Swinburne's Letters

Edmund Gosse and Thomas J. Wise. The Letters Of Algernon Charles Swinburne. New York, John Lane Co. 2 volumes. $3

THE title of these volumes is perhaps slightly misleading, in that it seems to promise something approaching a complete collection of the extant letters of the great Victorian. However, in a foreword, Mr. Gosse hastens to state that no such claim is made for the present compilation. Seven years ago a collection of letters written to Sir Henry Taylor, the author of “Phillip Van Artevelde,” was published, and those are not here included. Also, as Mr. Gosse tells us, the compilers are aware of several groups of intimate letters “an inspection of which is still denied to the general public,” for reasons which may be guessed by any discerning reader of these volumes.Nevertheless, the collection now presented to the world contains a very considerable portion of Swinburne’s correspondence during 51 years, beginning when the poet was 24 years old. Few, if any of his letters previous to that time have been preserved. It is known that his correspondence with French and Italian contemporaries was considerable, and the compilers were especially eager to trace the letters to Mazzini and Victor Hugo, but were unable to locate them. “I am convinced,” writes Mr. Gosse in this connection, “that the magnanimity of Swinburne to Hugo inspired him with a noble eloquence, and that he poured out to Mazzini, as to a father confessor, the very innermost convictions of his soul.” Some letters to Mallarme, whom Swinburne greatly admired, even before the French themselves had recognized their poet, are here included in the original.

It must not be assumed, however, that there is any reason to be disappointed with the collection here offered: for it is doubtless true that every important phase of Swinburne’s character is revealed in these pages. No other poet in the history of English literature was so greatly devoted to art, to the exclusion of everything else: and these letters serve to give us an intimate view of his world, so splendidly isolated from the everyday world that hustled about him apparently unobserved.

Perhaps the strongest impression one receives from these volumes is that of an utter lack of affectation. Throughout, one feels the delightful boylike eargerness and naivette of the man. Even when he is most concerned with scholarly themes, he is never pompous, never in the least degree selfconscious. His generous enthusiasm for the creditable work of his contemporaries is quite as marked as is his contempt, picturesquely phrased, for the work of upstarts: and one is constantly impressed with the intellectual integrity of the man.

As is well known, Swinburne was peculiarly gifted in the matter of invective; and here in these letters we find characteristic outbursts of wrath characteristically expressed — especially when Furnivali, the Shakespearean critic, comes up for discussion. The very name of this man [?] upon Swinburne much as Hegel’s upon Schopenhauer. Carlyle, also, aroused the poet’s fighting blood, and in mentioning the thundering old philosopher, the poet of “lilies and langors” generally managed to find most amazing epithets, such for instance, as “Carlyle Copronymous,” the translation of which we leave to the reader!

Doubtless no man of his time knew more about the Elizabethan dramatists than did Swinburne, and many of the letters here given are masterly discussions of moot points concerned with the English dramatists of the 16th century. Such discussions alone make the volumes of great value.

Those who have heretofore known the poet only through his poems will no doubt be surprised at the robust sense of humor and the gift of sprightly wit that were his. There are examples of “extravagant fooling,” for which the lover of “Atalanta” and “Tristram” will hardly be prepared.