Algernon Swinburne (1837 - 1909) was a Victorian era English poet. His poetry was highly controversial in its day, much of it containing recurring themes of sadomasochism, death-wish, lesbianism and anti-Christian sentiments.
He also wrote poems in favour of the unification of Italy. He was a student at Balliol College, Oxford, and his work in his day was very popular among undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge, though today it has largely gone out of fashion. He was associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and counted among his best friends Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
He is considered a decadent poet, albeit that he professed to perhaps rather more vice than he actually indulged in, a fact which Oscar Wilde notably and acerbically commented upon.
Many of his poems evoke the Victorian fascination with the mediaeval period, and some of them are explicitly mediaeval in style, tone and construction, these representatives notably being The Leper, Laus Veneris and St Dorothy.
He was an alcoholic and a highly excitable character. His health suffered as a result, until he finally broke down and was taken into care by his friend Theodore Watts, who looked after him for the rest of his life in Putney. Thereafter he lost his youthful rebelliousness and developed into a figure of social respectablity.
His vocabulary, rhyme and metre arguably make him one of the best poets of the English language; but his poetry has been criticized as overly flowery and meaningless, choosing words to fit the rhyme rather than to contribute towards meaning.
Works include: Atalanta in Calydon, Poems and Ballads (series I, II and III -- these contain most of his more controversial works), Songs Before Sunrise, Lesbia Brandon (novel published posthumously).
Some of his poems:
Further ReadingA modern study of his religious attitudes:
- Swinburne and His Gods: the Roots and Growth of an Agnostic Poetry by Margot Kathleen Louis (ISBN 0773507159)