If you print among the advertisements of Tristram any passage from the ‘Saturday’ review, I wish it to be this and no other: ‘We have some difficulty in taking this kind of thing seriously. Any man who abandoned his mind to it “could reel it off for hours together.”’ (letter 1167, Aug. 6, 1882)
I am about halfway through Swinburne’s enormous verse retelling of the Tristram and Isolde story, and I disagree with the anonymous critic on one point: it is not “any man” that could pound this out, no, but for Algernon Swinburne, this is poetry supplied by the yard. Every line is purple. Impressive in some ways, but more commonly I am with the poet Henry Taylor who wrote to Swinburne that the poem “sweeps me along through one or more pages with a consciousness that I am only half understanding what I read” (note to 1179, October 1, 1882). Swinburne insists that he “hold[s] obscurity to be so great a fault that I should think no pains too great to take in the endeavour to avoid it” but concedes that “one must see a fault before it can be avoided, and this one is so difficult to see.”
I mention these letters because in 1880, Swinburne published a pair of masterpieces, long poems of 400 or 500 lines titled “On the Cliffs” and “By the North Sea,” both of which are complex and the former of which is maddeningly obscure, the most difficult thing I have ever seen by Swinburne. It is addressed simultaneously to Sappho and to a (or the) nightingale, figures who merge not just into not just a muse of poetry but a new trinity, “woman and god and bird,” while the poem is also about a particular favorite seaside spot from Swinburne’s childhood.
O wind, O wingless wind that walk’st the sea,
Weak wind, wing-broken, wearier wind than we,
Who are yet not spirit-broken, maimed like thee,
Who wail not on our inward night as thou
In the outer darkness now,
What word has the old sea given thee for mine ear
From thy faint lips to hear?
For some word would she send me, knowing not how. (ll.28-35)
All of those “w”s! The “she” at the end is Sappho; the poet is on a cliff above the English Channel listening for inspiration from his goddess.
“By the North Sea” – more cliffs, more waves, more wind – is thankfully much clearer. W. G. Sebald calls the poem Swinburne’s “tribute to the gradual dissolution of life” (Rings of Saturn, Ch. VI). It describes “A land that is lonelier than ruin; / A sea that is stranger than death,” the ruins of Dunwich, the once-important medieval city that has been falling over the cliffs into the sea for the last seven hundred years. There goes the cemetery:
Tombs, with bare white piteous bones protruded,
Shroudless, down the loose collapsing banks,
Crumble, from their constant place detruded,
That the seas devours and gives not thanks.
Graves where hope and prayer and sorrow brooded
Gape and slide and perish, ranks on ranks. (ll. 457-62)
Both writers end their visits to Dunwich with moments of “utter rapture,” Sebald by showing Swinburne, “like a startled moth,” telling a story from his childhood, a story about stories: “Tell me more, Aunt Ashburnham, please tell me more.” Swinburne ends his poem with a prayer of gratitude to the destructive, creative sea:
Time gives what he gains for the giving
Or takes his tribute of me;
My dreams to the wind everliving,
My song to the sea. (ll. 521-4)