Icarus visits Autun; photo by Juliet Clark
. . .


For the drain doth not drain every day Shakespeare
The grate is strait; I shall not be there. Swinburne

Descended from the plaguey polis, we see stretched before us an expanse of flyblown Hot Takes baked and blanched by the sun, while patchy ungroomed Long Tails twitch and glimmer beneath the rainless orange horizon like a great lake of fuzzy caterpillars. By the barren banks of Babylon, let us sit down.

In this round of Pin the Longer Tail on the Caterpillar, I shall weep of Algernon Charles Swinburne, carrier of the Swinburne verse which infected a broad swathe of English speakers during the late nineteenth century. Early in the twentieth, herd resistance was achieved, and recent studies confirm that a fresh outbreak is unlikely.1

1. What's the deal with Swinburne?

Fifty-five years ago, my eye first passed over Swinburne's peculiar name atop "The Garden of Proserpine," the penultimate of the Little Leather Library's Fifty Best Poems of England (followed by that ne plus ultra in ultra-moderne verse, Francis Thompson's "Arab Love Song": "And thou what needest with thy tribe's black tents / Who hast the red pavilion of my heart?"). It should've made a fine introduction: characteristic in mood and music yet uncharacteristically easy to parse. But until puberty I had no notion of oral pleasure, and I feared sleep (and immersion in cold water, and cats, and children, and beatings pretty much all the Swinburnean goods really), and I preferred the cod-Ecclesiastes of Olive Schreiner's Dreams.

In maturity, however, I was impressed by Henry Adams's introduction to the not-yet-famous poet, at a small dinner hosted by Monckton Milnes:

The fourth was a boy, or had the look of one, though in fact a year older than Adams himself. He resembled in action [...] a tropical bird, high-crested, long-beaked, quick-moving, with rapid utterance and screams of humor, quite unlike any English lark or nightingale. [...]

That Swinburne was altogether new to the three types of men-of-the-world before him; that he seemed to them quite original, wildly eccentric, astonishingly gifted, and convulsingly droll, Adams could see; but what more he was, even Milnes hardly dared say. They could not believe his incredible memory and knowledge of literature, classic, mediæval, and modern; his faculty of reciting a play of Sophocles or a play of Shakespeare, forward or backward, from end to beginning; or Dante, or Villon, or Victor Hugo. They knew not what to make of his rhetorical recitation of his own unpublished ballads "Faustine"; the "Four Boards of the Coffin Lid"; the "Ballad of Burdens" which he declaimed as though they were books of the Iliad. [...]

The idea that one has actually met a real genius dawns slowly on a Boston mind, but it made entry at last.

Then came the sad reaction, not from Swinburne whose genius never was in doubt, but from the Boston mind which, in its uttermost flights, was never moyenâgeux. One felt the horror of Longfellow and Emerson, the doubts of Lowell and the humor of Holmes, at the wild Walpurgis-night of Swinburne's talk. What could a shy young private secretary do about it? Perhaps, in his good nature, Milnes thought that Swinburne might find a friend in Stirling or Oliphant, but he could hardly have fancied Henry Adams rousing in him even an interest. Adams could no more interest Algernon Swinburne than he could interest Encke's comet. To Swinburne he could be no more than a worm. The quality of genius was an education almost ultimate, for one touched there the limits of the human mind on that side; but one could only receive; one had nothing to give nothing even to offer.

(Fifty-four years later into his own life, Adams still mumbled Swinburne's tenacious word-tunes:

Today, the death of Harry James makes me feel the need of a let-up;2 I must speak to some one.... Not only was he a friend of mine for more than forty years, but he also belonged to the circle of my wife's set long before I knew him or her, and you know how I have clung to all that belonged to my wife. I have been living all day in the seventies. Swallow, sister! sweet sister swallow! indeed and indeed, we really were happy then.
- Henry Adams to Elizabeth Cameron,
1 March 1916)

Then, in late middle age, I was moved by Jerome McGann's career-long efforts from 1972's Experiment in Criticism through 2004's massive (and discriminatorily priced) selected works to rehabilitate Swinburne's reputation. I encountered his parodies, which displayed self-awareness and made a pleasing noise, and was encouraged.

