The present volume contains Poems and Ballads (1866) and Atalanta in Calydon (1865). Although it was published later, Poems and Ballads is here printed first. Many of the poems in it were written before Atalanta, and it is, perhaps, the better introduction to Swinburne. The two works are the most famous and influential of Swinburne’s writings, and they also contain much of his best poetry.


Poems and Ballads was published in mid-July 1866 (Lang, Letters Vol. 1, p. 167) by Edward Moxon & Co. The volume inspired violent criticism, and Moxon withdrew the book. John Camden Hotten bought the approximately 700 remaining copies from Moxon and reissued it with his own title-page. Later in the same year, Hotten reprinted it.

In ‘Dedication, 1865’ Swinburne describes the earliest poems of the collection as written seven years previously, that is, in 1858. A convenient summary of what is known about the dates of the composition may be found in Ann Walder, Swinburne’s Flowers of Evil (Uppsala, 1976) pp. 64–7; she relies mainly on Georges Lafourcade, La Jeunesse de Swinburne (Paris, 1928). In 1876, Swinburne assembled a list of seventeen poems that he planned to have transferred to a projected volume of specifically early verse: ‘The Leper’, ‘Rondel [‘Kissing her hair’]’, ‘A Song in Time of Order’, ‘A Song in Time of Revolution’, ‘Before Parting’, ‘The Sundew’, ‘At Eleusis’, ‘August’, ‘A Christmas Carol’, ‘The Masque of Queen Bersabe’, ‘St. Dorothy’, ‘The Two Dreams’, ‘Aholibah’, ‘After Death’, ‘May Janet’, ‘The Sea-Swallows’, and ‘The Year of Love’ (Lang, 3, 200).

Atalanta in Calydon was published in March 1865 by Edward Moxon & Co., Swinburne’s father having paid ‘considerably more than £100’ for it (Lang, 2, 213). Moxon brought out a second edition in 1865, and Hotten took it over in 1866. For more details, see the notes to Atalanta in Calydon.


The text of this selection relies on the 1904 Poems, which differs only slightly from the 1865 Atalanta in Calydon and the 1866 Poems and Ballads. Uncertainties about stanza breaks at the foot of the page in the irregular choral odes of Atalanta have been resolved by consulting the two editions of 1865. The few minor errors in the first dedicatory Greek epigraph have been silently corrected and the correct 1865 text restored. Four errors apparently reintroduced into the 1904 Poems from an uncorrected Poems and Ballads have been corrected (see Thomas James Wise, A Bibliography of the Writings in Prose and Verse of Algernon Charles Swinburne, 1925, p. 52). Several poems in Poems and Ballads had been published previously, sometimes with significant variations; bibliographical citations to these earlier versions have been included in the notes to individual poems.


References to facsimiles, reproductions and descriptions of manuscripts have been included when known to me.


In the Table of Dates and elsewhere, I have freely drawn on Rikky Rooksby, A. C. Swinburne: A Poet’s Life (Scolar Press, 1997), the best-researched and most accurate of the biographies of Swinburne. In those cases where biographies offer conflicting accounts, I have followed Rooksby.


The explanatory notes at the end of this volume are metrical, textual and contextual. I have specified the metre of each lyric, occasionally offering parallels or discussing its history. Difficult passages have been glossed, and I have tried to identify sources, explain allusions, and provide parallels. In addition, I have drawn on the large scholarly literature about the French and Victorian contexts of many of Swinburne’s themes. I have tried to give credit to previous readers for their discoveries but in general have corrected occasional errors in silence.

Scholarly reception

See Clyde K. Hyder, ‘Algernon Charles Swinburne’ in The Victorian Poets: A Guide to Research (ed. F. E. Faverty, Harvard, 1968) and Rikky Rooksby, ‘A Century of Swinburne’ in The Whole Music of Passion (Scolar Press, 1993).

Currently, the only complete edition of Swinburne’s works is The Complete Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne, edited by Sir Edmund Gosse and Thomas James Wise (known as the Bonchurch edition, published 1925–7 and reprinted in 1968); however, the text of this edition is unreliable. This collection includes the only full bibliography, which is likewise untrustworthy.

