Algernon Charles Swinburne’s Major Poems and Selected Prose (2004)

Over the next few weeks or months, I will post all my reviews (“Tom’s Celebrations”) that appeared in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose (formerly Redactions: Poetry & Poetics) up to and including issue 12. After that, my reviews appeared here (The Line Break) before in the journal. This review first appeared in issue 4/5, which was published circa early 2005.


Algernon Charles Swinburne – Major Poems and Selected ProsePraise be given to McGann & Sligh for at last providing a good selection from one of my all-time favorite poets, Algernon Charles Swinburne. This is easily the best selected Swinburne in a long time. It even has the complete Atalanta in Calydon (a rarity) & thus contains my favorite poem, a chorus containing many of Swinburne’s theme’s & that begins:

   Before the beginning of the years
      There came to the making of man
   Time, with a gift of tears; 
      Grief, with a glass that ran;
   Pleasure, with pain for leaven;
      Summer, with flowers that fell;
   Remembrance fallen from heaven,
      And madness risen from hell;
   Strength without hands to smite;
      Love that endures for a breath:
   Night, the shadow of light,
      And life, the shadow of death.

That poem has stuck with me for years, in part because of the strong, heavy meter. Yes, if you want to learn just about everything there is to know about meter, then read Swinburne. The most important aspects he will teach you is how to negotiate rhythm, syntax, & the imagination to create sheer music. Yes, Swinburne is one of the great musical poets in the English language – he can stand side-by-side with Milton. If one can’t find the meaning of one of Swinburne’s poems from the language, then you only need listen & you will hear the meaning arise from the music. (“It don’t mean a thing / if it ain’t got that swing” aptly applies to Swinburne.)

Swinburne can also translate from other languages, including Anglicizing foreign meters, such as Sapphics. Swinburne is a poetic descendent of Sappho (sometimes I think he has direct connection to her) & a descendent of William Blake, though less religious.

But this book is well put together. It starts with a hell of an introduction by Jerome McGann. He informs us of Swinburne’s influence on the moderns. (Ezra Pound loved Swinburne –his poetry & “theory and practice of poetic translation.”) The introduction also has a close study of Swinburne’s life, poetry, & poetics –there’s a lot to be learned from this introduction. Oh, & most important for many of us, there is a fine notes section at the back. It not only provides footnotes to certain allusions & the such, but it also provides little histories about the poems, like whether the story is a real translation or something Swinburne made up that seems like it came from Greek mythology, or elsewhere.

This Major Poems and Selected Prose also contains important prose – Swinburne was as good a reader/critic as Samuel Taylor Coleridge & Pound – & he wrote on Baudelaire, Byron, Arnold, Blake, the music of poetry, & more.

Swinburne is one of the great musical pagans, & much thanks to McCann & Sligh for bringing him back to our times & in such a good way.//




Swinburne, Algernon Charles. Major Poems and Selected Prose. Eds. Jerome McGann and Charles L. Sligh. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004.//

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