable from pleasure. Swinburne's abiding love for the region (his favourite word for the North is 'bright') is also memorably reflected in poems like the intensely patriotic "Northumberland', 'Grace Darling', 'The Tyneside Widow', 'Winter in Northumberland' and 'A Jacobite's Exile', with its haunting echoes of the Till, the Wansbeck and the Tyne. Swinburne was fond of reciting as he rode across the moors (he was a daring horseman) 'through honeyed leagues of the northland border'. He never called it the Scottish border.
William Bell Scott (q.v.) painted an extraordinary portrait of the red-haired Swinburne against the background of the Northumberland coast, the drawings for which were made on the trip the two made to Grace Darling's Longstones lighthouse in 1859. It now hangs in Balliol College, Oxford (from which Swinburne was rusticated).
In the years 1857-60, Swinburne became one of Lady Pauline Trevelyan's intellectual circle at Wallington Hall, which he recalls in a poem of 1882 to William Bell Scott as 'that bright household in our joyous north'. Indeed the dominant old lady in his novel Love's Cross-Currents is said to be based on Lady Pauline, who is supposed to have died with the poet's name on her lips. Ernest Radworth may well be based on Sir Walter Trevelyan. Somewhat eccentric, Sir Walter once found a Balzac novel Swinburne had left on the drawing-room table , and threw it on the fire in disgust. Swinburne was outraged and walked out of the house.
When his father was displeased at his failure to take a degree at Oxford, Swinburne withdrew again northwards to Capheaton. After his grandfather's death in 1860, he stayed with the Bell Scotts at 14 St Thomas Crescent in Newcastle, lying in front of the fire, surrounded by piles of books resembling a ruined fortress. Scott recalls holding Swinburne's head, while a Newcastle dentist removed a 'mighty grinder' bit by bit, noting that the manful little poet was almost indifferent to the pain. In December 1862, Swinburne arrived hot foot from Wallington and proceeded to accompany Bell Scott and his guests, probably including Dante Gabriel Rossetti (q.v.) on a trip to Tynemouth. Scott writes that as they walked by the sea, Swinburne declaimed his 'Hymn to Proserpine' and 'Laus Veneris' in his strange intonation, while the waves 'were running the whole length of the long level sands towards Cullercoats and sounding like far-off acclamations'.
In London, Rossetti was delighted with his 'little Northumbrian friend' whose controversial Poems and Ballads (1866) had made an impact of seismic proportions in the Victorian literary world. Swinburne was small, though no weakling, and his head was disproportionately large, making him something of an odd figure. Henry Brooks Adams described Swinburne as 'a tropical bird, high-crested, long-beaked, quick-moving... a crimson macaw among owls.' His behaviour was certainly odd; at thirty, he knelt before Mazzini to read a poem. Rossetti, dismayed that Swinburne hiring flagellants to beat him, paid an actress 10 pounds to bring him back to the sexual straight and narrow. The effort was a failure and she returned the money. Swinburne was not above writing about such things, however, his fantasy La Soeur de la Reine imagines what few others would - Wordsworth seducing Queen Victoria. By now his addiction to drink was wrecking his health and trying his friends' patience to breaking point. Eventually, his friend Theodore Watts-Dunton took him under strictly sober supervision at his house, 'The Pines' in Putney.
Swinburne's love for Northumberland lasted his whole life. Tennyson had included an altered version of Malory in his story of Balin and Balan in the Idylls of the King, but Swinburne gave full vent to his Northumbrian patriotism in his Tale of Balen (1896). He describes Balen riding down across the Tyne and Tees to Camelot, where the 'southern' knights are jealous and hostile. He meets his valiant brother:
His brother Balan, hard at hand,After many doughty deeds, Balen and Balan are tricked into slaying one another, and are buried in one tomb (v. ARTHURIAN LEGEND). A life well-lived is no cause for sorrow to Swinburne, however. As Balen lies dying, his thoughts echo Swinburne's own youth in Northumberland - and his love of the Border ballads:
He drank the draught of life's first wineSwinburne is out of fashion nowadays. T.S. Eliot's attack on his romantic vagueness was devastating for most, while others are still disturbed by hymns to necrophily and flagellation (he was even suspected of being Jack the Ripper). Despite the occasional intoxicating brilliance of his technique, he never grew out of his romantic youth. It is poignant, all the same, to think of the former devotee of liberty, the lover of sea and moorland, under strict supervision at 'The Pines' for the last thirty years of his life.