And so, upon senescence and retirement, I resolved to figure out what was up with Algernon Charles Swinburne anyway huh?

2. What's the deal with Swinburne?

I started as usual: top of the body of the text, subvocalizing down the lines, letting them dictate the pace. It quickly became manifest that Swinburne, like the Stooges, wanted to be played loud, and so I and my new playmate moved outside, where occasional bursts of muttering or worse would cause less disruption.

Pace presented a stickier problem. Each afternoon I'd set out well, with a measure of swing, and then, within a page or two, go off track. As one who seeks the spiritual renewal of a scenic walk, and ventures into a monotonous landscape in which every second step skids against ice or flat-foots into a sinkhole of slush, and who pauses again and increasingly again to reconfirm the obstinate distance yet to travel before one's targeted landmark, and who finally gives way and retreats, unrefreshed and a bit demoralized, so was I before Major Poems and Selected Prose.

This went on for weeks before I found the problem.

Swinburne's poetic themes are few. Swinburne's poetic vocabulary is slightly archaic, mostly monosyllabic, and very limited. (All soft things are snow-soft; snow has no attributes other than softness.) Swinburne's verbal music rhythms, alliterations, rhymes, elaborate set patterns, the whole shebang and shboom is in your face and all over the place; more insistent than Yeats, than Spenser, than Edgar Allen Poe or Vachel Lindsay for chrissakes. And Swinburne plays that music long; once he got started, the guy would not stop; he just keeps blowing, good stanza, vapid stanza, pivot-on-an-ambiguous-pronoun stanza, doesn't matter so long as they're coming.

All of which encourages the clueless reader to accelerate. And that's how the clueless reader stumbles, because Swinburne allowed himself one complexity amidst all this simplicity: sentence structure. While the syntax stayed transparent, I'd drift into the warm fuzz of noise, start to nod off, then be jolted awake and realize I'd completely lost my way.

Other Swinburne readers have struggled in similar fashion, and some would have warned me, given half a chance. I'll cite Morse Peckham's 1970 account at length since it's otherwise inaccessible:

Swinburne is at once an extraordinarily seductive poet and an extraordinarily difficult one. Because of this his charm has been dismissed over and over again, an untold number of times, as simply a matter of “word-music”: in Swinburne, it is alleged, there is nothing but a leaping rhythm that hurls you along and a completely irresponsible use of the various devices of euphony (or more precisely, phonic over-determination), particularly alliteration. He is recognized to be the greatest virtuoso of sound in English poetry, but that prodigious technique, it is asserted, is entirely without foundation or justification, for Swinburne says nothing.

