Nicholas Dames' recent, illuminating study, The Physiology of the Novel: Reading, Neural Science, and the Form of Victorian Fiction (2007), testifies to a resurgent scholarly interest in Victorian literary theory. Eschewing the text-centered approach that has traditionally dominated criticism of Victorian novels--an approach aimed at discovering the "organic form "or "total structure" of literary productions--Dames uncovers a rival strain of interpretation that has its origins in the Victorians themselves: "physiological theory," which attends to the mental and bodily responses of the reader during the (ideally silent) reading act. Armed with this forgotten method, which he ascribes largely to a group of bohemian writers affiliated with periodicals such as The Fortnightly Review and Mind---G. H. Lewes, Alexander Bain, E. S. Dallas, and others--Dames argues that Victorian novels, through their prodigious length and undulating form shaped the consciousness of the solitary Victorian mind. Forming a "training ground for industrialized consciousness," these works mentally and physically conditioned readers for the demands of an increasingly mechanized reality, rather than merely furnishing them with an escape from it. (1)
The Physiology of the Novel is an often gripping book, in large part because it reminds us of a fact that ought to be obvious but that literary criticism has nevertheless tended to forget: that the Victorians developed sophisticated hermeneutical models for understanding contemporary texts, and that these models have much to tell us as critics who would engage meaningfully with these same texts. Dames' characters were formalists of a sort, and the innovative manner in which they understood form presents a fresh alternative to the more familiar conceptions of the New Critics. More precisely, these writers thought about form as something time-bound: through analogies with waves and music, they "temporalized" form, revealing it to be dynamic, inescapably "processual," not frozen in time as many twentieth-century theorists would fantasize (Dames, pp. 128, 10). In this aspect of their thinking they were very much akin to another Victorian critic, one whose ideas are no less provocative but whose criticism, like their own, has been largely forgotten or cast aside: Algernon Swinburne. Virtually no scholarly ink has been spilled on this subject of Swinburne's formidable critical output over the last three decades: following Thomas E. Connolly's Swinburne's Theory of Poetry (1964), Robert Peters' incisive The Crowns of Apollo (1965), Meredith B. Raymond's Swinburne's Poetics (1971), and Jerome McGann's witty, jocund Swinburne: An Experiment in Criticism (1972), there was a momentary effluence of academic work on the topic--most notably David G. Riede's Swinburne : A Study in Romantic Mythmaking (1978)--but after the late seventies it seems that, with certain isolated exceptions, people simply ceased talking about Swinburne as a critic. (2)
Why is this? How is it that this writer, a critic every bit as voluminous, and arguably as discerning, as Matthew Arnold--though deeply antithetical to him in most respects--gets so frequently overlooked in discussions, not merely about Victorian criticism, but about the history of criticism generally? Should it strike us as peculiar that so many of the magisterial critical voices of the first half of the twentieth century appear to have grappled with Swinburne's critical legacy and walked away from it altered in some way? What are we to make of the fact that Northrop Frye announces, in the preface to Fearful Symmetry, that his study is "an extended critical essay in the Swinburne tradition"? (3) What has Frye, the politely Linnaean and Aristotelian literary theorist, ordained as a minister of the United Church of Canada, to do with the scandal-ridden, foppish proponent of free love, atheist, and disciple of Baudelaire? Why do scholars as wide-ranging as I. A. Richards, E R. Leavis, and A. C. Bradley cite him as a profound influence? And why did a 2009 issue of Victorian Poetry devoted entirely to Swinburne, trenchant though it often was, contain no articles dedicated to the poet's critical writings?
Building on recent work that rethinks form and formalist methods, I will focus, with special attention to William Blake: A Critical Study (1867), probably his single greatest volume of criticism, on making sense of Swinburne's critical technique, which I refer to as impressionistic formalism. Swinburne's was a formalism characterized by four essential elements: a Coleridgean search for "unity in multeity" to be discerned in the hidden laws through which texts operated, (4) as well as the myths that underlay them; a simultaneous understanding, expressed in tropes of waves and of music, that poetic form manifested itself in time, as a process or "gathering" rather than a static product; a conviction, contrary to the aestheticism for which he is best known, that forms were invested with politically subversive potential; and, finally, an impulse toward impressionism that caused him to mingle his "disinterested" assessments of literature with exuberant pastiches that capture his own (often rapt) experiences of reading. If he is of a piece with Victorian theorists who viewed form in temporal terms, then he is likewise an example of a nineteenth-century poet who--as recent new formalists like Susan Wolfson and Jason Rudy have encouraged us to see--understood that poetic forms can exert considerable pressure on the socio-political landscape. (5) This essay is, above all, an attempt at reclaiming Swinburne as a critic: it seeks to show how his critical writing, in its vision of poems as mythic-transcendent unities, exercized a palpable influence on Northrop Frye and I. A. Richards, and, through Richards, the American New Criticism. But it also contends that much of what made Swinburne's criticism compelling and poignant--its concept of form as a wave-like unfurling, its rich impressionistic detours, and its vital political component--disappeared in the work of these later critics who adopted him. It tells the story, in other words, of a highly selective inheritance. Ultimately, in seeking to restore Swinburne to his rightful place as a deeply influential critic, the essay implicitly asks what happens when, as a thought experiment, we think of twentieth-century theory--at least, the first half of it--as fundamentally Swinburnean in character?
Swinburne conceived of the idea to write a study of Blake in 1862, at age twenty-five, and completed the project in 1867. During these same years he reached the pinnacle of his poetic powers, producing the two volumes upon which, more than any others, his fame would rest: Atalanta in Calydon (1865) and Poems and Ballads (1866). This is worth mentioning in part because it attests to the astonishing fecundity of Swinburne's late twenties, which yielded two career-defining volumes of poetry (to say nothing of Chastelard, still another collection of poems) and a monograph of some 350 pages on a subject as formidable as Blake. Even more importantly perhaps, it underscores the mutually illuminating relationship between William Blake and the poetry collections, especially Poems and Ballads, alongside which it was written. Julian Baird, in the only article published over the last four decades on the Swinburne-Blake tandem, asserts that Blake's attempt to subvert the fallacy of a mind-body dualism we often associate with Descartes--an attempt especially prominent in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell--profoundly informs the rhetoric of Swinburne's Poems and Ballads. (6) To this one might add that a Blakean notion of salubrious excess helps to account for the sexual overabundance that dominates poems like "Anactoria," manifesting itself in vertiginous patterns of orgasmic repetition: if, as Blake had suggested in MHH, "an improvement of sensual enjoyment" can raise one into a perception of the "infinite," "cleansing" the "doors of perception," (7) then perhaps we can see the rapture of Swinburne's poetry, likewise, as pointing the way toward a transcendent state of being, outside the constraints of time and space. Yet whatever ideas and stylistic techniques Swinburne gleaned from Blake and incorporated into his own work, it is also quite true that Swinburne, as we will see, imposed a good many of his own nascent beliefs onto the older poet in writing William Blake.
