Authors: Algernon Charles Swinburne

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English poet and playwright

Author Works


Poems and Ballads, 1866

A Song of Italy, 1867

Ode on the Proclamation of the French Republic, 1870

Songs Before Sunrise, 1871

Songs of Two Nations, 1875

Poems and Ballads: Second Series, 1878

Songs of the Springtides, 1880

The Heptalogia, 1880

Tristram of Lyonesse, and Other Poems, 1882

A Century of Roundels, 1883

A Midsummer Holiday, and Other Poems, 1884

Gathered Songs, 1887

Poems and Ballads: Third Series, 1889

Astrophel, and Other Poems, 1894

The Tale of Balen, 1896

A Channel Passage, and Other Poems, 1904

Posthumous Poems, 1917

Rondeaux Parisiens, 1917

Ballads of the English Border, 1925

Long Fiction:

Love’s Cross-Currents, 1901 (serialized as A Year’s Letters in 1877)

Lesbia Brandon, 1952


The Queen-Mother, pb. 1860

Rosamond, pb. 1860

Atalanta in Calydon, pb. 1865

Chastelard, pb. 1865

Bothwell, pb. 1874

Erechtheus, pb. 1876

Mary Stuart, pb. 1881

Marino Faliero, pb. 1885

Locrine, pb. 1887

The Sisters, pb. 1892

Rosamund, Queen of the Lombards, pb. 1899

The Duke of Gandia, pb. 1908


Byron, 1866

Notes on Poems and Reviews, 1866

William Blake: A Critical Essay, 1868

Under the Microscope, 1872

George Chapman, 1875

Essays and Studies, 1875

A Note on Charlotte Brontë, 1877

A Study of Shakespeare, 1880

Miscellanies, 1886

A Study of Victor Hugo, 1886

A Study of Ben Jonson, 1889

Studies in Prose and Poetry, 1894

The Age of Shakespeare, 1908

Three Plays of Shakespeare, 1909

Shakespeare, 1909

Contemporaries of Shakespeare, 1919


The Complete Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne, 1925-1927 (20 volumes; reprinted 1968)


Algernon Charles Swinburne’s fame as a poet rests on several claims: his dexterity in manipulation of verse; his subject matter, which often glorified the life of the senses or argued for the necessity of social change; and certain oddities in his actual career. In all of these claims, the man can be seen at odds with his age and yet drawing strength from it.{$I[AN]9810000357}{$I[A]Swinburne, Algernon Charles}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Swinburne, Algernon Charles}{$I[tim]1837;Swinburne, Algernon Charles}

Algernon Charles Swinburne

(Library of Congress)

Swinburne was descended from English nobility. His mother was the daughter of the earl of Ashburnham, and his father was Admiral Charles Henry Swinburne. Algernon Charles Swinburne enjoyed fully the advantages of his background. From his mother he acquired a literary taste, a love of the French and Italian languages and literatures, and a thorough knowledge of the Bible. He was also allowed to read such critical writers as Victor Hugo and W. S. Landor, both advocates of republicanism and both objects of Swinburne’s hero worship. From a grandfather in Northumberland Swinburne learned hatred of monarchy and disapproval of the hereditary privileges of the House of Lords.

Swinburne early discovered his poetic vocation. Acquaintance in childhood with William Wordsworth and Samuel Rogers confirmed his intent by the time he was fifteen. The next decade brought Swinburne the companionship and encouragement of some leading literary figures of the period, among them Alfred, Lord Tennyson, John Ruskin, and, among the Pre-Raphaelites, William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Swinburne’s youthful claims to attention led Burne-Jones to welcome him thus: “We have hitherto been three, and now there are four of us.” Swinburne modeled for some of Rossetti’s paintings and had the painter’s personal direction in his writings. His affiliation with the Pre-Raphaelite movement drew attention to his own work, which early struck his contemporaries as clever, audacious, and erudite. From the time Atalanta in Calydon and Chastelard were published in 1865, Swinburne’s place in the literary world was secure, and it remained so for about fifteen years.