It is not always recognized that the major Victorian poets are in fact difficult poets. To be sure, everyone knows that Gerard Manley Hopkins’ work is difficult; so difficult that many think of him still as a “modern poet,” though what of his technique he did not learn from Browning he learned from Swinburne. Arnold is admittedly quite transparent; Tennyson seems to be transparent to the point of simple-mindedness, but in fact is an exceedingly subtle, devious, and baffling writer. It is obvious that much of Browning is very difficult indeed, but the most difficult works of Browning are, for the most part, unread even by Victorian specialists, and are generally, though quite unjustifiably, dismissed. But the advantage of Browning over Tennyson is that he looks difficult, and over Swinburne that it is obvious that he is saying something. Swinburne, by contrast, seems to be almost contentless. Yet he is not. Quite the contrary . The difficulty of Browning, like the difficulty of Hopkins, is a difficulty of syntactic compression and distortion. Swinburne also offers a syntactic difficulty, but one of quite a different order. The effect of monotony comes not primarily from the unflagging splendor of the rhythm or the obviously beautiful sound, but rather from the fact that Swinburne constructs his sentences by building them up of long syntactic sub-units; the first sentence of Atalanta, for example, is sixteen lines long. What he exploits are the possibilities of parallel syntactic structure. The effect is that the unpracticed reader loses control over the syntax. In Hopkins and Browning the extreme use of elision and syntactic distortion confuses the reader. There is not, so to speak, enough syntactic redundance to keep the reader oriented. But in Swinburne there is too much syntactic redundance. In this he resembles to a certain extent Milton; but the difficulty of reading Milton comes from trying to follow a syntactic style of dependent syntactic units, while Swinburne exploits the possibilities of disorienting the reader by presenting him with parallel structures so far apart that it is difficult to remember and grasp their syntactical relationship. The consequence with all four of these poets is that the reader untrained in their syntactic styles loses semantic control. Yet he knows, at least, that Hopkins, Browning, and Milton are saying something; but Swinburne further confuses him by offering a continuum of beautiful sound which seems to have no relationship to anything at all. The result is that for the first three, the unpracticed reader, though baffled, is at least aware that he is not understanding what is before him, but with Swinburne he rapidly comes to the conclusion that there is nothing to understand.

To learn to read Swinburne it is necessary, therefore, to resist with all one’s power both the seductiveness of the rhythm and the seductiveness of the phonic character. One must read him slowly, very slowly. The mind must always remain focused intensively on the task of comprehending the syntax, of grasping how the parallel syntactic sub-units fit into the larger sentence construction; and it must do this as they come along, in the order in which the poem offers them. It may be said that there is at every cultural level an upward limit to both the complexity and the length of the syntactic structure that may be comprehended. Obviously, the higher the cultural level, the greater the complexity and the length of the syntactical structure that can be grasped. But the fact is that today the general simplification and deterioration of the cultural milieu have meant that most people are not exposed even in prose to much opportunity for extending the range of their syntactic grasp. The power to extemporize extremely long and complex syntactic structures with an extensive use of parallelisms is rapidly disappearing, and has been for some time; and at the higher cultural levels the sentence fragment, which presents precisely the opposite difficulty from Swinburne’s, has long been a standard device in both verse and prose. The first task, then, of the reader of Swinburne is to train himself by extending very far indeed the upward limit of his range of syntactic comprehension. The problem is analogous to that presented by Bruckner’s symphonies, which seem too long for people who have trained themselves on shorter symphonies, but are not a moment too long for those who have developed their capacity to maintain their attention span during a symphonic movement that lasts half an hour.

But when the reader who wishes to come to terms with Swinburne has conquered this difficulty—and it takes both time and a great deal of rereading to do so—he is faced with still further problems.

- Morse Peckham, "Introduction" to
Poems and Ballads / Atalanta in Calydon

Although Peckham describes the issue well, I can't recommend his proposed remedy. For myself, so long as I stubbornly maintained my straight stride down the path of the pages with no retracing of steps, reading "very slowly" proved ineffective: I became just as lost but even more exasperated.

Instead, at the start of each new syntactic unit, I began glancing ahead, silently, at its end, to get some notion of the terrain before blundering into it.



3. What was Swinburne's deal?

My life has been eventless and monotonous; like other boys of my class, I was five years at school at Eton, four years at college at Oxford; I never cared for any pursuit, sport, or study, as a youngster, except poetry, riding and swimming; and though as a boy my verses were bad enough, I believe I may say I was far from bad at the two latter. Also being bred by the sea I was a good cragsman,3 and am vain to this day of having scaled a well-known cliff on the South coast, ever before and ever since reputed to be inaccessible. Perhaps I may be forgiven for referring to such puerilities, having read (in cuttings from more than one American journal) bitterly contemptuous remarks on my physical debility and puny proportions.
- Swinburne to E. C. Stedman, February 20, 1875

Swinburne understated the case. He didn't just swim: he swam outrageously, fearlessly, alarmingly into the coldest, deepest, most treacherous waters he could find. He didn't just ride: he galloped like a Dionysian centaur and had the broken bones to prove it.