William Blake is a three-part study that begins with a biographical section of some ninety pages, largely derivative of Alexander Gilchrist's Life of William Blake (1868), of which Swinburne's book was originally intended to be merely a review. Following this are sections dealing with, first, Blake's lyric poetry, and second his prophecies, these latter two parts composing the bulk of the book. To the very beginning of the study proper, Swinburne affixes an epigraph from Baudelaire, too lengthy to reprint in its entirety here, the gist of which is that all great poets inevitably become critics. On an obvious level, Swinburne is using the quotation to give himself license to undertake his study, while also subtly hinting that the criticism itself will possess a "poetic" aspect. But there is another vital element to the Baudelaire excerpt, crucial to understanding Swinburne's critical protocols, and it is distilled in this sentence: "Dans la vie spirituelle des premiers, une crise se fait infailliblement, ou ils veulent raisonner leur art, decouvrir les lois obscures, en vertu desquelles ils ont produit, et tirer de cette etude une serie de preceptes dont le but divin est l'infaillibilite dans la production poetique." (8) Through criticism, according to Baudelaire, the poet must endeavor to discover the "obscure laws" under which poetry is produced, a set of "precepts" that govern inspired verse and impart to it something like a "divine infallibility." Swinburne's critical method will, accordingly, consist in an attempt to isolate the concealed rules that underlie Blake's poetry, giving unity and meaning to the apparently disparate and chaotic. Thus, speaking about Blake's "Everlasting Gospel," he insists, "there are on the outside infinite and indefinable anomalies, contradictions, incompatibilities enough of all sorts.... But let no one dream that there is here either madness or mendacity: the heart or sense thus hidden away is sound enough for a mystic" (ACS, p. 196). Blake's MHH, meanwhile, has "no positive incongruity, no inherent contradiction. A single consistent principle keeps alive the large relaxed limbs, makes significant the dim great features of this strange faith" (ACS, p. 260).
Thus one of Swinburne's fundamental assumptions is that literary texts are formal unities whose seemingly dissonant components ultimately coalesce in a coherent vision that it is the task of the critic to make manifest. For this notion Swinburne was, as Peters recognized, indebted to Coleridge, who had delivered a lecture in 1818 in which he announced his now-proverbial theory of the imagination as an assimilative power that found "unity in multeity." (9) It was in this unity that beauty inhered: "What is beauty?" Coleridge had asked. "It is, in the abstract, the unity of the manifold, the coalescence of the diverse." (10) Swinburne, intimately acquainted with Coleridge's prose writings, more or less adapted this idea from the older poet, making it the partial basis for the proto-formalist component of his approach. Yet he adds to it another, equally vital concern, which is the deeply subjective response of the reader to the text in question. Criticism, according to Swinburne's vision, likewise entailed conveying one's own arbitrary impressions of poetry in lushly imaginative digressions that are themselves poetry, and are stylistically imitative of the verse they describe. Such passages, possessed of artistic value in their own right, do not function to explicate the poetry but to convey something of its effect, its power. I will look in detail at an instance of this below, but for now I merely wish to establish this as the impressionistic facet of Swinburne's technique. It is in part this feature that rescues him from the myopia of the exclusively text-based approach, obsessed with discerning organic wholeness, that would characterize his New Critical descendants.
Swinburne begins his explanation of Blake's poetry with a lengthy preamble in which he establishes some of the overt theoretic groundwork for the readings that ensue. This preamble takes the form of a manifesto for aestheticism whose basic argument, not surprisingly, is art's absolute independence from the political, moral, and religious spheres. "Art for art's sake first of all," Swinburne counsels the reader, and sets about refuting the notion that the arts are beholden to political or moral ideologies or to science: "Art is not like fire or water, a good servant and bad master; rather the reverse. She will help in nothing, of her own knowledge or freewill.... Handmaid of religion, exponent of duty, servant of fact, pioneer of morality, she cannot in any way become" (ACS, p. 137). In keeping with this line of thinking, Swinburne goes on to limn Blake as a kind of high priest of aestheticism: "[Blake] had a faith of his own, made out of art for art's sake, and worked by means of art; and whatever made against this faith was as hateful to him as any heresy to any pietist" (ACS, p. 147). This is an assertion that would very likely have surprised and agitated Blake himself, who was in fact quite keen on effecting immediate change in the world via his works: "All [Blake's] poetry," writes Frye, with reference to the poet's private correspondence, "was written as though it were about to have the immediate social impact of a new play" (FS, p. 4).
Yet Swinburne, as a detailed analysis of William Blake makes evident, is not an aesthete in any easy, straightforward sense. Quite the contrary: he perceives literary forms as possessing a powerful moral charge, a capacity both to anticipate and help bring about changes in the social landscape. This can scarcely be overemphasized, for it helps elevate Swinburne from the status of a mere dandy, basking in art-induced highs while blissfully incognizant of societal dilemmas, and makes him instead a poet--and critic--with an ambitious cultural and political agenda. What Swinburne's preamble asserts is not, in fact, that art cannot have an impact on the socio-political world, but that it is autonomous, that its first and only duty is to itself. That Swinburne was the closest thing to an heir to Percy Shelley that Victorian England had to offer--that Shelley was, not merely stylistically but politically, his nearest literary forebear--is helpful to keep in mind, since Swinburne shares with Shelley, to some degree, a vision of poets as the world's unacknowledged legislators. The critical difference, and the point that allows Swinburne to be an aestheticist while also envisioning artistic creation as a political act, has to do with intentionality. Riede, whose Swinburne: A Study of Romantic Mythmaking contains the only book chapter that concerns itself exclusively with William Blake, is illuminating on this point: "This is not to say that [for Swinburne] art is necessarily amoral, but only that its purpose must be" (11) "Accidentally of course," Swinburne is careful to add in a footnote in William Blake, "a poet's work may tend towards some moral or actual result" (ACS, p. 140). The crucial concept here is that the "moral or actual result" of art is to be a mere contingency, in theory not intended by the artist, who is only to be concerned with the formal perfection of the work itself. This places the artist, to be sure, in a beguiling predicament: that of knowing, on some level, that his work may have a social or political impact--perhaps even wanting this to be the case--but nevertheless not permitting himself to acknowledge this in the act of creation, indeed banishing such thoughts from his consciousness altogether.
