Algernon Charles Swinburne



A.C. Swinburne is buried in the new parish church, Bonchurch, Isle of Wight, England. (Henry de Vere Stacpoole, the novelist, is also buried in this churchyard.)

Grave of Algernon Swinburne

Swinburne was the son of Admiral and Lady Jane Swinburne. He was born in London but spent much of his childhood on the Isle of Wight; it was here that he developed his love of the sea.

He was educated at Eton and at Balliol College, Oxford. Whilst at Oxford University he met D.G. Rossetti and became involved with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Swinburne's second collection Atalanta in Calydon (1865) brought him to public attention. However, the following year he published  Poems and Ballads which elicited widespread condemnation - particularly from Robert Buchanan who saw it as immoral. It was Buchanan who coined the phrase the 'Fleshly School of Poetry' to describe, what he saw as, the depraved quality of both Rossetti's and Swinburne's work.

Swinburne was a radical character who incensed many of his fellow Victorians. He was an alcoholic, was prone to fits of nervous excitement, had an interest in sado-masochism and was also an atheist.

In 1879 he moved in with his friend Theodore Watts-Dunton to Number 11 Putney Hill, London. Watts-Dunton cared for Swinburne and acted as a moderating influence upon him.

Portrait of Swinburne
(Painted by D.G. Rossetti)

Along with fellow poet Henry Austin Dobson, Swinburne was a skilful exponent of French verse forms such as the sestina and the ballade. Swinburne is particularly remembered for inventing a variation on the rondeau called a roundel. He was also skilled at obscure poetic meters such as sapphics and hendecasyllables. 

However, Swinburne was frequently criticised for his concentration on musicality at the expense of sense. (Similar complaints were later levelled at Dylan Thomas. ) Browning famously referred to his work as being: 'a fuzz of words'.

In 1910 Thomas Hardy wrote: A Singer Asleep whilst sitting next to Swinburne's grave. Hardy was undoubtedly influenced by Swinburne's atheism.

Swinburne's funeral at Bonchurch was also controversial. He left instructions that there was to be no Christian ceremony but, in the end, Watts-Dunton relented and some of the normal prayers were read out.

From too much hope of living,
   From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
   Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
   Winds somewhere safe to sea.

From The Garden of Proserpine (see complete poem)

Read more poetry by Swinburne






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