And, because he was writing to an unknown American instead of an old crony, he also undercounted: he was notoriously just as "far from bad" at being whipped and getting drunk.

As Swinburne himself suggests, these high-risk behaviors are all ways by which a small tremulous slightly-built countertenor might assert his masculinity. But more to the point, I think, they're also all recognizable ways to (in present-day jargon) self-medicate a painfully manic case of ADHD by forcing focus upon the here and now.

As I expressed it at thirty years old, I really did want to get away from fiction and into something real. I'd spent ten years writing fantasy and I wanted to be in some kind of situation whereby if you made a mistake, what would happen to you would be real. That was the way I expressed it to myself: that if you fall off a rock climb above a certain height, something very real will happen to you. [...] The greatest thing about rock climbing is that if you suffer anxiety it gives you a reason. You know, your day really fires up when you're eighty feet above the ground and things are going wrong and you suddenly think, Wow, I've got a reason to be worried for today. It's a fantastic relief to have a reason to feel anxiety.
- M. John Harrison in conversation with Mariana Enriquez

The applicable jargon of Swinburne's own time comes to us through an at-fourth-hand diagnosis of his uncontrollable twitching, trembling, and jerking:

It made me unhappy to see what trouble he had in managing his knife and fork. Watts-Dunton told me on another occasion that this infirmity of the hands had been lifelong had begun before Eton days. The Swinburne family had been alarmed by it and had consulted a specialist, who said that it resulted from ‘an excess of electric vitality,’ and that any attempt to stop it would be harmful. So they had let it be.
- And Even Now by Max Beerbohm

While essential tremor is no longer explained by "electric vitality," it remains untreatable, and marks the spazz as a social oddity from childhood on. Any initial awkwardness would have been intensified by Swinburne's other difficult-to-diagnose ailment, early-onset deafness. And that eventually overwhelming self-consciousness seems to have been what triggered Swinburne's near-suicidal binges (as well as his marathon monologues): when cozily secured with intimates or left to his own devices, Swinburne stayed sober; moved into urban sociality, he quickly got blotto.

No matter how we choose to clump these personal traits, their aggregate is familiar enough. Born into similar privilege a hundred years later, Swinburne would've raced cars or tested planes or OD'd. He needed to drown the unspeakable noise in his head, needed to drown the unparsable noise from outside it, even at the risk of drowning himself. What distinguishes Swinburne from fellow jitterbugs, and from the canonical poets who scorned him in the twentieth century, was his reliance on incarnate versifying whether recited or improvised as the most sustainable of his high-risk behaviors.

Outside the Modernist canon, I find some context even for that. Masters of freestyle will emit occasional sonorous ambiguities or nonsense; maximalists of flow never know when to take the horn out of their mouth. As Swinburne swam beyond his depth, climbed above his height, drank himself past consciousness, and was flogged within a quarter-inch of his life, so he needed to write too much if he was to write at all.

4. What wasn't?

Outside books I've hardly heard anything about Swinburne, and when I did it was dubious.

Anyone expecting a hero of gay pride will be disappointed, or awfully selective in their reading. Swinburne's only definitely established sexuality consisted of masochism, and although as a practical matter it didn't matter much who swished the birch, a preference for male beauty doesn't seem to have been one of the marks left by Eton: his published fantasies put women in charge, his privately expressed polite demurrals and homophobic slurs sound genuine enough, and his "actual admiration of Lesbianism" is hardly counterevidence. Poetically he positioned himself with Baudelaire, Gautier, Hugo, and the Rossettis rather than Symons, Whitman, Pater, or Wilde.

