AESTHETIC PERVERSIONS AND SWINBURNE’S “LES NOYADES”
Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies, 6, Spring, 1997, 52-65.
Because so much of Swinburne criticism has assumed an association between Swinburne’s personality, his speakers, and his characters, questions of his employment of the dramatic monologue, personae, and the lyric voice are basic to an understanding of his verse. Yet despite the fact that Swinburne’s poetry is often described as concerned with forms, and his use of the rondel, the rondeau, and other less popular genres have been investigated, his numerous experiments with the lyric and dramatic modes in poetry have been less carefully examined. Only recently have questions about Swinburne’s dramatics been asked. Recent studies of Swinburne, such as those of Nicholas Shrimpton, Thais Morgan and David Reide, have shown both the dramatic nature of Swinburne’s monologues and the complexity of his social criticism through this dramatic style of presenting a wide range of characters and allowing them to speak for themselves, which added a new dimension of irony and freedom from realism. 1
Perhaps because the use of a dramatic as opposed to a lyric or confessional mode indicates consciousness and artistic control, thus fulfilling a basic ideal of aestheticism, Swinburne himself seems to have been extremely sentient of the distinctions between poetry and non-fiction, as well as the dramatic and lyric modes. In defense of his Poems and Ballads (for which he was personally vilified) Swinburne declared that he was writing not lyrics but dramatic monologues: “the book is dramatic, many-faced, multifarious; and no utterance of enjoyment or despair, belief or unbelief, can properly be assumed as the assertion of its author’s personal feeling or faith.” (18) Although this assertion is obviously a plea to consider his poetry as works of art and not confessional statement, Swinburne’s avowals of multifariousness have yet to be applied felicitously to readings of all his poems. Made more difficult by the confusion purposely engendered in Swinburne’s works, close readings nevertheless yield the conclusion that this very confusion, this blurring of acceptable literary categories and genres, is intentional, and, in fact an essential component of the poem.
The breaking of the conventions of genre, in fact, may well be part of the innovative significance of some of the poems, and reading them with this assumption can be extremely fruitful, adding new dimensions to poems previously considered relatively flat. “The Leper,” examined with the assumption of Swinburne’s generic consciousness, becomes a parody of dramatic monologues and even the simple lyric, carrying as it does the entire concept of courtly love with its selfless adoration of a lowly clerk for a remote high-born maiden to its ridiculous extreme of obsessive necrophilia. The deceptively simple love song, “A Match,” which like “Scarborough Fair” and “The Cherry Tree Love Song” compares love to some incomprehensible eternal mystery of life, nevertheless transforms the genre into an ironic commentary on love lyrics by ultimately negating the value of obtaining love. Love obtained and domesticated is simply no longer love in Swinburne’s dazzling logical equations. Swinburne’s attempts to conflate genre, like his attempts to conflate the classic and pornographic (as in “Anactoria”)2 reflect his concern with countering the Victorian penchant for categorization and demarcation, for judging and moralizing with the certainty of the existence of absolute values. Considering “Les Noyades” with this dimension of generic experimentation makes the poem a perfect illustration of the emergence of Swinburne’s dense complexity.
Almost totally unread today, the interest and complexity of “Les Noyades” depends almost totally upon its experiments in genre and its exploration of the concept of ‘aestheticism.’ For in this poem Swinburne boldly experiments with some of the very bases for the construction of the concept of speaker, revealing the inadequacies of Victorian dichotomies between lyric and dramatic in the aesthetic framework of poetry.