Admittedly, this sounds rather peculiar, and it is quite possible, as we will see in a moment, to place pressure on Swinburne in this area, since parts of William Blake seem very clearly to ascribe intentionality to the artist in affecting the socio-political landscape. Yet even if Swinburne does refuse to assign conscious agency to the artist in effecting upheaval, it is apparent from his readings of Blake that he nonetheless envisions art having such an impact: Blake's "creed," he states in his discussion of MHH, is that "impulsive energy and energetic faith are the only means, whether used as tools of peace or as weapons of war, to pave or to fight our way toward the realities of things," and that "these realities, once well in sight, will reverse appearance and overthrow tradition: hell will appear as heaven, and heaven as hell" (ACS, p. 263). It is clear that for the liberal republican Swinburne, art is to play a central role in this overthrowing of tradition. Swinburne correctly recognized what has since become a critical commonplace about Blake: that the process of engraving itself, in which corrosives functioned to eat away at copper plates and make them tractable, was a metaphor for his own art's task of "melting" long-established creeds, thought-patterns, and destructive institutions. It was up to "the corrosive touch of revelation," embodied in poetry itself, to bring about a "vision of knowledge" in human beings; through it, "human nature is cleansed and widened into shape, then decorated, then enlarged and built about with stately buildings for guest-chambers and treasure houses"; and this "purged metal of knowledge," imparted by the poetic text, was to "percolate and permeate the whole man through every pore of his spirit" (ACS, p. 258). Swinburne's vision of art, then, entails a destruction of what Blake would have termed Urizenic morality and thinking--that is, a morality predicated on ascetic self-denial and systematic reasoning--and its replacement by a more balanced perspective that allows for imaginative and sexual freedom (Riede, p. 21). Far from being merely a source of delightful sensations or a pleasing diversion, art emerges as a subversive moral agent, a political "corrosive." (12)
It is becoming gradually apparent that Swinburne is no garden-variety formalist, at least not in the twentieth-century sense of that term, but one who would have poetic structures partake in a process of apocalyptic change and renewal. Yet he is troublingly strident about the fact that form and not content is the only relevant concern for poetry: "Strip the sentiments [of poetry] and re-clothe them in bad verse, what residue will be left of the slightest importance to art? Invert them, retaining the manner or form (supposing this is feasible, which it might be) and art has lost nothing" (ACS, p. 134). The excerpt asserts the iterability of subject matter and the fixity of form. How, then, we are to reconcile Swinburne's exclusive regard for form with his implicit vision of art as a politically and morally subversive force? That is, how might a poetry bereft of ideas function as the conceptual weapon that Swinburne, whether he would have openly conceded it or not, imagined it to be? For there can be little doubt, given passages like this one in which he praises an untitled poem of Blake's, that Swinburne conceived of his ideal poetry as a good deal more than a source of pleasure:
Against the winter of ascetic law and moral prescription Blake never slackens in his fiery animosity; never did a bright hot wind of March make such war upon the cruel inertness of February. Even Shelley ... never shot keener or hotter shafts of lyrical speech into the enemy's impregnable ground. Both poets seem to have tried about alike, and with equally questionable results, at a regular blockade of the steep central fortress of Urizen. (ACS, pp. 180-181)
The above passage goes a long way toward refuting Swinburne's "intentionality" precept: Blake and Shelley alike had "tried" to topple perverse moral codes, had mounted "guerrilla campaigns," albeit futile ones, against the insidious juggernaut of Urizenic thinking via the "slings and arrows" of their writings. It is apparent that Swinburne greatly admires them for this; indeed, his own poetry, sexually and theologically shocking, was complicit in much the same project. All the same--and this is the critical point--it was forms themselves that exercised this subversive power: far from arbitrary or irrelevant vessels in which to house revolutionary ideas, literary and other artistic forms were, for Swinburne, the very site of whatever was explosive in art. Something inhered in the ordered matrices of art that conveyed meaning and exerted power, a tacit eloquence that had little or nothing to do with the explicit content. When seeking to explain this elusive concept, Swinburne often resorted to musical tropes, likely because music is a largely non-referential art form that, though devoid of rational import, can profoundly alter the way listeners think and feel. Whatever meaning music possesses, it is bound up in the arrangement of its notes, in the systematic intervals and patterns that generate harmony and rhythm. Against the charge that his own poems were bankrupt of thought, Swinburne responded, "Except to such ears as should always be closed against poetry, there is no music in verse which has not sufficient fullness and ripeness of meaning, sufficient adequacy of emotion or of thought, to abide the analysis of any other than the blind scrutiny of prepossession or the squint-eyed inspection of malignity." (13) Swinburne, following Coleridge, held that it was the poetic imagination that created a unified, harmonious vision out of the disparate elements in the natural world, and that poetry ought, accordingly, to epitomize that harmony, being the verbal embodiment of the poet's worldview. As Carlyle, in Heroes and Hero-Worship, a text which Swinburne knew intimately, had averred, "A musical thought is one spoken by a mind that has penetrated into the inmost heart of the thing; detected the inmost mystery of it, namely the melody that lies hidden in it; the inward harmony of coherence which is its soul" (Hyder, p. xliii).
To penetrate into the inmost heart of a thing, apprehending the hidden melody bound up within it, the "harmony of coherence" it conceals: this is the task Swinburne elects for himself in William Blake. One of the greatest masters of complex verse forms that English poetry has produced, Swinburne was an apt choice as a critic to discern whatever formal mastery was to be found in Blake's works. He was an expert of prosody and, as a critic, capable of becoming downright savage when he perceived that a poet was guilty of shoddy craftsmanship. Hence in the unpublished "The Chaotic School" he rips into Robert Browning for transgressing the form of the anapest, accusing him of the poetic equivalent to "murder" and "parricide." (14) Swinburne's extreme, melodramatic response to Browning's "crime" highlights his perception of prosody as a kind of patrimonial inheritance from the poetic tradition; flouting it amounted to an unconscionable betrayal of a legacy that was sacred, inviolable. Given what we have already seen about the centrality of form to his artistic vision, it should little surprise us that metrical feet, the building blocks of poetic structure, mattered so much to Swinburne. Like clusters of musical notes and rhythms, they were, taken together, a means of conveying the totality of the poet's vision and hence of the symphonic concord of nature itself. And they were the poet's basic source of power. Thus, praising Blake's masterful transition from anapests to iambs in one of the Songs of Innocence, Swinburne states: "Given a certain attainable average of intellect and culture, these points of workmanship, by dint of the infinite gifts or the infinite wants they imply, become the swiftest and surest means of testing a verse-writer's perfection of power, and what quality there may be in him to warrant his loftiest claim" (ACS, p. 180). Prosodic units--an instance of what Swinburne, according to Peters, considered the "outer form" of a poem--were the minute nodes in which a poem's rhetorical force was concentrated (p. 128). Altering them in any way would mean cutting the gossamer threads that linked a poem to the past, and destroying the delicate unity in multeity that they were partly responsible for engendering. More than any other aspect of his work, then, it is Blake's prosodic craftsmanship that Swinburne looks to when he wishes to pay the poet homage. (15)
I want to look closely now at a pregnant passage from the book that vividly demonstrates Swinburne's critical protocols as I have thus far laid them out. It occurs midway through chapter two, in which Swinburne launches a general discussion of the merits of the Songs of Innocence and of Experience. He begins, characteristically, with a panegyric on Blake's formal skill, praising the "nearly faultless" quality of the verse and then linking Blake's prosodic mastery with his basic sense of "rightness": "To go the right way and do the right thing, was in the nature of his metrical gift--a faculty mixed into the very flesh and blood of his verse" (ACS, p. 178). Swinburne thus subtly conflates prosody and ethics, underscoring the kinship of meter with the abstract ideas--in this case, that of justice--with which it is inexplicably interwoven, and which we understand intuitively when we read. Then something happens that is all but unforeseeable up to this point. Swinburne, as though unable to contain himself, bursts into an impressionistic rhapsody, breathtaking for its own beauty, in which he likens the poetry to elements in the natural world:
There is in all these straying songs the freshness of clear wind and purity of blowing rain: here a perfume as of dew or grass against the sun, there a keener smell of sprinkled shingle and brine-bleached sand; some growth or breath everywhere of blade or herb leaping into life under the green wet light of spring; some colour of shapely cloud or mound of moulded wave. The verse pauses and musters and falls always as a wave does, with the same patience of gathering form, and rounded glory of springing curve, and sharp sweet flash of dishevelled and flickering foam as it curls over, showing the sun through its soft heaving side in veins of gold that inscribe and jewels of green that inlay the quivering and sundering skirt or veil of thinner water, throwing upon the tremulous space of narrowing sea in front, like a reflection of lifted and vibrating hair, the windy shadow of its shaken spray. The actual page seems to take life, to assume sound and colour, under the hands that turn it and the lips that read; we feel the falling of dew and have sight of the rising of stars. For the very sound of Blake's verse is no less remote from the sound of common things and days than is the sense or the sentiment of it. (ACS, pp. 178-179)
The passage is reminiscent of one of the more over-the-top margin glosses from Coleridge's Ancient Mariner: ostensibly an effort at mere explication, on closer inspection it turns out to be a tremulous cadenza to the poem in question, one that resists ratiocination and is an instance of poetry in its own right. Strictly connotative, it operates by means of symbolic suggestion rather than denotative statement. As such, it is consistent with a remark Swinburne once made about a lyric by Coleridge: in order to explain the poem properly, said Swinburne, a critic would need to "be such another as the poet." Swinburne's impressionistic approach, therefore, insists that the critic has an obligation to the symbolic and creative values we normally associate only with poetry; it elevates the critic's prose style to the level of its subject matter--indeed, self-reflexively makes its own style a part of its subject matter--and in so doing asserts the inseparability of style and content. (16) As a masterful imitation of the poetry it describes, it is an instance, too, of Keatsian "negative capability" for it demonstrates, not only an abandonment of the strictures of reason, but a chameleon-like ability to forget one's own identity and blend in with whatever, or whomever, is in close proximity. Swinburne, like Pater, whom he inspired, is positioning himself in opposition to the precise, coolly intellectual method practiced by any number of his contemporaries, most obviously Arnold. He strives to liberate criticism from the rigidly prescriptive paradigms in which it is conventionally confined and hints that it might instead be the domain of the imagination. If this sort of criticism has its limitations--it is necessarily inexact, deeply subjective, and as much about the critic as the poet--then it likewise lays bare the shortcomings of its Amoldian counterpart, which appears desiccated and hyperrational by comparison.
