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Martin Stannard

Our Lady of Pain: Poems of Eros and Perversion, Algernon Charles Swinburne
Edited & introduced by Mark Scroggins
(Shearsman, 126pp, £10.95)

Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads, published in 1866, caused outrage in Victorian England, its poems taking as their subject matter carnal love and lust and gender in various shapes and sizes: heterosexuality, homosexuality, hermaphroditism, androgyny, sadism, masochism, flagellation …. You have to admit, it’s quite a list, and it might not even be complete. The volume almost did for Swinburne, and the publisher withdrew the book after a few days, although later more conventional collections fared better even as his personal life did its best to fall apart at the seams. The poet’s reputation sank very low in the 20th century, and major anthologies can be found that ignore him altogether.

A selection of the most “perverse” poems, and a few things not from Poems and Ballads but which would not have been out of place therein, are collected in this volume from Shearsman’s “Poetry Classics” series, but don’t expect to be either outraged or titillated. Neither is very likely to happen (although you never know; some people are weird).

Swinburne’s mastery of form and metre are undeniable, and one has only to read the poems here aloud to appreciate the enjoyment some young men would have experienced when, as I read about somewhere, they would carouse through the streets (probably after a couple of drinks) loudly reciting from “Dolores”:

     By the hunger of change and emotion,
       By the thirst of unbearable things,
     By despair, the twin-born of devotion,
       By the pleasure that winces and stings,
     The delight that consumes the desire,
       The desire that outruns the delight,
     By the cruelty deaf as a fire,
       And blind as the night,

     By the ravenous teeth that have smitten
       Through the kisses that blossom and bud,
     By the lips intertwisted and bitten
       Till the foam has a savour of blood,
     By the pulse as it rises and falters,
       By the hands as they slacken and strain,
     I adjure thee, respond from thine altars,
       Our Lady of Pain.

As Mark Scroggins points out in his introduction, “pleasure” and “pain” are never very far apart in these poems: Swinburne’s intention was to shock and outrage, and whatever may be the truth of his own sexual preferences – one theory seems to be that he was a non-practicing homosexual (whatever that is), he was apparently a virgin until he was thirty, and there appears to be no doubt that he enjoyed flagellation – well anyway, these poems shocked and outraged the Victorians. As for this reader, the poems are so couched in the poetic language of their time that I often had to do a bit of background reading to figure out what was going on. Most became clearer after I’d Googled them, but I’m fairly stupid, so don’t let that put you off.

I knew very little (almost nothing, to be honest) about Swinburne before reading this book, though I have a so-called “Works” on my shelf that, on inspection, includes only one or two of the poems collected here. I intend to read further, although whether or not I shall wander the streets of Nottingham declaiming poems of Eros and Perversion at the top of my voice is pretty unlikely, I think, although…

Copyright © Martin Stannard, 2019