“For the matter of it—I consent to much—I regret much—I blame or reject nothing. I should as soon think of finding fault with you as with a thundercloud or a nightshade blossom. All I can say of you or them—is that God made you, and that you are very wonderful and beautiful.” — John Ruskin in a letter to Swinburne
There is a demand of queer people to be respectable; to please the dominant society, to conform, to hide that which is seen as other. They draw contempt from inside and outside of the community. However, it is those queer people who abandon respectability who provoke change. Algernon Charles Swinburne was not one to hide who he was, nor was he quiet about his beliefs. Oscar Wilde called Swinburne “a braggart in matters of vice, who had done everything he could to convince his fellow citizens of his homosexuality and bestiality without being in the slightest degree a homosexual or a bestialiser.” While it’s true Swinburne often encouraged and even started rumours about himself, sometimes to draw attention and other times for humour, his sexuality was anything but.
Algernon Charles Swinburne was born in London in the spring of 1837. He was the first of six children born to a wealthy Northumbrian family. He was a nervous, frail child, likely related to the that he was epileptic. His cousin, Lord Redesdale, recalled a moment from their childhoods as such:
“What a fragile little creature he seemed as he stood there between his father and mother, with his wondering eyes fixed upon me! Under his arm he hugged Bowdler's Shakespeare, a very precious treasure, bound in brown leather, with, for a marker, a narrow slip of ribbon, blue I think, with a button of that most heathenish marqueterie called Tunbridge ware dangling from the end of it. He was strangely tiny. His limbs were small and delicate; and his sloping shoulders looked far too weak to carry his great head, the size of which was [exaggerated] by the tousled mass of red hair standing almost at right angles to it. Hero-worshippers talk of his hair as having been a 'golden aureole'. At that time there was nothing golden about it. Red, violent, aggressive red it was, [unmistakable], unpoetical carrots.
His features were small and beautiful, chiselled as daintily as those of some Greek sculptor's masterpiece. His skin was very white — not unhealthy but a transparent tinted white, such as one sees in the petals of some roses. His face was the very replica of that of his dear mother, and she was one of the most refined and lovely of women. Another characteristic which Algernon inherited from his mother was the voice. All who knew him must remember that exquisitely soft voice with a rather sing-song intonation […] His language, even at that age, was beautiful, fanciful and richly varied. Altogether my recollection of him in those school days is that of a fascinating, most loveable little fellow. It is but a child's impression of a child. But I believe it to be just.”
Despite his poor health and small stature, he was fearless and driven, perhaps to the point of recklessness. He attended Eton College for some time, but poor health caused him to leave without finishing. Some years later, he briefly attended Balliol College, but ultimately left without a degree. This was, in part, due to a brief suspension in 1859 after publicly supporting an assassination attempt against Napoleon III.
His grandfather died shortly after he left Balliol, and he stayed with his friend William Bell Scott in Newcastle. Scott helped Swinburne recover from excessive alcohol while they were together, travelling to the French Riviera and throughout Italy, but Swinburne struggled with alcoholism most of his life.
This is another reason Swinburne was not well liked by many of his peers. Swinburne was most likely autistic and suffered from seizures his entire life. Due to his struggle with alcoholism as well as health issues and disabilities, he was unable to live alone for any extended point in his life. In the queer community, both at this time and currently, disability is seen as an additional hurdle rather than an innate identity. It’s easier to be respectable and talk about contributing to society if you ignore those who need care, who can’t contribute in the way society expects. It’s harder to include disabled people, particularly those who need regular care, when you’re more focused on respectability than equality.
He returned to London in 1861, and soon after started an intimate relationship with Dante Rossetti, a painter and fellow poet. Rossetti fondly referred to Swinburne as his “little Northumbrian friend.” He later lived with Dante, his brother William, and poet George Meredith. In this time, he wrote more and more, and he cited this as the time of his greatest love affair.
Swinburne’s work was heavily inspired by his own sexuality; not just his attraction to other men, but his investment in kink. Swinburne was a sadomasochist, and this became incredibly relevant to his work. This is also most likely why he took such interest in other topics considered taboo. He wrote extensively about kink, sexuality, lesbianism, cannibalism, anti-theism, and death. He was especially inspired by Sappho, and wrote work about and dedicated to her.
In 1879, Swinburne was taken into the care of another friend, Theodore Watts-Dunton. It was Watts who finally helped Swinburne recover from alcoholism. Swinburne received some help for his mania and depression, and he lived a quiet life for several more decades. Often, critics and historians claim that Watts “saved the man and killed the poet,” and that Swinburne became a figure of social respectability.
This isn’t entirely true. Swinburne was previously a figure shrouded in rumours and excess, and that did change. However, Swinburne continued to write and lived a seemingly happy life. He fell in love with nature. He found that he enjoyed being around children and often wrote for them. Swinburne was not the same man he had been, but his interests and his sexuality were unchanged. He was still a gay man, still involved in kink, still wrote of taboo topics no one else would touch.
Swinburne often related to the taboo, and it is understandable why. Disability, especially that which requires caretakers, makes people uncomfortable. Addiction makes people uncomfortable. Swinburne dealt with the taboo in all of his work, and throughout his life. He was an openly gay man in a time where that was a crime, and he was admonished for it even by those who should have sympathized. Swinburne did not strive for respectability, and we honor him for that.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
Bristow, Joseph. The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry. Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Eliot, Thomas Stearns. The Sacred Wood. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1921.
Hollis, Christopher. Eton: A History. London: Hollis and Carter, 1960.
Lazenby, W. (1880). The Pearl: A Journal of Facetiae and Voluptuous Reading. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Pearl, Oxford.
Walsh, John A. “The Algernon Charles Swinburne Project.” Digital Culture Lab, School of Library and Information Science, Indiana University. http://swinburnearchive.indiana.edu/