But the passage bears closer examination, in part owing to the care and artistry with which it is written, but also, more importantly, the insights it offers into Swinburne's formalism. Its central image, that of a wave described, as it were, in slow-motion as it builds, rises and falls, is the source of Peters' most provocative idea about Swinburne's theory of poetics, the notion of gathering form: "A gathering form," he writes, "sheds a collective brilliance upon itself as it proceeds; like the wave curling over, it reveals its accumulating beauty all the while it vibrates toward its total, shimmering consummation in the human mind." Thus a poem, for Swinburne, "gathers force and provides a sense of the direction taken towards resolution through details and parts in sequence" (Peters, p. 138). That is to say, poems amass momentum as they gradually unfold themselves in the act of being read, and they do so by virtue of the arrangement of their constituent parts in a sequence. To the harmonious, sequential ordering of its details a poem owes whatever beauty it possesses, as well as that sense of inevitability that, ideally, defines its trajectory from start to finish. This concept of gathering form, which I think runs a good deal deeper than Peters concedes, is a central one to my argument, for it epitomizes the temporal side of Swinburne's formalism. Dames reminds us in Physiology that twentieth-century formalists often sought to devise ways "to still time in order to detect structure" (p. 11). Swinburne's theoretical approach, while duly concerned with perceiving organic unity, nevertheless presents, through its frequent recourse to metaphors of waves and music, an alternative viewpoint of form as process rather than achieved product, temporal flow rather than spatial unity. And in this respect he betrays a telling kinship with critics like G. H. Lewes, whose wave theory of novelistic form aligned closely with his understanding of consciousness itself: a periodic process, a linear flow "interrupted at more or less regular intervals by heightened sensation--with no necessary endpoint" (Dames, pp. 50-51.
What might it mean to think about a literary text's make-up, not as a spatial template whose contents are all in front of one at once (as in a painting), but as a gradual, wave-like unfurling in time (as in a piece of music) or a periodic succession of unfurlings? Its elements, instead of being static features with a fixed meaning to be pinned down, acquire a dynamism, a shifting valence that depends on when they happen to occur--that is, what comes before and after them, as well as where they themselves have been earlier on and where they are going. Images, sounds, threads of meaning, individual words--these items gather steam as they accrue connotative heft over time, and their significance, continuously changing, comes to be registered on a moment-to-moment basis in the readerly mind. The advent of time destabilizes meaning. In a sense, this is entirely consonant with Swinburne's vision, passionately expressed in an essay on Simeon Solomon that Peters has usefully drawn attention to, in art as a process of "becoming" (p. 138). Swinburne implies that art, out of fidelity to nature, ought to approach fixity of form without ever fully attaining it: just as a cloud obeys "some law of form, some continuous harmony of line and mass, that only dissolves and changes 'as a tune into a tune,'" so art, we might infer, ought to possess some certainty of shape while remaining perpetually in flux. (17) "Inner form," for Swinburne, referred to the way a poem's internal make-up--its structure, its cadences, its music--corresponded to phenomena in nature. It stands to reason, then, that poetry itself should exhibit the sort of mutability-expansion and contraction, plenitude and dearth, clamor and quiescence--that punctuated the external world. It was bound to the same temporal rhythms; it breathed. Victor Hugo's writing "expands and opens into vast paragraphs"; Blake's verse "recalls within one's ear the long relapse of recoiling water and wash of the refluent wave," containing "a rapid clamour of ripples and strong ensuing strain of weightier sound, lifted with the lift of the running and ringing sea" (ACS, p. 164). An art of becoming: like Alexander Bain, whose own version of wave theory "buil[t] into its form moments of relaxation or lassitude" that alternated with spurts of stimulation, Swinburne envisaged a time-bound art in concert with the rhythms of lived experience (Dames, p. 54).
By the time he published William Blake, Swinburne had already offered any number of compelling examples of waves or wave-like structures in his own Poems and Ballads. "Anactoria," touched on above, with its exhaustingly repetitious, circular form, seems inscribed with the very periodicity we associate with Bain's and Lewes' wave theories: its relentless succession of couplets and its obsessively reiterated figures and sentiments vividly enact the rhythmic pulsation of sexual activity, even as they instill in readers something of the glutted, overcloyed satiety of Sappho herself. In "Hymn to Proserpine," meanwhile--about process itself, and about the futility of thinking one can transcend time or evade its ravages--Swinburne had made "the wave of the world," representing the leveling "pulse of years," the centerpiece of the poem. That the problem of time and its relation to poetic form was one that preoccupied him during this period seems self-evident. Writing about waves gave him a useful way of meditating on how poetry, like many of the natural phenomena it ideally emulated, might be an undulating, elastic, and cyclical affair. We may easily infer that music, too, presented a means of symbolizing form as a temporal unfolding, even as its "harmony of coherence" suggested formal unity. (18) But these same tropes were also occasions for Swinburne to seek after transcendence: if they gesture toward a diachronous model of poetic form, they also locate synchrony in an ecstatic union of reader, poem, and cosmos, a union that Swinburne's criticism, in its most memorable moments, movingly dramatizes--as in the long paragraph quoted above, to which I want to return for a moment.
