Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Swinburne, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll!

As many of you will know, I visited the Isle of Wight at the weekend.  Whilst there, I paid my respects to a rogue...

I really should know more about Swinburne than I do, after all he lived at Cheyne Walk and knew Fanny well (and disliked her with a vengeance)....

 Swinburne attempted to remain nonchalant as his chair sunk into the lawn....

It struck me that I really did not know enough about the little rascal, and so here is a little history of one of the best connected men in Victorian poetry.  Really, there is more than naked banister-sliding....

Swinburne and his Sisters (1843) George Richmond
Algernon Charles Swinburne was born in 1837 to a rather illustrious family.  His father was Admiral Charles Henry Swinburne (son of Sir John Henry Swinburne) and his mother was Lady Jane Henrietta Ashburnham (daughter of the 3rd Earl of Ashburnham) and so, as their eldest child and a son, great things were no doubt expected of little Algernon.  He grew up in lovely East Dene in Bonchurch on the Isle of Wight (or as I like to call it, the 'Isle of Victorian Splendidness') and went off to Eton, then to Oxford.  So far, so traditional.  You can see by the portrait of him at six years old (above), he already had his vibrantly red hair, and by 16 he was already writing poetry.  The only blip on his record was being temporarily expelled (or 'rusticated', which sounds like a type of bread.  I do like a rusticated loaf) for publically supporting the attempted assissination of Napoleon III by Felice Orsini.  We all do crazy things as students...

Swinburne at Oxford. I love how easy he is to spot...
The family's house was in Northumberland, and it was there he fell in with the intellectual circles of William Bell Scott and Lady Trevelyan and his connection to the Pre-Raphaelites was assured.  Swinburne had been at Oxford while the painting party of the Union occurred and had met Rossetti, Burne-Jones and William Morris.  When he moved to London in the early 1860s, his friendship with Rossetti strengthened, and Rossetti referred to him as 'my little Northumbrian friend'.

Algernon Swinburne William Bell Scott
Swinburne was a constant visitor to Chatham Place and he became very attached to Elizabeth Siddal.  It's easy to speculate that the little red-haired boy in the first picture found a surrogate sister in the small, redhaired woman.  He and Lizzie would rush around the studio as Rossetti painted and the artist was sometimes forced to 'call them both to order, as he might a pair of charming angora cats' (according to one observer).

Swinburne (1861) D G Rossetti
Swinburne's intimacy with the couple was such that he was one of the last people to see Elizabeth alive.  He dined with the couple at the Sabloniere Hotel on 11 February 1862 and gave evidence at the resultant inquest of Elizabeth's death.  Whatever the truth of that evening, Swinburne was destroyed by the death of his friend, and the letter he wrote home to his mother in the aftermath was filled with the sadness at his loss and worry for his friend, to the detriment of his own health.

Swinburne (1860s)
Rossetti had fled to his mother's while the matter of his new home was sorted and when Swinburne visited him, his friend begged him to move in.  It is tempting to speculate whether Rossetti was trying to replace one redhead with another.  That is not to suggest that there was any sort of homosexual motivation behind his actions, but that simply put, Swinburne reminded Rossetti of Lizzie and their happier times, chasing in the studio.  What never seems to be examined in any detail is what the loss of Lizzie did to Swinburne.  His behaviour quickly became a bone of contention in the household, and the famous story of him sliding naked down the banister with a friend in the middle of the night comes from this period.  He continued to write poetry, praised and admired, and his circle of friends expanded to included important figures in the artistic and literary worlds.

Swinburne in 1865
He met and became intimate with Burne-Jones and Simeon Solomon, and they formed an unholy trio, swapping obscene drawings and poems.  Swinburne is blamed for encouraging Solomon into alcoholism and risk-taking homosexual activity.  Swinburne championed Solomon's gentle, sensual style and in many ways it was a reflection of his poetry.  Between them, they were trying to reveal a person, neither male nor female, but a blend and something different.  Swinburne became an algolagniac (word of the day!  Try and drop it into conversation, or simply announce it outloud wherever you may be right at this moment.  Go on, I dare you.  All together now: AL-GO-LAG-NIAC!  It means someone who enjoys a smack around the nethers.  Sorry about that.)