Perhaps one reason why “Les Noyades” has been so neglected is that its initial purpose is not apparent, but the liberty taken in the poem with conventional frameworks seems to be perversely and intentionally confounding. Robert Greenberg, in the only study to deal with this poem at any length, notes that unlike the other poems in Poem and Ballads, “Les Noyades” does not establish a “governing context” (100), and traces the way in which it confounds narrative expectations. Most problematic is the lack of a valid and reliable companion in the confusion of events described. There appear to be three consecutive and distinct speakers in three different modes. First there is an emotional but impersonal omniscient narrator whose apparently pious invocation is followed by the historical narration of the “mariages républicains” of the French Revolution -- the sadistic massacre of ‘couples’ consisting of aristocrat and peasant, naked and bound together face-to-face for execution by drowning. The poem continues with a speech by the laborer, lashed to a beautiful noblewoman, proclaiming his deep but unacknowledged adoration for her in the past and his gratitude at this supremely romantically and politically fulfilling death, a dream of gratification made possible only by the Revolution. The poem then concludes with a third voice – similar in some ways to the opening narrator, but totally indifferent to the political and historical implications of the events described – who comments on his affinity to the laborer’s emotional expressions while ignoring entirely the external situational differences. The conclusion, which might be expected to unite the divergent sections of plot and point of view, is instead a direct declaration of eternal and unconditional love. Thus the poem begins in the narrative genre with an omniscient narrator describing a historical landscape, moves in to a kind of dramatic monologue with the laborer’s confession, and ends with an apparently direct lyrical avowal of love and the desire for unification with a very specific woman.
This conjunction of poetic modes and relationships with reality appears to indicate a total negation of purpose: the aim of the poem seems utterly unclear, and the reader experiences a kind of disorientation resulting from the uncertainty of whether to assume the subject is historical, narrative, or personal expression. To shift speakers and points of view is, presumably, to arbitrarily obfuscate the effect. To turn the atrocities of history into a desired mode of romantic union—real or metaphorical—is to befuddle the thematic issue. For although Aristotle, in the Poetics, makes the primary distinction between suffering in literature and life – “Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity” (1448), there is a difference between horrors reproduced in fiction and those retold from the actual and not-too-distant past. “The delight of tragedy,” notes Samuel Johnson, “proceeds from our consciousness of fiction; if we thought murders and treasons real, they would please no more” (78). The conventionally emotional effects of literature, then, are released because of their autonomy from reality.
And yet it is precisely the reality of the horrors of history which gives significance to the erotic-thanotic figure which dominates the poem. Swinburne’s echoes from Thomas Carlyle’s overwhelming description of this scene in his book on the French Revolution, first identified by K.L. Knickerbocker, intend to call up both Carlyle’s historical account and his visceral moral evaluation:
By degrees, daylight itself witnesses Noyades: women and men are tied together, feet and feet, hands and hands; and flung in: this they call mariage républicains, Republican Marriage. Cruel is the panther of the woods, the she-bear bereaved of her whelps: but there is in man a hatred crueller than that. Dumb, out of suffering now, as pale swoln corp, the victims tumble confusedly seawaralong the Loire stream; the tide rolling them back: clouds of ravens darken the river; wolves prowl on the shoal-places: Carrier writes, ‘Quel torrent révolutionnaire, What a torrent of Revolution! For the man is rabid; and the Time is rabid. These are the Noyades of Carrier; twenty-five by the tale, for what is done in darkness comes to be investigated in sunlight: not to be forgotten for centuries – We will turn to another aspect of the Consummation of Sanscullotism; leaving this as the blackest. (648-9)
Carlyle’s description of cruelty and evil become, in Swinburne’s version, illustrations of “marvellous mercies and infinite love.” The “torrent of Revolution” becomes in Swinburne’s equally passionate but neutral evaluation, “the wild fifth year of the change of things,/ When Frances was glorious and blood-red..” (5) And the moral judgment of rabidity is replaced with a kind of parodic objectivity.
The deviations of Swinburne’s interpretations could not have been lost on any literate Victorian, since this incident seems to have become the symbol of the epitome of human evil. John Stuart Mill, for instance, use the incident of the Noyades in his discussion on Nature as a figure for the worst kind of destruction that human beings can wreak (but which pales by contrast with the destruction of which Nature is capable. “Nature has Noyades more fatal than those of Carrier,” says Mill, 375.) But Swinburne purposely eliminates this prevailing moral context of these events in order to later employ the episode metaphorically. This concept of murder as a fine art, originating with Thomas DeQuincey, appears throughout Swinburne’s works,3 and Linda Dowling has noted that even Nero is treated by him elsewhere as a hero of aestheticism. Swinburne’s primary innovation here—taken in some ways from Browning and perhaps inherent in the dramatic monologue tradition—is to adjoin the imperative of love and/or passion to murder. But in this poem at least, Swinburne leads into the subject with a semblance of factuality.