Swinburne's "wave" paragraph is an attempt at capturing the experience of reading Blake's Songs, and in this capacity it is an example of a gathering form in itself. The "gathering" that it performs occurs on several levels. One of these is sensory: Swinburne dramatizes a moment of synesthesia undergone by the reader in the act of chanting the poem aloud, which dizzies and overwhelms him. The aural merges with the visual as the page "assumes colour and sound," and there are tactile ("we feel the falling of the dew") and even gustatory stimuli ("sweet flash"), to say nothing of the smells enumerated at the beginning (e.g., "a perfume as of dew"). There is likewise a coming-together of reader and text, since it is, after all, the mind of the reader that vivifies the page, enabling it to quicken "under the hands that turn it and the lips that read." To this one must add the commingling of the text and the natural world, which it mysteriously embodies: "There is in all these straying songs," remember, "the freshness of clear wind and purity of blowing rain," and acoustically "Blake's verse is no less remote from the sound of common things and days than is the sense or the sentiment of it." Lastly, and perhaps most crucially, the passage is an occasion for glimpsing that vast cosmic order--an order in which every discrete particular in nature is seen to be, as Wordsworth phrases it, "far more deeply interfused" than the human brain can ever conceive--which for Swinburne it is the task of all poetry and all criticism, to reveal. In Electric Meters: Victorian Physiological Poetics, Jason Rudy argues that Swinburne's "primary goal in many of his greatest works" is to reach a state of "rapture," a "physiological, emotional, and intellectual union" with "the larger physical world of things"--a union imagined "by way of poetic form and content" (pp. 140, 139). I would add that his criticism, keenly performative and self-consciously poetic, stages moments of rapture in much the same manner.
Thus the concept of gathering form for Swinburne runs a good deal deeper than the inner make-up of a work of art and the sense of beauty and forward movement for which that make-up accounts. It asserts a collapsing of reader, text, and the universal order that text performs through the harmony of its details, and the melding-together of the five senses that takes place when the mind, unequipped to grasp such complexity, buckles in an instant of synesthesia that is a hallmark of transcendent or religious experience. All of these things are gathered together, conjoined, in instances of unity in multeity more sweeping and comprehensive than Coleridge envisaged--a kind of unity in which reader and external world are powerfully implicated. And these moments of synchrony, windows onto the interconnectedness of all things, are meaningfully balanced by an awareness that they, and the literary artifacts that seek to convey them, manifest themselves in time.
Swinburne's book was published in January 1868, and its author, customarily on the delivering end of critical condemnation, was summarily attacked by a range of reviewers. A New York Times article printed on March 29, 1868 reports that "a late Saturday Review (Feb. 1,) undertakes to slaughter [Swinburne's] book without remorse, pouring upon it every term of objurgation, invective and contempt." The Times was in the minority, if not unique, in defending Swinburne's work, maintaining that "the work is not to be so dismissed," and that "its beautifully printed pages are worthy of careful reading, and even study." "Its theories of poetic art," writes the anonymous reviewer,
will perhaps never be popular, nor perhaps deserve to be; but there is something to say on that side. It is a side whose presentation, we notice, singularly irritates and sets in a raging fever all the good old stereotyped orthodox reviewers; but it is probable that, without allowing it some weight, there can never be catholic and complete criticism. (19)
What was it about Swinburne's "presentation" that so incensed critical orthodoxy? As one might expect, The Saturday Review took particular exception to the impressionistic quality of Swinburne's prose--to the "long reaches of glittering rant which supply the place of critical statement," and "the bursts of pretentious bombast which pass for fine writing." "The elaborate verbiage of Swinburne," the reviewer fulminates toward the end,
is in no sense criticism at all. How does it help us to appreciate the Songs of Innocence to know that "every page has the smell of April," or that, if these "have the shape and smell of leaves and buds," the Songs of Experience "have in them the light and sound of fire and the sea"? This is just the sort of vapid twaddle which has hitherto passed current for criticism in music alone, where we ask for some explanation of the relation between Sterndale Bennett to Mendelssohn, and we are told that the first is a fountain and the second is a star. (20)
One can readily imagine that Swinburne's rapt, densely rhetorical style sat as uneasily with nineteenth-century readers as it would for most readers now. It was not only Swinburne's style that upset the Review, though; it was what they perceived as his smugly aristocratic writerly attitude (he refers to ordinary readers as "philistines" more than once in William Blake), and, finally, certain of his judgments, including his insistence that an artist ought not to have moral or political designs on his audience. Nevertheless, time would vindicate many of Swinburne's fundamental assumptions about Blake, and, as I hope to suggest, his critical protocols. The most vital of these, perhaps, was Swinburne's insistence upon Blake's sanity, and, on a related note, the inner coherence--to the trained eye--of even Blake's most stridently chaotic and challenging writings. It was Swinburne, moreover, who correctly identified the Bible as the storehouse of most of Blake's tropes; Swinburne who recognized that many of Blake's most outlandish and bizarrely named personages were bastardized versions of figures from the Old Testament. It was Swinburne, finally, who argued for the interactive nature of Blake's images and texts, the "two forms or sides of his art [which] so coalesce or overlap as to become inextricably interfused" (ACS, p. 153). (Blake's work was at that time prized, if at all, for the merits of its visual designs, while its written aspect was often disregarded.) If these arguments seem basic to us, this is because they have become commonplace tenets of Blake scholarship; we forget that in 1868 such propositions were new and daring.
Swinburne's formulations continued to resonate down the corridor of Blake studies for the next several decades, such that any scholar who sought to take up the subject had to come to grips with Swinburne's book. By the time Northrop Frye set out to write what would become the definitive monograph on Blake, and the book that would make his name as a critic, Fearful Symmetry (1947), dozens of books had been published on Blake, as Frye himself makes clear in the posthumous Northrop Frye on Milton and Blake. (21) Yet Swinburne's book, aside from being the first one, chronologically, that Frye deems worthy of mentioning in his genealogy of Blake scholarship, remained one of a small handful of truly reputable studies on the subject into the 1940s. At any rate Frye considered it valuable enough that he referred to Fearful Symmetry as an essay in the Swinburne tradition in the book's preface. Now it is quite true that Frye, in his other writings, was outspoken about the shortcomings of Swinburne's book: Swinburne had erred in overemphasizing Blake's social isolation and anti-Philistinism, in interpreting Blake's corpus as "a document falling within his own conception of the sadist tradition," and in downplaying certain of Blake's radical political views (Frye, On Milton and Blake, p. 274). He had also perpetuated the idea that Blake was a pantheist, which could scarcely be further from the truth: for Blake the natural world was not a vessel in which divinity was housed, but a barrier to the infinite which he yearned to burn through. But the point stands that Frye considered Swinburne's book "a brilliant and generous essay," one that "established Blake once for all as an important poet" (p. 274) and that he explicitly positioned his debut book in a critical lineage that went back eighty years to the Victorian poet-critic. Nor was Frye a writer who made such statements frivolously.
What did he mean when he located himself deliberately in a Swinburnean tradition? He himself offers little by way of clarification, writing that "the subject of that essay is Blake in his literary context, which means, not Blake's 'place in literature," but Blake as an illustration of the poetic process" (FS, p. ii). Presumably, Frye meant his book to be another such illustration. Yet "an illustration of the poetic process" is itself quite vague; does it refer to the process by which poetry comes to be written? If so, Swinburne's book does little of this; neither does Frye's book, for that matter, do much scrutinizing of the "poetic process" in this sense. Frye's remark is rendered all the more cryptic by the fact that nowhere else in Fearful Symmetry does he so much as mention Swinburne, except once, fleetingly, to refute the latter's argument that Blake's The French Revolution is "mere wind and splutter," and to contend that it is actually "the most Swinburnian of Blake's poems" (FS, p. 205). If Frye conceived of himself as in some sense a Swinburnean critic, which he apparently did, he gives us very few clues about why.
