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.
by Algernon Charles Swinburne
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.