Whatever a man of the sons of men
Shall say to his heart of the lords above,
They have shown man verily, once and again,
Marvellous mercies and infinite love. (1-4)
These first lines of “Les Noyades” proclaiming the infinite generosity of God to man sets the righteous interpretive tone for events which prove to be an anathema to religion. The concept of Divine justice presented in the first verse to the specific historical situation in the second and third verses, to the individual historical characters involved, to the couples in general, to the specific couple, the woman, and finally the single victim—the central nine verses (of the twenty verse-poem), focus upon the reaction of this laborer to his fate. The poem moves then from the vast and Divine to the specific victim whose life is determined by history and then to the victim cast out or forgotten by history.
The proof of divine generosity will be the reaction of one victim to his arbitrary punishment. As Mill pointed out in his review of Carlyle’s book, Carlyle believed poetry should not only be based in history, but it should also concentrate on the life of the individual in that specific historical situation. “In every real fact, in which any of the great interests of human beings are implicated, there lie the materials of all poetry; there is, as Mr. Carlyle has said, the fifth act of a tragedy in every peasant’s death-bed; the life of every heroic character is a heroic poem, were but the man of genius found, who could so write it!” 4 At this point Swinburne appears to follow Carlyle’s ideal, to use the life of the individual to prove the power and the effects of history.
But which individual? At this point in the narrative, it would seem from the attention given to the shudder or revulsion of the lady, that it will be this lady, the most innocent and victimized, who will be the focus of attention.
She knew not, being for shame’s sake blind,
If his eyes were hot on her face hard by,
And the judge bade strip and ship them, and bind
Bosom to bosom, to drown and die. (17-20)
Certainly the victimized woman is a good focus here, and Carlyle himself also focuses in on the ladies “who begged, in their agony, that their smocks might not be stripped from them.” (648) The maintenance of the principle of modesty even in the face of death grants the women a somewhat nobler status and makes their death seem even more heinous in Carlyle’s description. In Swinburne’s adaptation, however, this shred of dignity is purposely removed from the lady, whose agony is first presented and then abandoned as irrelevant.
For the tortures of the lady, which would have provided the basis for endless joys in de Sade’s works, are soon passed over here as the laborer, “red with fight,” (14) slowly begins to express his bliss. In contrast to the usual focus in sentimental or pornographic Victorian literature, we are asked to shift away from the feelings of a character whose emotions have been sympathetically described by the omniscient narrator. When these emotions are seen again in the poem, they are perceived only from her external manifestations. While the laborer relates to “the white girl” who “winced and whitened...” (l. 20) at learning of her fate, he is “caught with fire” by this and considers her situation only in the light of his early humiliation at her rejection of him, relishing the anticipated revenge that will accompany their union of assassination: “Shall she not know and see me all through,/ Me, on whose heart as a worm she trod?” (l. 58) The suffering and revulsion of the lady emerge as relevant only to prove the necessity of inflicting the laborer’s presence upon her, a Sadean conclusion. The association between the democratic revolution and the sadistic fulfillment of love is now complete, and could in itself be a valid conclusion from the two sections of the poem. Yet this association is not apparently relevant to the next speaker, whose attitude in the third section is only partially pertinent to that of the ‘representative’ figure of history.
Cinematographically this gradual pan-in from the broad picture to the individual makes sense, although its poetical precedents are not great in number. And were the introductory authoritative voice to return to conclude the ‘message’ of the poem, it would also make sense structurally. For the prayers of the laborer to the Lord in favor of Carrier, offering to burn in hell instead of the judge because of the great joy the judge has given him in sentencing him to die with his beloved, are to some extent the fulfillment of the promise of Divine justice which began the poem. But even more logical and organic would have been a narrative conclusion to the poem, with the laborer finding fulfillment at the moment of death or pardon at the hands of Carrier. 5 However, as with the narrative of Coleridge’s “Christabel,” this direction is abandoned mid-story, and the poem continues in defiance of poetic convention with an apparently tangential reflection.