I want to suggest that the best answer to the riddle has to do with the essentially mythopoeic nature of Swinburne's critical method. Riede's book is particularly helpful for showing how mythmaking plays an integral role in the way Swinburne approaches literary texts, particularly those of Blake. I take "myth" to mean an archetype created by the imagination that gives order, shape, and meaning to experience and to the perceived world. Myths are models that gesture towards an underlying unity beneath the infinite variety of possible life occurrences, and beneath the seemingly meaningless flux of sensory experience. From this vantage point, myths themselves are forms, skeletal architectures that exist outside time and space, and thus hint at a fundamental oneness beneath permutation. Moreover they are, vitally, imaginative constructs--for it is ultimately the creative imagination that devises these myth-forms as a way of imposing order upon, making sense of, and redeeming experience from chaotic meaninglessness. One of the groundbreaking aspects of Swinburne's book, not yet mentioned, was to show that Blake's longer prophecies were not allegories (as was commonly thought), at least not in the conventional sense of using literary personages and events to enforce moral lessons; rather, they were myths in that they sought to articulate all of human history in condensed narratives beginning with a "Fall" of sorts and culminating in redemption. (22) As such they competed with the Hebraic and Christian scriptures, subtly rewriting them in various ways.
Riede goes a step further, however, in arguing that Swinburne's criticism is implicated in a mythopoeic process of its own. His mythopoesis operates on a couple of levels. First, it enacts its own myth of resurrection and renewal. That is, Swinburne repeatedly describes Blake's art as a living presence, heavily stressing its materiality, a materiality he conceives of in fleshly terms: recall the passage, quoted earlier about the "flesh and blood of [Blake's] verse," with which his meter was closely involved. This constellation of imagery is connected to Swinburne's perspective on mythopoeic art as "regenerating, resurrecting"--art displaced Christianity by functioning as "the ever-living body and blood of God" (Riede, p. 32). It did so by preserving the inspired vision of the artist, who, glimpsing the divinely ordered universe in a moment of privileged insight, incorporated that vision into permanent art forms whose inner configuration and sound mimicked the complex patterns of the external world it described. That moment of vision and the poet himself are--as intimated in my reading of the Swinburne's "wave" passage above--themselves resurrected each time they are read. What we get in a book like William Blake, importantly, is Swinburne's own readerly experience of Blake, vividly brought to life for us via his impressionistic criticism. Thus it is Swinburne, finally, who is responsible for Blake's resurrection, by means of a highly inventive critical idiom that, at its best, accurately reflects, as it were, Swinburne's experience of Blake's experience. It is one myth packaged inside another. Swinburne's mythopoesis operates, too, at the level of the prose itself, since his writing, in its most impressionistic moments, strives to integrate the fragmentary pieces of empirical existence into an organized whole. Everything is meaningfully fused within the network of language.
Frye, too, of course, was very much engaged in a mythopoeic criticism; he likewise perceived a fundamental kinship between literature and myth, and moreover between criticism and myth, and he would therefore have recognized in Swinburne's criticism a theory closely linked to his own. If, as Riede suggests, Swinburne's "aesthetic theory perceives all truly creative art as essentially mythopoeic" (p. 34), and his criticism, too, had a myth-making power, then we must see Frye's critical agenda in much the same light: for Frye, all literature was simply an outgrowth of myth, and partook of the same imaginative realm; as "the central and most important extension" of mythology, literature was governed by a set of "structural principles" symbols, motifs, types--which it inherited from myth and which it was the task of criticism to decipher. (23) Fearful Symmetry is akin to Swinburne's William Blake in that they share the basic hypothesis that the "poetic process" is essentially that of myth-creation, and that to understand Blake's prophecies as they implicitly demand to be read, we must approach them as myths that descend from prior myths found primarily in the Bible. For both men, criticism generally, in addition to decoding the symbolic language of literary myths, and hence of showing how they constituted a unified whole, had of itself to partake of a mythopoeic process. The fact that both elected to write their first critical studies on Blake is telling, for Blake is perhaps the most mythopoeic of English poets; in him, both found a writer who validated their belief that all literary art amounted to myth-making, and upon whom they could readily practice a specimen of criticism that was itself mythopoeic.
Of course, while they shared a vision of criticism as inherently imaginative and mythopoeic, they went about realizing that vision in very different ways. Swinburne, by a cunning logic, had implicated himself as a critic in a myth of regeneration whereby Blake, incarnated in the fleshly substance of his texts, achieved eternal life via the mediating influence of Swinburne. He had done so through a daring writing style that tested the limits of language itself. Frye, by contrast, fashioned a myth, most fully articulated in Anatomy of Criticism (the theoretical germ of which, he claimed, was contained in Fearful Symmetry), that organized all literature into a vast and intricate framework in what he termed "an interconnected group of suggestions." (24) While it is common enough to note how Frye's archetypal method assists us in interpreting myths, it is less often stated that the method itself constitutes a myth, or body of myths, in which the literary genres are categorized according to four interpenetrating typologies (Frye calls them "mythoi") equated with the four seasons. However much Frye himself attempts to convince us of the scientific nature of this mythic system, and of its "objective" basis in the very nature of literature itself, it is difficult to see it as any other than an immensely creative construct of Frye's own imagination. Thus in his own way Frye reveals himself to be an artist enacting a process every bit as imaginative as that of the writers he examines, and in so doing asserts the necessarily creative nature of criticism. All the same, his writing is only "creative" to a point: Frye would obviously never have permitted himself the impressionistic rhapsodies that adorn Swinburne's criticism; and, additionally, his work attends strictly to the mythic-transcendent aspect of literary form, neglecting entirely the temporal dimension that is a hallmark of Swinburne's approach.
Frye's mythopoeic method presented, in a sense, the only comprehensive challenge to the reign of what had become the dominant thread of Anglo-American criticism by the 1950s: formalism, especially its most lasting and influential incarnation, New Criticism. The American New Criticism, by way of Richards, was significantly indebted to Victorian formalism for its reading protocols, and particularly to Swinburne. Victorian poetry has, as Caroline Levine indicates, had a complicated and often strained relationship with the New Criticism: Cleanth Brooks, for example, considered the defects of Tennyson and his contemporaries self-evident, while mid-century formalism at large frowned upon these poets because of their "excess," because their work "wallowed in a pool of sentiment, instead of balancing feeling and intellect," and because of their "prolixity." (25) Of course, the New Critics were taking their cue in part from T. S. Eliot, whose discussion of Swinburne's criticism in The Sacred Wood offers a representative view of High Modernism's take on the Victorian poet-critic. Predictably, perhaps, Eliot takes Swinburne's critical writings to task for their lack of polish and precision: "The faults of style are, of course, personal: the tumultuous outcry of adjectives, the headstrong rush of undisciplined sentences, are the index to the impatience and perhaps laziness of a disorderly mind." Swinburne is ultimately best seen as "an appreciator and not a critic." Nonetheless, Eliot concedes, with a certain grudging respect, that Swinburne's great virtue is "that he was sufficiently interested in his subject-matter and knew quite enough about it; and this is a rare combination in English criticism." In a condescendingly backhanded compliment, he observes, "Swinburne's judgment is generally sound, his taste sensitive and discriminating. And we cannot say that his thinking is faulty or perverse--up to the point at which it is thinking." (26) Chilly skepticism notwithstanding, that Eliot inserts a homage to Swinburne's "Itylus" in the final stanza of "The Waste Land" ("O Swallow swallow") hints at the persistent grip that Swinburne--and Victorian poetics more generally--continued to exercise on Eliot's poetic imagination and on Modernist verse at large. Little, indeed, could be more Swinburnean than the magnificently galloping anapests and double-iambs--and the imagery of waves these are deployed to evoke--with which "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" concludes.