Swinburne and Adah Menken, the American actress
In an attempt to sort him out (or should that be 'straighten him out'), Rossetti threw Swinburne (possibly literally, he was only small) at the American actress Adah Menken. She threw him back, declaring it a failure, as she complained, "I can't make him understand that biting's no use."

He went through cycles of drinking, debauching, de Sade and degeneration, at which point his family would swoop in and carry him back up North until he was better.  He would then return back to London, strip off with a bottle in one hand and a whip in the other and the cycle would begin again.  He was tarred with the same brush as Rossetti in terms of the 'Fleshly poets' but his behaviour made it impossible for any defence to be made.  He was wreckage.

Move forward to 1897, and look who is Mr January in the Modern Poets calendar!  How on earth did the tiny, masochistic drunk become the 'Modern Poet'?  The answer is this gentleman...

Theodore Watts-Dunton

By the late 1870s, Swinburne had almost killed himself with his lifestyle.  Instead of his family swooping in, his legal advisor (and friend of Rossetti) Theodore Watts-Dunton came and removed him, taking him to live in his home outside London.  There he dried Swinburne out and changed his behaviour.  His poetry which had been in decline, had a new, gentler flourish in the last years of his life.  Swinburne became detached from his former friends, and people accused Watts-Dunton of holding him prisoner, but in truth Swinburne had grown deaf and just wanted to stay at home and not have his belongings whipped.  Swinburne finally got respectable...

Swinburne (1900) Robert Ponsonby Staples
He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1903, 1904, 1905, 1906 and 1907, then again in 1909, the year he died.  It was thanks to Watts-Dunton that he made it to 72 years old and had the opportunity to be remembered for the energy and drive of his poetry.  H P Lovecraft declared that Swinburne was the only real poet on either side of the Atlantic after the death of Edgar Allan Poe.  While not  as popular now as he has been, Swinburne's legacy remains with us and hopefully the interest generated by the Pre-Raphaelites will extend to his work.

Swinburne (1974) David Levine
But remember, reading Swinburne may lead to more outrageous behaviour.
Friends don't let friends read Swinburne while drinking....


  1. I do love Swinburne's hair- it's got a life of it's own! Thank you for this lovely post. I didn't know anything about Swinburne after the naked bannister escapades and homosexual tendencies. It's quite interesting that he and Lizzie were good friends- I never would have imagined such a duo would grow close, what with Swinburne being so...wild...and Lizzie being rather reserved. But I guess Swinburne's wildness came after.

    I've been following your blog for a couple of weeks now and absolutely love it, and I'm trying to get my hands on a copy of your book as well. It's wonderfully refreshing to see Fanny Cornforth as she really was rather then the way time and gossip portrayed her.

  2. Swinburne does have magnificent hair! Thank you for your comments and I hope you enjoy the book!

    It is always good to get as much information as possible on people as they are often far more complicated than the rumours would have you believe. And far more interesting...

    Thanks for stopping by :)

  3. Where, oh where is the Gene Wilder Swinburne film? With that hair, wasn't he made to play the part in his younger years, a frothy frolic with a bit of slap and tickle thrown in? With extra slap.

    Thank you for revealing what Swinburn's kink was. It's vaguely alluded to in some books, but one does like to be certain.

  4. You're welcome - it's important to know these things in case any poets offer you an afternoon of tea and algolagnia. I can't have you thinking it's a sort of cake and getting yourselves in trouble. I suspect this is what happened to poor Swinburne...

  5. Thankyou for this lovely post! Swinburne is my absolute favourite poet; his poems are of outstanding beauty, though they seem little known these days, and not many know much past his rather wild youth... an interesting life indeed.

  6. When I read Swinburne in my English major days, I always thought of him as the tip of the Victorian iceberg of "alternative" behavior. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when the two redheads romped around the studio. I wonder whether Lizzie - like my husband's country relatives who aspired to a city identity - kept it all stuffed in to seem "ladylike." At least, until Algie showed up.

  7. I live on the isle of wight and am part of a paranormal investigation team that has visited east dene and am about to go back and spend the night there. He is a facinating character


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx