Sunday 29 June 2014

A Victorian Alphabet: S is for Swinburne, Sappho and Sadomasochism

Matthew Arnold criticised Algernon Charles Swinburne for his ‘fatal habit of using one hundred words when one would suffice’. So it is perhaps strange that Swinburne, a poet notable for his diffusiveness, should be so heavily indebted to that most fragmentary of poets, known for her enigmatic brevity – Sappho.

Sappho’s slight oeuvre is of course the result 2,600 years of imperfect transmission but the broken nature of her poetry has become one of the most identifiable reasons of its appeal. Swinburne loved and admired Sappho from his schooldays at Eton, but feminist critics have criticised nineteenth-century male poets such as Swinburne and Pierre Jules Théophile Gautier for exploiting the gaps in Sappho, inserting themselves in the silence and populating the elisions with expressions of their own sexual and poetic desires.

Swinburne certainly found Sappho spoke to him in very personal ways, encompassing, but also going beyond, questions of sexual preferences – the appeal of sadomasochism, the experience and expression of what we might label ‘bisexual’ love. Sappho is perhaps most directly prominent in Swinburne’s ‘Anactoria’ (published as part of Poems and Ballands in 1866).

In the Days of Sappho, John William Godward
Anactoria is a female lover of Sappho’s, mentioned by name in Fragment 16, but it is Fragment 31, traditionally referred to as the ‘Ode to Anactoria’ despite the lack of addressee, which informs Swinburne’s poem more directly. In Sappho’s poem it is the physical effects of love and particularly sexual jealousy on the poet herself which is the focus:

For whenever I glance at you, it seems that I can say nothing at all but my tongue is broken in silence, and that instant a light fire rushes beneath my skin. I can no longer see anything in my eyes and my ears are thundering, and cold sweat pours down me, and shuddering grasps me all over, and I am greener than grass, and I seem to myself to be little short of death.

And Swinburne’s poem, written in a voice which is later confirmed to be Sappho’s, starts in the same vein:

My life is bitter with thy love, thine eyes

Blind me, thy tresses burn me, thy sharp sighs

Divide my flesh and spirit with soft sound,

And my blood strengthens, and my veins abound.

But in Swinburne’s poem, the violence soon shifts to be directed towards Anactoria, not just caused by her: 

I would my love could kill thee; I am satiated

With seeing thee live, and fain would have thee dead.


I would find grievous ways to have thee slain,

Intense device, and superflux of pain;
Vex thee with amorous agonies, and shake
Life at thy lips, and leave it there to ache

This violence isn’t only the result of jealousy – rather, it is a source of pleasure in itself and the natural result of a love which is imagined as being equally painful to both parties:

I feel thy blood against thy blood: my pain
Pains thee, and lips bruise lips, and vein stings vein.

For both Swinburne and Sappho, sex and pain are inexorably linked and in both poems the natural result of love is death, but Sappho’s importance to the later poet isn’t only a question of a shared interest in sadomasochism. In a 1914 article in The Saturday Review on Sappho, Swinburne wrote:

Judging even from the mutilated fragments fallen even within our reach from the broken altar of her sacrifice of a song, I for one have always agreed with all Grecian tradition in thinking Sappho to be beyond all question and comparison the very greatest poet that ever lived.

In ‘Anactoria’ the equal pain which Swinburne imagines, is not mirrored in an equal death – Sappho will survive, while her lovers will not, because of the uniqueness of her song:

Yea, they shall say, earth’s womb has borne in vain

New things, and never this best thing again;

Borne days and men, borne fruits and wars and wine,

Seasons and songs, but no song more like mine [emphasis mine]

In his 1914 article, Swinburne continues:

Aeschylus is the greatest poet who ever was also a prophet; Shakespeare is the greatest dramatist who ever was also a poet; but Sappho is simply nothing less – as she is certainly nothing more – than the greatest poet who ever was at all.

It is this ‘faith’ of Swinburne’s in the perfection of Sappho’s poetry, rather than her sexual subjects, which cements her worth.

What should be T in my Victorian Alphabet? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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