It was the New Criticism itself, however, more than any other movement, that was responsible for the large-scale dismissal of Victorian literature in general, which lasted until the 1960s and 1970s. I believe it is imperative, however, to view the New Criticism as coming out of Victorian formalism; for, though Brooks and his crew prided themselves on their very distance from the Victorians, there was a good deal more continuity between them and the nineteenth century than they would have had one think. One of the critical points of contact between the two periods may be found in I. A. Richards. Richards is a fascinating case because he represents something of a liminal figure in the history of criticism: a scholar who came of age during the apogee of High Modernism, he was obviously influenced by the critical axioms of Eliot and his followers; all the same, he was born in the nineteenth century, during the heyday of Decadence, and it was this period that conditioned his literary mind. John Paul Russo's biography, I. A. Richards: His Life and Work (1989), is especially clarifying on this point. Russo stresses Richards' education at Cambridge, where he came under the influence of the colorful don A. C. Benson, an aesthete who had written biographies of Tennyson, Rossetti, Pater, and Ruskin. Richards' weekly tutorials with Benson, Russo writes,
may serve as a reminder that, however much Richards owed to modernism and helped explicate its masterworks, his taste had not been formed by the great modernist writers. He was barely a student generation behind them--eight years younger than Pound, only five years younger than Eliot. Like them, his taste was essentially formed in the late Victorian-Edwardian era. (27)
Asked later in life about his early readings in criticism, he "responded only briefly and evasively" that he had been weaned on nineteenth-century critics (p. 21). While at Cambridge--and in fact well before his arrival there--he showed a particular affinity with Swinburne, whose "prose as well as verse I was soaked with" from an early age, as he detailed in a written correspondence that Russo quotes (p. 8). More than any other writer except Percy Shelley, it was Swinburne who shaped Richards' taste and thinking in his early life. His attachment to Swinburne, the poetry and criticism alike, was intense and deeply emotional. Benson, who kept a diary as stunningly detailed as that of Samuel Pepys, recorded after one of their tutorials that he had suggested to Richards that Swinburne's championing of liberty was merely a literary pose. Richards, a '"sincere lover of liberty,'" was visibly wounded: '"I thought he was going to cry! He's an interesting creature, anyhow'" (Russo, p. 19). At any rate it is crucial to emphasize here that Richards' attachment to Swinburne persisted throughout his adult life--and in fact he considered editing an anthology of Swinburne's poetry late in life but apparently never got around to doing so. When in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s the High Modernists and New Critics had made it their mission to deride Victorian poets--particularly Swinburne, an "excessive" writer even by Victorian standards, whose frequently non-referential poetry resisted close reading techniques--it was Richards, repeatedly, who came to Swinburne's defense. (28) There is a special irony in the New Critical derision of Swinburne and his fellow aesthetes in that a substantial portion of New Critical doctrine was actually inherited from these earlier voices, by way of Richards: "Though Richards explicitly repudiated it, aestheticism shaped certain contours in his first books [including The Practice of Criticism], and through him, American New Criticism" (Russo, p. 20). The fact that these critics were embarrassed by their having come out of Victorian theorists like Swinburne helps explain why this earlier iteration of formalism has not survived: the New Critics enacted a deliberate forgetting, perhaps more accurately a repressing, of a body of literary theory to which they sensed, all too uneasily, their considerable debt.
What, precisely, did Richards borrow from Swinburne and the aesthetes, and in turn bequeath to New Criticism? Russo identifies a strong Swinburnean character throughout Richards' criticism: "the search for central meaning amidst the Heraclitean flux," the emphasis on the formal aspects of poetry as opposed to its subject matter, and--though Russo attributes this to Pater--a frequent analogy of literature to music (pp. 8-9). Russo is probably thinking of Pater's assertion that all art forms aspire to the condition of music, but we have already seen how Swinburne, too, resorted to musical tropes in an attempt to explain poetry's non-denotative force. To this one must add that for Swinburne, as touched on above, the concept of "harmony" in music was vital, for it underscored a crucial set of reconciliations that the very best poems accomplished--the reconciliation, both of the competing strands of meaning that jockeyed for position within them, but also certain other balances that such poems dramatized: that between intellect and flesh, and among the various senses. Here is Swinburne talking about the poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: "Spirit and sense together, eyesight and hearing and thought, are absorbed in splendour of sounds and glory of colours distinguishable only by delight. But the scheme is solid and harmonious" (Complete Works, 15:7). And here is Cleanth Brooks in The Well-Wrought Urn discussing poetry generally:
[Poetic form] is a structure of meanings, evaluations, and interpretations; and the principle of unity which informs it seems to be one of balancing and harmonizing connotations, attitudes, and meanings. But even here one needs to make important qualifications.... The unity is not a unity of the sort to be achieved by the reduction and simplification appropriate to an algebraic formula. It is a positive unity, not a negative; it represents not a residue but an achieved harmony. (29)
The passage distills much of what lay at the heart of Brooks' critical protocol, and lays bare his debt, at the level both of metaphor and doctrine, to Swinburne and probably Pater. His perception of the poetic text as a sort of drama in which irony and paradox were finally "harmonized" through the transcendent vision the poet offered; in which the poet "giv[es] us an insight which preserves the unity of experience and which, at its higher and more serious levels, triumphs over the apparently contradictory and conflicting elements of experience by unifying them into a new pattern" (Brooks, p. 195)--these notions, and the musical idiom he liked to use to convey them, have their seeds in Victorian formalism. They came to Brooks through the mediating presence of Richards, and to some extent they can be seen as a variation on Coleridge's "unity in multeity," which Swinburne had found so congenial to his own thinking and reading. Of course, Brooks' iteration of formalism was also quite far removed from Swinburne's, for although it preserved the intent search for harmony amid dissonance, it discarded--vitally--4winburne's preoccupation with the time-bound, cumulative nature of form; Brooks' revelations of unity in multeity depended on a concept of forms as atemporal wholes, frozen totalities that might be pieced together like so many jigsaw puzzles. Moreover, it is preposterous to imagine Brooks employing any of the high-flown impressionistic rhetoric that punctuates Swinburne's prose. Gone, in Brooks, is the enraptured lyricism that sought to elevate criticism to the imaginative level of great poetry; instead Brooks, in an impersonal, even clinical manner, takes a critical stethoscope to great poems in an effort to probe their inmost rhythms, their secret pulses. If his approach is more punctilious than Swinburne's, then it is also lacking in much of the vibrancy and, finally, the humanity that makes the latter critic so pleasurable to read.
But Swinburne is also, in a very real sense, more clear-sighted and more clairvoyant than his New Critical descendants. His formalism, unlike theirs, sees literary forms not as self-contained entities but as engaged in a process of challenging--and ideally overturning--the moral and political ideologies of the cultures out of which they spring. As such, he accords well with Wolfson's vision of poetic performance as an action able to "resist, revise, or reform a prevailing social context." Wolfson was talking about Romantic poetry, but her argument, as Levine notes, "ushered in a robust formalist-historicist paradigm" in Victorian studies that viewed Victorian writers as "shrewd theorists of the relations between aesthetic forms and life in the socio-political world" (pp. 1248-49). Swinburne was, as I have tried to argue with reference to his commentary on Blake, just such a theorist, and to the extent that his arguments are persuasive--and I believe they are--he forecasts a powerful new formalist approach that ascribes to poetry a profound legislative agency.