In the second volume of La Jeunesse de Swinburne (Paris, 1928), Georges Lafourcade attempted the only comprehensive criticism of all Swinburne’s early works. Critics who have subsequently examined particular manuscripts in greater detail (among them, Randolph Hughes in his edition of Swinburne’s Lucretia Borgia, 1942, or Edward Philip Schuldt in his dissertation, Four Early Unpublished Plays of Algernon Charles Swinburne, 1976) have found many inaccuracies in Lafourcade’s account. Nonetheless, Lafourcade provided much information still not available elsewhere.

Several careful studies of Swinburne’s style exist in German, including H. W. F. Wollaeger, Studien über Swinburne’s Poetischen Stil (Heidelberg, 1899), Bruno Herlet, Versuch eines Kommentars zu Swinburnes ‘Atalanta’ (Bamberg, 1909–10), and Alfred Eidenbenz, Das Starre Wortmuster und die Zeit in Swinburne’s ‘Poems and Ballads’ (Zürich, 1944).

Cecil Y. Lang published six volumes of Swinburne’s letters in 1959–62, with comprehensive annotations and index. Terry L. Meyers has published (and is publishing) additional letters by Swinburne.

Clyde K. Hyder has edited Swinburne Replies (Syracuse, 1966), a collection of three of Swinburne’s responses to his critics; Swinburne: The Critical Heritage (New York, 1970), a representative sample of the critical responses to Swinburne; and Swinburne as Critic (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972), an annotated and indexed anthology of Swinburne’s literary and artistic criticism.

Kirk H. Beertz published a bibliography of secondary works about Swinburne in 1982.

The most pressing need in the Swinburne scholarship is a critical edition of his works, based on a careful study of the manuscripts and the establishment of the dates of composition. Timothy A. J. Burnett gives an example of such work in his study of the first manuscript page of ‘Anactoria’, and he and Nicholas Shrimpton offer another example in their editing of an early version of ‘The Two Dreams’ (both printed in The Whole Music of Passion, 1993).

Critical reception

Swinburne’s poetry has inspired conflicting critical reactions. For the contemporary uproar over the immorality of Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads, see Clyde K. Hyder, Swinburne: The Critical Heritage (1970). In the following paragraphs, when bibliographical information is not given, it can be found in Further Reading.

His poems have sometimes been found too long or too diffuse. Robert Browning objects to his verses because they combine ‘the minimum of thought and idea in the maximum of word and phraseology’ (Critical Heritage, p. 115). Swinburne’s mother ‘constantly deplores’ the fact that he spoils his writing by not knowing when to stop (Lang, 4, 214). Matthew Arnold is offended by ‘Swinburne’s fatal habit of using one hundred words where one would suffice’ (Critical Heritage, p. 117). A. E. Housman finds that even in Swinburne’s best work ‘there is no reason why they should begin where they do or end where they do; there is no reason why the middle should be in the middle; there is hardly a reason why, having once begun, they should ever end at all’. T. S. Eliot finds that Swinburne is diffuse but believes that his ‘diffuseness is one of his glories’. Other critics, including Jerome J. McGann, have found that Swinburne’s diffuseness is a way of creating effects through echoing and enhancing suggestions rather than through the concentration of a mot juste.

He has been found vague or meaningless. Tennyson’s praise, ‘He is a reed through which all things blow into music’, is equivocal (Critical Heritage, p. 113). Housman believes that Swinburne almost totally lacked the ability to write descriptive poetry; instead of rendering nature, he ‘picks up the sausage-machine into which he crammed anything and everything; round goes the handle, and out the other end comes… noise’. Ezra Pound writes that Swinburne ‘neglected the value of words as words, and was intent on their value as sound’, though he also finds that Swinburne’s ‘inaccurate writing’ is ‘by no means ubiquitous’. W. H. Auden generalizes that nineteenth-century poets typically have much greater prosodic skill but much less control of diction than twentieth-century poets (19th Century British Minor Poets, 1966), and perhaps the generalization applies with particular force to Swinburne. Lang disputes the charge of vagueness and finds in the poetry and the letters ‘literal accuracy of the natural scenes’ (Lang, 1, xxi).

His metrical accomplishments have been variously judged. Of the major Victorian poets, he employed the largest number of verse forms, according to Robert Huntington Fletcher: Browning wrote in about 200 verse forms; Tennyson, in about 240; Swinburne, in about 420 (Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 8, 1908). Pound admires his rhythm-building faculty, and in particular his ability to perceive and recreate Greek melopoeia. Housman enumerates his achievements: he made the anapest fit for serious poetry, dignifying and strengthening it so that it yielded a combination of speed and magnificence new to English poetry; he revitalized the heroic couplet; he had an unexampled control of rhyme and in particular a pre-eminent mastery of feminine rhyme. Nonetheless, Housman finds that his metres, like Pope’s, appeal only to the ‘external ear’. T. S. Eliot finds that the technical novelty of the metres wears off and their effect is diminished (‘Reflections on “Vers Libre” ’, 1917).