The words of the laborer, so potentially ironic in the Browning mode, with their total indifference to the fate of the woman, their willing oblivion to the humiliation of the self, and the disproportional triviality of the thought of fulfillment in love at this inappropriate moment in this particular manner, seem to be accepted without irony or evaluation by the anonymous, emotional, loving speaker in the last five verses who would have liked in any case to be destroyed in his beloved’s arms. He addresses his beloved directly, but with no hope for response, and concludes: “And I would have given my soul for this/ To burn for ever in burning hell.” (80)
It is this third section which is most troubling, disrupting as it does the flow of the poem,6 and introducing a voice which seems to speak from outside of the stratagem of historical narrative or drama. The speaker appears to drop all pretenses of artifice and return to the initial sense of emotion that stimulated the poetic drama, if not the subject. The direct addreto the beloved—whose circumstances are very different from those of the lady, here by time and indifference from the speaker—is very distinct in nature and tone from the rest of the poem. The factual temper of narration and the emotional reaction of the laborer to his plight is so specific as to contrast entirely with the factual vagaries and emotional specifics of the love that surpasses narratability. There are no points of reference. The identity of the object of this apostrophe and the circumstances of their love or parting are left without substance or bearings: the only specificity is the ardor of the speaker’s declaration, and the desire for mutuality of affection.
For at this point in the poem everything about the Noyades but the image of orgasmic union is forgotten, or perhaps transcended. The tense is future-conditional, longing with full knowledge for the impossible; metaphors of feelings replace facts of history; and the voice is suddenly gentle, intimate, and desolate. The grammar is halting at best:
Had it been so hard for my love? but I
Though the gods gave all that a god can give,
I had chosen rather the gift to die,
Cease, and be glad above all that live. (65-9)
Note here the repetition of “I” both before and after the conditional clause, the uncertainty of past or future conditional tense in “I had chosen,” the vagueness of part of speech of the word “love” – all of which shift the subject of the verse to the self rather than a relationship, emphasizing the “I” and its desires, and making the ‘beloved’ as an actual being almost irrelevant.
The images appear vague as if the emotionally-overcome lover had taken over the reasonable controlled storyteller. In contrast to the clear and literal description of the woman quoted above, the language has now become indistinct: “And I should have held you, and you held me,/ As flesh holds flesh, and the soul the soul,” (72-3) Dellamora calls this phenomenon in Swinburne “cross-voicing,” pointing out that it is also often intentionally not clear “who is doing what to whom” (71). These lines are far more suggestive than descriptive, and offer the same kind of imprecisions for which Swinburne is often condemned.
Furthermore, the proposed fulfillment itself appears at best strange, equated incontrovertibly as it is with death.
But you would have felt my soul in a kiss,
And known that once if I loved you well;
And I would have given my soul for this
To burn for ever in burning hell. (77-80)
Robert Greenberg has observed that if the woman had yielded her love to the ardent speaker there would have been no need for death, and that in making the desire for the Mariage républican absolute, and unrelated to her response to him, Swinburne is “equating the fulfillment of love not merely with worldly loss but with spiritual damnation” (103). “Could I change you, help you to love me, sweet,/Could I give you the love that would sweeten death,/ We should yield….” (ll. 73-4)
To possess one’s love is to participate in the worst atrocity of the French Revolution, to “yield, go down, locked hands and feet,/ Die drown together, and breath catch breath.” The expressed longing for the possession of the beloved solely for the purpose of mutual destruction suggests that there is a different agenda in these last
lines then that of the standard love poem or poem of persuasion.
Despite the formal affinity to a ballad, and the initially objective narration, the last section has indicated to most readers that the entire poem should be considered a lyric and related to an unknown unhappy love affair of the poet, with the only puzzle remaining being the identity of the beloved. Sir Edmund Gosse originated this line of inquiry with his assertions of the direct thinly disguised personal passions of Swinburne and it has continued with Clyde Hyder who claims the lines were “inspired by Jane Faulkner” (Career, 58), Cecil Lang, who asserts the object of this passion to be Mary Gordon, Samuel C. Chew, who calls “Les Noyades” “that magnificent lyric of passion,” Jerome McGann, who notes the general agreement of “evidences of an unhappy love affair” in this poem (207) and others. The seemingly lyric conclusion of the poem seems to cast aside any attempt at reason, as if the speaker suddenly revealed the real motivation of his interest in history, and abandoned all pretense of poetic artistry.