Special thanks to Caroline Levine for offering invaluable feedback throughout the brainstorming and (especially) revision stages of this piece. Thanks, too, to Yisrael Levin for advising me as I sought to add the finishing touches.
(1) Nicholas Dames, The Physiology of the Novel: Reading, Neural Science, and the Form of Victorian Fiction (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2007), p. 7.
(2) A notable exception is Nick Freeman's "Swinburne's Shakespeare: The Verbal Whirlwind?" in Yisrael Levin, A. C. Swinburne and the Singing Word: New Perspectives on the Mature Work (Burlington: Ashgate, 2010), pp. 91-106. Freeman's chapter is a fine meditation on Swinburne's role in shaping the course of Shakespeare scholarship; of particular interest is his argument that Swinburne represented a body of aristocratic literary ideals that were gradually eclipsed by an increasingly academic, professional approach to literature. A second exception is the chapter "Swinburne's Aesthetic Prose" in Catherine Maxwell, Swinburne (Tavistock: Northcote House, 2006), pp. 81-105. Maxwell admirably demonstrates how Swinburne "virtually pioneered the style of English prose known as 'aesthetic,'" traces the influences of Gautier and Baudelaire on his critical style, and isolates those strands of Swinburne's prose that came to be absorbed by Pater (p. 82).
(3) Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (1947; Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1969), p. ii. Hereafter abbreviated FS and cited in the text.
(4) The Complete Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, vol. 4 (New York, 1884), p. 336.
(5) I am inspired, in other words, by Susan J. Wolfson's argument that for the Romantic poets, "formal choices and actions, in addition to drawing on literary traditions, were enmeshed in networks of social and historical conditions." See Susan J. Wolfson, Formal Charges: The Shaping of Poetry in British Romanticism (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1997), p. 5. See also Jason R. Rudy, Electric Meters: Victorian Physiological Poetics (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 2009), which shows how, for the Victorians, poetry's metrical properties were thought to be instrumental to its capacity to affect the political (and fleshly) body.
(6) Julian Baird, "Swinburne, Sade, and Blake: The Pleasure-Pain Paradox," VP 9, nos. 1-2 (1971): 49-75.
(7) William Blake, The Early Illuminated Books, ed. Morris Eaves, Robert N. Essick, and Joseph Viscomi (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1993), p. 166.
(8) Algernon Charles Swinburne, The Complete Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne, ed. Edmund Gosse and Thomas James Wise, vol. 16, Prose Works Vol. VI (London: William Heinemann, 1926), p. 53. Hereafter abbreviated ACS and cited in the text.
(9) Robert Peters, The Crowns of Apollo: A Study in Victorian Criticism and Aesthetics (Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1965), p. 127.
(10) Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Literary Remains, Vol. I (Middlesex: The Echo Library, 2007), p. 152.
(11) David G. Riede, Swinburne: A Study of Romantic Mythmaking (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1978), p. 18.
(12) See also Jonah Siegel, "Black Arts, Ruined Cathedrals, and the Grave in Engraving: Ruskin and the Fatal Excess of Art," Victorian Literature and Culture 27, no. 2 (1999): 395-417. As Siegel sees it, Ruskin recuperates engraving from its degraded status as an emblem of alienated industrial labor and mindless reproduction; for Ruskin, engraving, no "simple record" of architecture and sculpture, is rather their precondition, its permanence making it "the real essence of art." Though he does not channel Blake, Ruskin shares with Swinburne a conviction in the culture-renewing power of engraving as an art: like the grave itself, graven art is a kind of "limit" whose ineluctable permanence confers meaning and urgency on human life.
(13) Clyde K. Hyder, ed., Swinburne: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970), p. xlii.
(14) Peters, The Crowns of Apollo, p. 129. Swinburne wrote of Browning, "Actually the writer has made three long heavy full syllables--equivalent properly to a spondee and a half serve as equivalent to a single anapest. Let the schools consider that and 'devise brave punishments for him' if they can; he has done it, and lives. This is a crime in the sight of any artist equivalent to murder in the sight of any judge: nay, to parricide under aggravating circumstances" (quoted in Peters, p. 129).
(15) See also Yisrael Levin, "'But the Law Must Itself Be Poetic': Swinburne, Omond, and the New Prosody," chap. 7 in Meter Matters: Verse Cultures of the Long Nineteenth Century, ed. Jason David Hall (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 2007). Levin compellingly demonstrates how Swinburne had, by the latter stages of his career at least, developed an antithetical concept of prosody: unconcerned with the precise number of syllables in a metrical unit, Swinburne valued instead the interval of time required to pronounce that unit; that is, he came to conceive of poetic lines as consisting of periods rather than feet--a notion that found concrete theoretical expression in the early-twentieth-century studies of English prosodist T. S. Omond.
(16) Jerome McGann, Swinburne: An Experiment in Criticism (Chicago: Chicago Univ. Press, 1972), pp. 14-15. I am indebted to McGarm, too, for the ensuing insight about Swinburne's criticism laying baring the shortcomings of Arnoldian criticism.
(17) Algernon Charles Swinburne, The Complete Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne, ed. Sir Edmund Gosse and Thomas James Wise, vol. 15, Prose Works Vol. V (London: William Heinemann, 1926), p. 447.
(18) In a comparable way, Dames writes in Physiology (pp. 135-136) of how Victorian novel theorists turned to music to solve the riddle of how to reconcile synchrony with diachrony. Wagnerian opera was especially useful to this end, since, as George Eliot deftly recognized, it presented listeners with sprawling, desultory soundscapes that were yet given shape by a pattern of reiterated leitmotivs. Repetition of musical units thus redeemed an opera from aimlessness and disarray.
(19) "Swinburne's William Blake," New York Times, March 29, 1868, http://query. nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F50D 12FF3C541B7493CBAB 1788D85F4 C8684F9.
(20) "William Blake," The Saturday Review, February 1, 1868.
(21) Northrop Frye, Northrop Frye on Milton and Blake, ed. Angela Esterhammer (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 2005), p. 274.
(22) Riede, p. 30. This paragraph of my article and the previous one owe much to Riede's discussion of William Blake, which first identified the ideas of myth-packaging, and of mythic art as a vehicle for resurrection, in Swinburne's study.
(23) Northrop Frye, Words With Power: Being a Second Study of "The Bible and Literature" (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), p. xiii.
(24) Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957), p. 3.
(25) Caroline Levine, "Formal Pasts and Formal Possibilities in Victorian Studies," Literature Compass 4, no. 4 (2007): 1242.
(26) T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood and Major Early Essays (New York: Dover Publications, 1998), pp. 10-14.
(27) John Paul Russo, I. A. Richards: His Life and Work (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1989), p. 21.
(28) Russo, pp. 9,227. Russo notes, for example, how Richards repudiated Eliot's critique of Atalanta in Calydon, defending the deliberate vagueness of its lines, as well as "the swift and splendid roundabout of the verse."
(29) Cleanth Brooks, The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (New York: Cornwall Press, 1947), pp. 178-179.