Swinburne on Swinburne

Swinburne has long been my favorite poet, and on winter nights like tonight, I love to curl up with a small glass of some choice intoxicating liquor and read some intoxicating Swinburne verse. But I am aware that there are some who do not think, as I do, that Swinburne was the greatest English poet of the 19th century. Swinburne himself was also aware of his critics, and had a singular response to them: he outdid them. His “Poeta Loquitur” is hard to find on the internet (and strangely, it is one of a handful of poems that was omitted from my copy of his “complete” works), so I have had to piece this version together from various snippets—it may well not be entirely accurate. Still, I want to share with the world this lovely bit of Swinburne’s self-criticism, warts and all.

Poeta Loquitur

If a person conceives an opinion
  That my verses are stuff that will wash,
Or my Muse has one plume on her pinion,
  That person’s opinion is bosh.
My philosophy, politics, free-thought!
  Are worth not three skips of a flea,
And the emptiest of thoughts that can be thought
  Are mine on the sea.

In a maze of monotonous murmur
  Where reason roves ruined by rhyme,
In a voice neither graver nor firmer
  Than the bells on a fool’s cap chime,
A partly pretentiously pensive,
  With a Muse that deserves to be skinned,
Makes language and metre offensive
  With rhymes on the wind.

A perennial procession of phrases
  Pranked primly, though pruriently prime,
Precipitates preaching on praises
  In a ruffianly riot of rhyme
Through the pressure of print on my pages:
  But reckless the reader must be
Who imagines me one of the sages
  That steer through Time’s sea.

Mad mixtures of Frenchified offal
  With insults to Christendom’s creed,
Blind blasphemy, schoolboylike scoff, all
  These blazon me blockhead indeed.
I conceive myself obviously some one
  Whose audience will never be thinned,
But the pupil must needs be a rum one
  Whose teacher is wind.

In my poems, with ravishing rapture
  Storm strikes me and strokes me and stings:
But I’m scarcely the bird you might capture
  Out of doors in the thick of such things.
I prefer to be well out of harm’s way
  When tempest makes tremble the tree,
And the wind with armipotent arm-sway
  Makes soap of the sea.

Hanging hard on the rent rags of others,
  Who before me did better, I try
To believe them my sisters and brothers,
  Though I know what a low lot am I.
The mere sight of a church sets me yelping
  Like a boy that at football is shinned!
But the cause must indeed be past helping
  Whose gospel is wind!

All the pale past’s red record of history
  Is dusty with damnable deeds;
But the future’s mild motherly mystery
  Peers pure of all crowns and all creeds.
Truth dawns on time’s resonant ruin,
  Frank, fulminant, fragrant and free
And apparently this is the doing
  Of wind on the sea.

Fame flutters in front of pretension
  Whose flagstaff is flagrantly fine
And it cannot be needful to mention
  That such beyond question is mine.
Some singers indulging in curses,
  Though sinful, have splendidly sinned:
But my would-be maleficent verses
  Are nothing but wind.

Interestingly, I did find one other person who appears to have appreciated Swinburne’s work almost as much as I do: a book reviewer for New Zealand’s Otago Daily Times writing under the name “Constant Reader” (presumably notDorothy Parker). Here is a review of a pocket volume of Swinburne’s verse that this Constant Reader wrote in 1918.


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