Drowned not in water but in passion, the speaker-lover who concludes the poem perceives (a bit shortsightedly) the psychological and not the real or politically symbolic significance of the execution act as explicitly combining the erotic and thanotic moment, thus perpetuating the orgasmic pleasures of union. This blending cannot be accidental or mistaken.
Furthermore, this union is clearly delineated as a theoretical one. Any aspect except the passion of the speaker is carefully eliminated from the equation. Not only are the lovers separated by time and space, but they are ‘lost beyond hope.’ The absence of factual details here (in contrast to the rest of the poem) helps to emphasize the purely emotional aspect of the situation – there can be no practical solution if no real details are offered, and the love must be appreciated as preserved in its purity by this disjointment from reality. Unrequited, unfulfilled, undisturbed by banal reality, it is a perfect literary love, a pure aesthetic experience. And the damnation of the speaker is a future-conditional one, offered only when the possibility of its fulfillment has been totally negated. Robert Greenberg has suggested that it was precisely to an impossible relationship that Swinburne was drawn (107), but if this impossible relationship is detached from biography ‘unfulfilled love can’ be seen to be transformed into an aesthetics of poetry.
The poem in the end is neither about history, politics, atrocities, or relationships, but the moment of poetic fulfillment as being superior to any form of narrative, and the final plea attempts to transcend the concept of genre. Passion, “Les Noyades” claims, surpasses narrative and genre.
Yet if the ‘lyric’ is also a literary form, simply another genre rather than the famous ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,’ having its own conventions and rules, the last lines assume a totally different significance in relation to the poem, one that employs both love and lyric for art’s sake.
Since Swinburne’s poetry often blurs good and evil, pleasure and pain, victimizer and victim, and self and other, it should not be surprising that he here could perplex the borders of genre in the same manner. Swinburne’s function in this obfuscation of borders is in part to test the possibilities of transcendence of genre such as that achieved by Coleridge in his ‘unfinished’ poems. It is therefore difficult to rest with the theory that the sad buried love story of his life prevailed over the original plan. Even if it were possible, and a real lover discovered to suit the theory derived from his verse, the poetic sophistication exhibited in the last section belies a charge of overwhelming passion, and suggests its opposite, the appearance of overwhelming passion. In fact this poem can be far better understood as a test of the borders of genre – lyric or dramatic, narrative or philosophic in structure. It is as if the poet had deliberately used the organic design of the fragment, “Kubla Khan,” with its multiple plot juxtapositions, shifting and doubling-back of speaker, and apparent subject transpositions, as his basis for formal structure. In his praise of “Christabel” and “Kubla Khan,” two poems whose apparently unfinished status goes entirely unnoticed, Swinburne says that they are “outside all law and jurisdiction of ours.” (ix) Later in his introduction to the poems of Coleridge he himself selected for publication soon after the composition of “Les Noyades,” Swinburne goes on to praise the unity of emotional effect achieved in the apparently diversive “Kubla Khan.” (xii) These qualities seem to be as much what Swinburne wished upon himself as what he saw in Coleridge.
It is the suprof passion proclaimed in the superior framework of art.
Stoddart has pointed out that even the title of his early collection, “and Ballads,” emphasizes "art's formal integrity" (92). The collection has no thematic unity; it is not about anything but the structure and shape of art. The frequent use by Swinburne of generic titles—not only in his famous book Poems and Ballads, but also in individual poems, such as “Rondel,” and “Hendecasyllabics” —indicates his foundation in generic structures rather than theme.7 Swinburne’s emphasis on his use of the genre of the dramatic monologue as well as a variety of forms of the lyric and narrative, should not be considered, as it has been, as a diversion from the wanton nature of his subjects, but a genuine indication of how to read his works.
Swinburne often proclaims the primacy of this artifice. In “Felise,” for example, Swinburne delineates the very progress of “Les Noyades.”
