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LD: The poet Swinburne was born in 1837, the same year in which a young 18-year-old girl was to ascend the throne of England, becoming Queen Victoria. He died in 1909 at the age of 72, eight years after the Queen’s death. So most of Swinburne’s life was spent in the long shadow of Queen Victoria’s reign, which was to last 63 years and seven months.
A member of the aristocracy, Swinburne attended Eton and Oxford and is possibly one of the most underrated poets in the English language. For sheer musicality and technical genius, if not for depth of feeling, he is possibly the equal of Tennyson, England’s greatest 19th century poet.
He differed from the other great poets of his era, however, in two important respects that helped to sully his reputation: his sexual decadence and his unabashed atheism. These two characteristics diminished him in the eyes of his Victorian contemporaries who expected their great men to have a certain amount of respectability and gravitas, qualities which Tennyson possessed in abundance but which Swinburne sadly lacked.
Obsessed with sadomasochism, lesbianism, cannibalism and other bizarre topics of this nature, the diminutive poet—he was only five foot four inches tall—soon acquired the reputation of being an enfant terrible, an English version of Baudelaire. The Garden of Proserpine remains one of the most outstanding atheistical poems ever written—a musical masterpiece in every way—sublimely beautiful in its pagan splendour. The poem exudes an exotic perfume of godlessness and world-weariness that will delight the heart of the poetic pessimist. I cannot praise it too highly. [LD]