Nor, so far as accessible evidence takes me, did Swinburne quite follow the reactionary path laid down by Southey and Wordsworth. It's true that his first-written (but second-published) book caused a scandal and his third called for bloody revolutions, whereas later collections were far more soothing to his family and the rest of the British establishment. But his anti-colonialism had never extended to British colonies; he always idealized English military action, particularly at its most disastrous; he was always drawn to babies and children; he always idolized Shakespeare. The shift in his publications didn't reflect changes in his beliefs or preferred themes so much as which of those themes found expression at any one time.

Even those switches of filter or booster weren't the result of independent evolution. Despite his vehemence and bellicosity, Swinburne was eminently pliable.4 You could pick him up, plop him down in a different direction or location, and he'd accept it as readily as a good zombie or a good dog. When he was so drunk as to risk arrest, a cab would deposit him at Ford Madox Brown's, the servants would toss him into a bathtub and then into bed, and he'd receive all as his due. When Theodore Watts-Dunton transplanted him to the Pines for the rest of his life, he took the change for granted. Oh, we're sharing a house now? It's very nice here. Water, not whisky? Lovely. You won't mind if I scrape some toast in for flavor?

Thus, during the period in which Baudelaire and the Pre-Raphaelites were his peers, Swinburne scandalized; when Swinburne met Giuseppe Mazzini, he revolutionized; and at the Pines Watts-Dunton encouraged sedate respectability.

Watts-Dunton only stifled so much, though. Swinburne's sex-positive Tristram of Lyonesse may have represented a more fundamental assault on Victorian mores than any vampiric femme fatale, and, around the time his name was proposed for a post-Tennyson laureateship, he publicly called for the assassination of the Queen's cousin:

God or man, be swift; hope sickens with delay:
Smite, and send him howling down his father's way!
Fall, O fire of heaven, and smite as fire from hell
Halls wherein men's torturers, crowned and cowering, dwell!
- "Russia: An Ode"

And from first volume to last, Swinburne attacked the church any church.

He fell into facile writing, and he accepted a facile compromise for life; but no facile solution for his universe. His unbelief did not desert him; no, not even in Putney.
- "Swinburne versus his Biographers" by Ezra Pound

5. What's the big deal?

In 1918 Pound very judiciously wrote that "No one else has made such music in English, I mean has made his kind of music [...] At any rate we can, whatever our verbal fastidiousness, be thankful for any man who kept alive some spirit of paganism and of revolt in a papier-mâché era, in a time swarming with Longfellows, Mabies, Gosses, Harrisons." However, many things can be unique without seeming worth the cost of extraction, and we're no longer threatened by Longfellow and Gosse, much less by whoever "Mabie" and that not-M.-John "Harrison" were.

Peckham promises we can learn "why for sixty years or so people of intelligence, learning, and exquisite taste thought Swinburne a great poet, and why a few people think so today," and is likely to meet similar objections.

Mark Scroggins proposes "the intensity with which Swinburne evokes erotic desire and the conjunction of pleasure and pain," and his poetry's "lush, hypnotic music, its ever-shifting deployment of a fairly restricted vocabulary, leading us through a series of emotional states, laying out in shimmering overlays a series of symbols that can induce in us a new relationship to the 'real' world of objects." (Or, as Yeats wrote and McGann later quoted, "hushing us with an alluring monotony, while it holds us waking by variety, to keep us in that state of perhaps real trance, in which the mind liberated from the pressure of the will is unfolded in symbols.")

I have no inclination to argue with any of that, but neither do I feel the same responses. I stubbornly remain as untransfigured by his symbols as by Blake's or Yeats's, and although young Swinburne's scandalous ditties are catchy and funny, their wicked ladies and sweet sweet dead-leper lovin' strike me as received fantasies; I'm not even sure he'd fully grasped the mechanics of the thing. (Do humans really need their lips bitten through to reach orgasm? Isn't that otters or something?) He'd worked the details out by Tristram, but it's harder to quote Tristram.