For many loves are good to see;
Mutable loves, and loves perverse;
But there is nothing, nor shall be,
So sweet, so wicked, but my verse
Can dream of worse.
The subject of “Les Noyades” is precisely this – the ‘dreaming of worse,’ the poetic construction of passion that transcends the limitations of historical description.
David Reide has argued that “Swinburne took the idea of a Church of poets quite seriously, that his doctrine was the sacred scripture of poetry canonized in the great tradition, and ... his god was Apollo.” (“Authority,” 28). In “Les Noyades” he exemplifies the absolute supremacy of this god. For the goal of expressing extreme passion, passion transcending the potential of limited nature because it has been created in the framework of a work of art, even the greatest atrocity of modern history can be recruited and subjugated.
1. See, for example, William Buckler and Judith Stoddart. New vistas on Swinburne and the Dramatic Monologue have been opened up in articles by Shrimpton, Thais E. Morgan, and David Reide.
2. It was Swinburne’s attempts to break the generic rules between classic and pornographic, notes Richard Sieburth, that made him objectionable to readers and critics (468). This combination has a clear ideological basis, and is noted by Richard Dellamora without comment or development, which is to “expose. . .the masculinist structure of Victorian ideology” (71).
3. The murderers Thomas de Quincey considered in his essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” are artists operating “to cleanse the heart by means of pity and fear” (38) Part of the aesthetic quality of the murder is the lack of emotion involved. de Quincey’s ideal victims are strangers; Swinburne’s potential murderers are usually lovers and/or poets such as Sappho who suggests cannibalism as a means of fulfilment.
4. “Carlyle’s French Revolution,” Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, v. 20, 137. Mill quotes Carlyle from an essay on Burns in the Edinburgh Review, XLVIII (Dec, 1828), 278.
5. This kind of ending would have been appropriate to the plot of a Sadean, but Swinburne’s theoretical admiration and actual contempt for de Sade, based upon de Sade’s lack of apparent goal and shaping purpose, was early apparent. Upon reading his long-admired exemplary hero, Swinburne wrote: “At first, I quite expected to add another to the gifted author’s list of victims: I really thought I must have died or split open or choked with laughing... it appears to me a most outrageous fiasco. I looked for some sharp and subtle analysis of lust—some keen dissection of pain and pleasure—‘quelques taillades dans les chairs vives de la sensation’: at least such an exquisite relish of the things anatomised as without explanation would suffice for a stimulant and be comprehensive at once even if unfit for sympathy. But in Justine there seems to me throughout one radical mistake, rotting and undermining the whole structure of the book. De Sade is like a Hindoo mythologist; he takes bulk and number for greatness. As if a crime of great extent was necessarily a great crime; as if a number of pleasures piled one on another made up the value of a single great and perfect sensation of pleasure. ...Assertion is easy work. Shew us how and why these things are as they are.” (Letter to Milnes in Fuller, 63 (Lang, 54-55.) The aesthetic limitations of de Sade may make him an interesting theoretician and an amusing pornographer, but prevent his being taken seriously as an artist. What distinguishes Swinburne from de Sade is what Armstrong has referred to as Swinburne’s “slightly ironised sado-masochism and a self-conscious understanding of its own desire to shock.” (402)
6. Robert Greenberg suggests that a final stanza would have been narratively appropriate. Carrier might have “dispatche[d] the two or perversely separate [d] .. them” (101)
7. William Buckler, notes that Swinburne was "deeply devoted to the rubrics of poetry in a large variety of manifestations," (229) and lists 32 varieties of generic poems Swinburne tried his hand at, as a partial list. Buckler is one of the few critics to emphasize the necessity of acknowledging this aspect of Swinburne, and points out that by denying him the dramatic, "one essentially denies him his birthrights as a modern poet—such rights as poetic access to the historical imagination; the ability to gain entry into the self-enclosures of strange but/representative imaginary personae... the indispensable recognition that modern poetry, the creation of an age of collapsed structures, is increasingly a poetry of the missed mediate word in which the author's primary concern is with the truth ... of his representation rather than with ideological conveyance." (230-1)
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