Swinburne has been thought to be writing about literature rather than life. William Morris confesses that he could never really sympathize with Swinburne’s poetry because he thought it ‘founded on literature, not on nature’ (Critical Heritage, p. 123). Housman agrees that the only theme Swinburne ‘thoroughly loved and understood’ was literature, and disputes Swinburne’s insistence that literature is as valid a subject for poetry as any living thing. Eliot has been influential in his insistence that in Swinburne the object has ceased to exist and we are left with a complete, self-sufficient world of words. On the other hand, ‘The Triumph of Time’ has been called a cri de coeur. William Rossetti notes a paradox in many of the poems in Poems and Ballads: Swinburne is simultaneously exceedingly imitative and distinctly original (Critical Heritage, p. 70).

He has been found monotonous or narrow, especially in his later poetry. Gerard Hopkins writes that ‘Swinburne’s genius is astonishing, but it will, I think, only do one thing’ (letter to Bridges, 1879). Housman contrasts the ‘great and even overpowering richness’ of Poems and Ballads with the threadbare style in the poems of his later life. Empson writes that Swinburne ‘normally… only wrote well about his appalling ideas about sex’ (The Modern Poet, ed. Ian Hamilton, 1968, p. 184). Rikky Rooksby provides a discriminating defence of some of the later poetry in ‘Swinburne without Tears: A Guide to the Later Poetry’, Victorian Poetry 26:4 (Winter 1988), 413–30.

A contemporary reviewer complained about the difficulty of his syntax and the ‘wild prodigal way’ he heaped images, metaphors, and allusions (Critical Heritage, p. 11). Some later critics have argued that this difficulty is intrinsic to the meaning of his verse, that the tension between the onward-rushing metre and a complex grammar requiring patient glossing is related to the experience of living a torn and divided life.


Despite the various and often unfavourable critical judgements of his verse, it had a marked influence on later poets.

Thomas Hardy’s early and abiding high estimate of Swinburne, and indeed his identification with Swinburne, are briefly sketched in Lennart A. Björk, The Literary Notes of Thomas Hardy, Volume 1, 1974, Notes, 373–4. ‘A Singer Asleep’ is Hardy’s most eloquent testimony to Swinburne.

A. E. Housman’s translations from Greek are written in Swinburne’s style. For his influence on Housman’s poetry, see Archie Burnett’s Oxford English Text edition of Housman and P. G. Naiditch, An Index to Archie Burnett’s Commentary on ‘The Poems of A. E. Housman’ (Housman Society, 1998).

D’Annunzio drew on Swinburne extensively. See Paul Falzon, ‘Reminiscences of Swinburne in d’Annunzio’, Notes and Queries, 11th series, 5:201–3; ‘Fonti d’Annunziane’ in La Critica, 8:22–31, 10:257–63, 11:431–40, and 12:15–25; and Calvin S. Brown, Jr., ‘More Swinburne–d’Annunzio Parallels’, Publications of the Modern Language Association, 55:559–67.

W. B. Yeats endorsed Swinburne as a candidate for Poet Laureate upon the death of Tennyson, and he declared himself ‘King of the Cats’ upon Swinburne’s death.

Stefan George translated several poems from Poems and Ballads into German, the first in 1896 and the remainder in 1905. The translations are studied by Karen Paul and William H. McClain in Modern Language Notes, 86:706–14.

Ezra Pound’s early poems ‘Salve O Pontifex!’ and ‘Swinburne: A Critique’ are evidence of Swinburne’s importance to him. The falling rhythms of Canto 17, it has been argued, recall Swinburne’s adaptations of classical metres (Peter Nicholls, Ezra Pound: Politics, Economics, and Writing, 1984, pp. 34–5). Swinburne’s paganism was always important to Pound; in 1942, for example, he wrote that Swinburne was a member of his church.

Despite T. S. Eliot’s declaration that ‘Swinburne and the poets of the nineties were entirely missed out of my personal history’, some lines suited him well enough to adapt; compare memory mixed with desire in ‘To Victor Hugo’, l. 31, and The Waste Land, ll. 2–3.