In 2004 Jerome McGann found a way to reformulate some of Swinburne's self-evident flaws as virtues:

a type of phenomenal awareness that is perhaps unique in English literature [...] a drama of poetic subjectivity diffusing into the language as such [...] as in life, its meanings spread and mutate and transform under our own pursuit. To read him is to be reminded that a full awareness of even the simplest human experience is unachievable. [...] The dissolution is scarcely to be observed, however, lest one imagine that it could be understood by being seen. It is understood, rather, by being undergone. To read these poems is necessarily to be swept away by tactile and auditional immediacies

Back in 1972, dropping into his own voice for the epilogue to his academic drama, McGann sounded less detached:

Swinburne has not merely given his thought and attention to all disastrous things, he has given them his heart. His world, moving though its ruinations, is a disaster redeemed only, but always, by an equally disastrous love. For Swinburne, the fidelity of such a love is witnessed most eloquently in art, where the presence of beauty is man’s best witness of the deep care in which he holds everything that is lost to him and to all men. [...] Such passages haunt one not merely for their exquisite beauty, but for the fact that they are about being haunted. At the center of both is a heart which forgets nothing, no matter how swiftly things pass or how long they are gone; and which forgets nothing not because he cannot but because he would not.

Share his sentiment or not, that added risk, the risk of sounding heartfelt, seems key. No one who thinks poetry should be written like Strunk-and-Whited-out prose, without repetition or ambiguity or grammatical irregularities no one like Ford Madox Ford, who straightforwardly confessed to disliking all English verse written before Pound and Eliot will ever feel, or have, a need to wrest pleasure out of this stuff, and "bully for them."

More generally he'll never be for the cool, laid back, or dignified. I heard a good writer call him a "clown car." That's fair. Swinburne was a weirdo, and although his poems stopped being scandals they're still embarrassments. After everything changed in 1910, he would never be taken up communally, was always only going to be an eccentric taste. If I (not "we") want to describe the attraction, I have to get personal.

Writing/speaking as a particularity, then, I've come to appreciate the corporeal experience of the reading itself, and two of Swinburne's most persistent and distinctive themes: his championship of mere mortality, and his passion for the sea. As John D. Rosenberg says, those two themes meld. Swinburne's love for the sea was carnal, spiritual, all-consuming; his devotion demanded full-body contact. Other poets pay tribute from shore or shipboard; none writes so approvingly of ocean-eroded cemeteries.

Although I won't follow Swinburne into literal deep waters, I can enter (not necessarily comfortably) his resentment of theistic abstraction, his inability to represent material particulars, and his reliance on the materiality of voice to gesture at their ecstatic (or agonizing, or embarrassing, or irritatingly repetitious) effects. Writing/speaking from a myopic body which meets the world nose first and mouth open, I warmly and wetly second Rosenberg's introductory remarks:

Swinburne is a poet not of natural objects but of natural energies of winds and surging waters. His scale is macrocosmic, his focus [...] less upon things seen than forces felt. At times he is nearly a blind poet, all tongue and ear and touch.

What else seems germane? I don't play video games, and if I did, they'd incapacitate me quicker than rock climbing. I'm retired and can spare the time. I'm oral/aural and can feel the noize. I'm a socially awkward humanist and head-in-the-clouds materialist who can use a hymnal. As I pace within our vermin-blasted garden, mouthing off the verses, their current pulls me offshore; the weave of breath and stroke begins to snarl and splash; the rhythm gallops apace and faster, a bit too fast; I jerk at the reins; I even break a mild sweat. For a second or so I inhabit Swinburne's experience of verse, an immersive adventure sport in words.

Or maybe it's the plague; I haven't been tested in a while.

Next: J. Gordon Faylor!

