William & Mary

Victorian Poetry's Bad Boy

Terry Meyers believes the time has come for Algernon Swinburne to get the recognition due a great Victorian poet.

Terry Meyers believes the time has come for Algernon Swinburne to get the recognition due a great Victorian poet.

It's a handle Algernon Charles Swinburne would probably relish. He loved to push opposites to the point where they would meet--where pain becomes pleasure, where love becomes hate.

But it's been nothing but love for the work and life of Swinburne from William and Mary English Professor Terry Meyers, who spent almost 20 years working on a collection of the poet's correspondence.

"Perhaps not everyone would agree with Henry James' claim that 'everything about being such a being as (Swinburne) becomes and remains interesting.' But the great collector and student of Swinburne John Mayfield and his wife emphatically did. And so do I," Meyers wrote in his introduction to The Uncollected Letters of Algernon Charles Swinburne.

Swinburne was born into a prominent English family in 1837 and was educated at Eton College and the University of Oxford. A pre-Raphaelite poet who touted ars gratia artis nearly a century before MGM, Swinburne produced work that was edgy and anti-theistic. His subjects, including masochism, something the poet himself enjoyed, still raise eyebrows today. Even Swinburne's death stirred controversy; he was posthumously denounced by the vice-dean of Canterbury Cathedral for the "pollution" he had introduced into English poetry.

Meyers had never heard of Swinburne until he was a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the late 1960s.

"I read one of his poems, 'The Garden of Proserpine' which was very melodic, very beautiful and very atheistic and I thought, 'Whoa, what is this guy doing?'," said Meyers.

As Meyers continued to study the poet, he found that Swinburne was an early admirer of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Charles Baudelaire and Walt Whitman. He also found that Swinburne had written a groundbreaking critical book on William Blake during a time when Blake was not yet taken seriously. In 1892, when Tennyson died, Swinburne's work was so well known that there was talk of his becoming the next poet laureate. However, his controversial works and political views kept him from the post.


37 Years of Swinburne
Intrigued by the poet who resisted the conventional pressures of the Victorian age and whose melodic poetry "pushes language to the point where sound and sense find their edge," Meyers decided to write a thesis on him.

"I have now been working on Swinburne for 37 years and I'm still having fun," he said.

Meyers began work on his uncollected letters in 1985, with grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Working before the advent of the Internet, the research was extremely time consuming, and Meyers relied heavily on assistance from libraries, Victorian-era scholars, book collectors, family members and students. Meyers wrote to libraries and private collectors for copies of letters and even spent hours pacing through libraries, leafing through collections of letters by Swinburne's contemporaries on the off chance of finding a connection to the poet.

"There was a lot of serendipity in that," he said.

Even when the Internet became widely used and Meyers could look at Swinburne's work online, the subjects of some of Swinburne's poems were still so controversial that Virginia law prevented Meyers from reading some of them on his office computer without prior permission from the state. As the collection of letters came together, he was surprised both by the number of letters he had been able to collect and by the number of letters he found to Swinburne, including letters from strangers. Meyers said the letters to Swinburne help to illuminate the milieus he lived in--from familial and intellectual to social and professional.


Victorian Freethinkers
"One thing that becomes apparent from Swinburne's correspondence: There was a larger network of skeptics and freethinkers during the time than we might think," Meyers said. "It was an age of great religious piety where books of sermons were bestsellers, and yet there is a network of people who, despite strong pressures, are freethinkers and skeptics."

An intriguing part of Meyer's collection is a series of letters between Swinburne and his cousin Mary Gordon Leith, who is thought to have rejected a marriage proposal from him in their youth. In the correspondence, which had never been published before, the two write in code and role-play as schoolboys interested in masochism.

"It's very curious correspondence," said Meyers. "It's interesting to see these letters that were exchanged when they are both very, very mature and had reopened this old love relationship. It's a curious, intriguing psychological exploration."

He sent in the final proofs for his collection 19 years after beginning the project. After it was published in 2005, it received critical acclaim for its rich new letters and informative annotations. One reviewer remarked that the work confirmed Meyers's status "as the leading biographical expert on Swinburne."

Meyers still works on the collection, using a Web site for addenda, corrigenda and errata. Additionally, he is currently working on an edition of several notebooks of unpublished poetry by Swinburne and hopes to work as co-editor of the first scholarly edition of Swinburne's poems, a project he started 30 years ago but had to abandon because of the pre-Internet difficulty of communicating with his co-editor in England.

Meyers hopes that all of these years of research and work will result in increased recognition for Swinburne.

"He's just a fascinating character, so I've had a lot of fun with him. I've met a lot of interesting people, gone to interesting places, and I'm still having fun. What's been frustrating to some extent is that he's still not regarded as a great writer and I think he is," said Meyers. "He's a figure whose accomplishment has been belittled because of his politics and his amorality and his free thinking. Even today, he's controversial. It's been a little frustrating to not see his stock rise as I think it should. I hope that before I die I can see Swinburne get some more of the recognition he deserves."

by Erin Zagursky for Ideation magazine