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Swinburne, 150 years on

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To mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of Swinburne’s first Poems and Ballads, Cambridge hosted a two-day conference that might best be described as ‘whither Swinburne?

It can be rare to find a conference, particularly a two-day one, so focused on a single volume, but the panels across the two days were rich and varied. What I particularly enjoyed was the strong focus on form, initiated by Herbert Tucker‘s opening keynote. Tucker asked us as readers to attend to ends: end-stopped lines, closing punctuation, the closing of poems, and the use of the word itself. This focused highlighted the intensity in Swinburne’s verse of what might appear to be poetic commonplaces, and I think also invites us to think about the poet’s experience: the relief of finding a good rhyme, the natural breaks where the mind can be allowed to wander, the feeling of having finished one poem but already having to write another. A keynote about ends was a wonderful beginning to the event.

The first panel focused on Poetry, the Body and the Senses, and featured some of Catherine Maxwell‘s interesting work on scentand a quick glimpse into some of the working that will form part of her monograph on perfume in Victorian literary culture (forthcoming from OUP). She distinguished the Baudelairean fascination with heavy, musky, Decadent scent with Swinburne’s interest in lighter, fresher scents, such as eau de cologne. Alongside Maxwell were two graduate students, Kate Snelson, on physical, somatic sympathy, and David Womble, on hyloidealism. Womble’s presentation was thought-provoking, asking how dead speakers display embodied modes of thought in Swinburne’s work. The approach, I think, bears application to some other poets of the era, such as the Rossettis.

The final two panels of day one focused on Affinity and Influence, with a fascinating array of different angles taken. Some papers, such as Jan Marsh‘s comparison between Swinburne and Christina Rossetti, and Oliver Goldstein‘s (@OliverGoldstein) focused attention to Hardy’s reading and annotations of Swinburne, offered a nuanced take on influence and influencing through attention to biographical detail. Others attended to Swinburne’s relationship with other literary traditions, including French (Andria Pancrazi), Italian (Robin Kirkpatrick), and US (Alison Rosenblitt). Particularly interesting was Michael John Craske’s focus on the musical legacy of Poems and Ballads, in the light of TS Eliot’s criticism of Swinburne’s musicality.

Day two took us back to questions of form, with a panel on modes of address. Two papers, from Jason Boulet and Andrea Selleri, addressed Swinburne and the dramatic monologue genre, while Justin Sider attended to the notability of Swinburne’s style, as attested to by contemporary critics. The final panel of the day attended to morality in Swinburne’s volume, with a fascinating examination of the emergence of dystheism, antitheism, monotheism and polytheism by Stéphane Sitayeb, followed by Nathan Hensley‘s exploration of some of Swinburne’s manuscripts, including his unpublished ‘The Birch’, and invites us to consider that work in juxtaposition with contemporary political events, such as the Morant Bay rebellion. Sitayeb’s insights into the use of the words “God”, “God(s)”, etc., were further illuminated by a digital humanities approach from John Walsh, creater of The Swinburne Project. Walsh looks at Swinburne’s indexicality, his paratextual references and bibliographic tendencies, as well as identifying statistically some dominant lexical choices in the volume, like the use of “sweet”, “god”, etc.

Following a second keynote by Peter Nicholls on the relevance of Swinburne for modern-day poetics, the day rounded up with a reflection on the conference as a whole, led by Michael Hurley and Marion Thain (@MarionThain). Some key themes that arose were Swinburne’s multiplicity, as evidenced by the range of conference papers, and whether the field of study has changed significantly in the past decade. Chip Tucker asked the most provocative question: how can we teach and read Swinburne so that he remains relevant to pressing issues facing the academe over the next fifty years? The conference didn’t answer this question, but invited us to wonder why we had chosen to attend the conference, and what we might take away with us to develop the interest of our students and colleagues in Swinburne.

At the level of conference organisation, one thing that did surprise me was the ratio of men to women, which was almost 2:1. It made me wonder whether there is something about Swinburne that might account for what feels like an odd ratio at an English conference.