1.   Davis, "Scanners vs. Swinburne", Bellona Times Science Supplement, 13 October 2020. Subjects were selected based on self-attested tolerance for poetry. A concentrated dose of Swinburne was filtered of generically aversive content (paeans to infants and British imperialism; doggerel about flogging; particularly redundant stretches) and distributed. Only two subjects expressed willingness to consume the sample. Both reported initial mild discomfort followed by swift and complete elimination.

2.   I pray that Henry James's spirit had attained sufficient detachment to enjoy Adams's tribute:

Mr. James when he had occasion to mention Mr. Swinburne would do so with positive sparks of indignation welling from his dark and luminous eyes, his face rigid with indignation.... I do not know what the poet of the Pines can have done to him; Mr. James would be almost speechless with indignation. I never heard him otherwise be immoderate. And with real fury he would imitate Swinburne’s jerky movements, jumping up and down on his chair, his hands extended downwards at his sides, like a soldier at attention, hitching himself sideways and back again on the chair seat and squeaking incomprehensibly in an injurious falsetto....

No! I never knew what so excited the Old Man, though I have often reflected on the subject. [...] I cannot imagine that Mr. James ever cherished a secret passion for Adah Menken!

I have come to the conclusion that it was the natural antipathy that the indoor man of tea-parties must feel for the outrageous athlete, clean-boned, for ever on the seashore or longing to be there. Mr. James indeed exploded with an almost apoplectic fury when I once raised my voice and said that Mr. Swinburne was one of the strongest the most amazingly strong swimmers of his day. I remember recounting, to rub it in, my anxiety on the shores of the Isle of Wight when Mr. Swinburne had disappeared in the horizon on a rough day, amongst the destroyers and battleships and liners and tramps... disappeared and then reappeared hours after, walking with his light, swinging step over the sand dunes a mile behind my back.... Yes, he could swim... and be made a wonder of....

- Portraits from Life by Ford Madox Ford

3.   "Cragsman" is clearly the proper word and should have become standard English usage, even if it's a bit too spot-on for M. John Harrison's magnificently abraded Climbers.

4   Swinburne's many tributes to prepubescents suggest a sense of fellowship with their own lability, their look of being perpetually overwhelmed, and perhaps their inability to maintain a civilized conversation.


FWIW, I wouldn't have self-reported my clinical outcome as "complete elimination"; Algy and I disagree on a lot, but anyone who defies the odds like that writing Greek tragedy in English can come to my party if he wants to. Thanks for giving me the chance to temper my earlier assessment of "another goddamn Pre-Raphaelite." -pk

Way to bum my low, dude. But I'm glad you got something out of it. After all, a lot of eminences found Keats embarrassing, too. Maybe Swinburne, even, since he mostly wrote about Blake and Shelley. An apparent (from this angle) oddity that I didn't look into much was Swinburne's championship of Walter Savage Landor, Matthew "NO SHAKESPEARE! NO KEATS!" Arnold, and young Thomas Hardy, none of whom seem (from this angle) like natural pairings.

If I live long enough (a modifier which might call for Blakean amendment) I do intend to launch a similar assault on Christina Rossetti. Everyone who can stand to read her (including Swinburne) claims her music is lovely.

Write a line? Ritalin!

A lady came in for some stimulant.
    I asked her what kind she'd adore.
"Adderall, please," so I added 'er all.
    Now I don't count there anymore.

Heh, actually I love Christina Rossetti! It's just the dudes (esp. painter dudes) in that circle. I mean, singsong.html#ifam -pk/metameat

As I suspected, Christina Rossetti does a better job with children, just as Kipling's a better jingoist and Shelley and Bryon better revolutionaries. On English nineteenth-century secular masochism, though, Swinburne's hard to beat.

Ford was crazy about Christina Rossetti, even if he disliked all other English verse from before his time. (But where did he say that?)

He labors to give that impression in the Swinburne chapter of Portraits from Life, which splits between youthful reminiscences of the man and bluff dismissals of the poetry, but I gather that Ford's discursive prose like Swinburne's, and Pound's and Eliot's, and, hmm, an awful lot of writers' could cheerfully exaggerate for effect. Earlier in the volume, he proposes a list of Desert Island Books in which Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson are the only poets.