Swinburne’s themes–glorification of the senses and the assertion of human dignity–are but two aspects of his central impatience with restraint; the only restraint that Swinburne ever welcomed was that imposed by rather elaborate and even archaic poetical forms. In Poems and Ballads he scandalized his times with outspoken endorsement of sensuality; in Songs Before Sunrise he stirred them deeply with apostrophes to the insurgent republicans of Italy. In these years he was also a prose propagandist for the Pre-Raphaelites and a defender of his own literary practices. Against a charge made by Saturday Review that with colors intense and violent he effected an “audacious counterfeiting of strong and noble passion by mad, intoxicated sensuality,” Swinburne protested against a literary age that “has room only for such as are content to write for children and girls.”

The revolt in Swinburne’s own life needed to be curbed, however. In 1879 Theodore Watts-Dunton took Swinburne from London to save him from the effects of acute alcoholic dysentery. Although the move to Putney and a simpler life restored Swinburne’s health, it took the essential fire from his writings. He relinquished the idea of political freedom and increasingly turned from poetry to literary criticism. He became capable, as the young Swinburne with his impassioned seriousness would not have been, of composing parodies on the work of such prominent Victorian poets as Tennyson, Rossetti, and himself. The prose of his last years is far removed from his Pre-Raphaelite struggles and contemporary politics; he took up his early enthusiasm for the drama of Elizabethan England, of which he wrote brilliantly.

Swinburne was described as a man more “elf-like than human.” He was just over five feet tall and thin; he had a massive head thatched with shaggy red hair. His bizarre appearance prevented his success in love and, it can be believed, underlay the heightened behavior that led to his removal from Eton and Oxford; he later refused a degree from the university that had ejected him. He welcomed the implications of Darwinism and rejected, on the other hand, Robert Browning’s optimism and Tennyson’s aspirations toward immortality. Here, too, he departed from contemporary canons of taste and created his own philosophy and forms.

BibliographyHarrison, Antony H. Swinburne’s Medievalism: A Study in Victorian Love Poetry. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988. Although most of this book deals with Swinburne’s poetic dramas, the chapter on Poems and Ballads, “Historicity and Erotic Aestheticism,” provides an illuminating discussion of the influence of “historicist, erotic, and formal concerns” on several of Swinburne’s most famous medieval lyrics.Hyder, Clyde K., ed. Swinburne: The Critical Heritage. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1970. This volume in the Critical Heritage series charts the reception and evolving evaluation of Swinburne’s work to 1920. Authors from Henry Brooks Adams to Sir Max Beerbohm state their opinions, ranging from amusement to damnation. Notable omissions are T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. The controversy over Poems and Ballads is well represented. The introduction provides an excellent overview.Louis, Margot Kathleen. Swinburne and His Gods: The Roots and Growth of an Agnostic Poetry. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990. An intelligent investigation of the importance of Swinburne’s “religious polemics.” The use of “demonic parody” and whore goddesses in the early works is compared to the biblical sources. The alternative mythologies of later works are also discussed and related, in an appendix, to the mythmaking of William Blake. Includes an extensive bibliography.Pease, Allison. Modernism, Mass Culture, and the Aesthetics of Obscenity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pease’s scholarly study of erotic literature and views of obscenity looks at the works of Swinburne and others. Includes bibliography and index.Reide, David G. Swinburne: A Study of Romantic Mythmaking. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1978. Reide argues that Swinburne is the link between the first English Romantics and the modern Romantics.Rooksby, Rikky. A. C. Swinburne: A Poet’s Life. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1997. This biography of Swinburne looks at his life and works, focusing on his poetry and his critical writings. Includes bibliography and index.Rooksby, Rikky, and Nicholas Shrimpton, eds. The Whole Music of Passion: New Essays on Swinburne. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1993. A collection of essays providing literary criticism of Swinburne’s works. Includes bibliography and index.Thomas, Donald Serrell. Swinburne: The Poet in His World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. This volume depicts Swinburne in relation to the society in which he lived. An insightful biography of what the author deems to be one of the most eccentric and original writers of the Victorian period. Contains illustrations and a select bibliography.
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