. . .

So much lost from 1980s New York but I still have to think about this asshole?

Peli Grietzer put a question to the Twitter floor:

There is no fact of the matter about whether Trump really believes the election was stolen, right? It's some kind of category error to describe him in those terms at all?

Since that seems to me an underdiscussed aspect of our dear Queen's ascent, I succumbed:

Yes, "belief" in the sense of "truth-valued proposition" doesn't fit. He only recognizes performative speech acts. Every impulse, no matter how contradictory, is "right" and anything that thwarts it must be motivated by "wrong."

"Willfully blind faith" comes closer: an evangelical fundamentalist of self. Burdened by a purportedly static gospel-or-whatever-the-market-will-bear, the religious fundamentalist can face accusations of hypocrisy. (Generally charges are dropped once the accused claims a fresh rinse-and-wax by Jesus; still, what a nuisance.) The Trumpian can instead tailor his impulse to context, can at most be accused of lying, and can always deny the accusation sincerely.

That sincerity is key to the sociopath's success. We're predisposed to take certainty as admissible evidence, and social and cultural development depends on an occasional performative delusion: "I am a hunter," "I am a poet," "I can make Americans' lives better," or, as blushing badge of sanity, "I feel like a fraud." A good sociopath will ignore questions of scale or consequence, and exploit any ambiguity.

The extremes are plain enough, though, to anyone willing to forsake the contact high.

* * *

Speaking of the Great White Weight, whoever or whatever still shambles toward Broadway has a treat in store....

In Production: Pal Ubu!

Introducing Miss Betty Hutton as "Ma":

He says Merdre, he says,
    Kicking off the farce.
He says Merdre, he says,
    Talking out his arse.
He says Merdre, he says.
Is that the language of state?

(Tip o'the toilet-lid to that host with the mostest coastes, the pride of Essex and joy to the world, David Collard.)

. . .

Kakania '70

In the 1970s everybody hated the 1970s. Even people whose careers peaked in the Seventies hated the Seventies. The music, ugh, why didn't someone pull the plug in '67?, and it was the musicians asking that. Movies were grimy and ended badly, even the comedies ended badly; the stars had pores and scars, their abs looked like bellies, they lumbered around like animals. We knew our clothes were unflattering, we were bony or pudgy with or without them, and sex included pubic hair. No matter our age we were all cynical: we all knew this corrupt and cowardly world couldn't last and didn't deserve to, and we wouldn't get anything better because everyone sucked. Governments didn't know what they were doing, unions didn't know what they were doing, revolutionaries didn't know what they were doing, and I sure as shit didn't know what I was doing.

"And such small portions!"

The agents of change weren't hidden Thatcher, Reagan, AIDS, nothing subtle there but it took a few years to collect whatever wits and bearings were left underfoot, and fully understand that yes, things would never be that not-as-bad again, and that precisely what I'd loved most in those despicable years, and loved even in their ever-curdling promises, was their precarity. In '74 Swamp Dogg prophesied that God Ain't Blessing America Until It Gets Its Shit Up Tight, and indeed a loose conglomeration of disputatious groups proved no match for a tight-fisted bundle of platinum logs. God's blessings were reserved for that platinum class and the fasces weren't capable of building anything better, but building something better wasn't the point. The point was winning.

It was during that long epilogue that I first began reading Robert Musil in translation and with delight, and later Joseph Roth, and other accounts of the ever-fraying, ever-compromised Austro-Hungarian sprawl, and I guess I wasn't the only one:

Google ngrams for English mentions of Musil and Roth

The Viennese must have a way to express "Nostalgia for a decade we loathed." O Jonathan Franzen, reveal to us now that word known by Karl Kraus or go home!

. . . before . . .. . . after . . .