Algernon Charles Swinburne

Algernon Charles Swinburne
Swinburne aged 52
Swinburne aged 52
Born(1837-04-05)5 April 1837
London, England
Died10 April 1909(1909-04-10) (aged 72)
London, England
OccupationPoet, playwright, novelist, and critic
EducationEton College
Alma materBalliol College, Oxford
PeriodVictorian era
Literary movementDecadent movement, pre-Raphaelite
Notable workPoems and Ballads


Algernon Charles Swinburne (5 April 1837 – 10 April 1909) was an English poet, playwright, novelist, and critic. He wrote several novels and collections of poetry such as Poems and Ballads, and contributed to the famous Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica.

Swinburne wrote about many taboo topics, such as lesbianism, cannibalism, sado-masochism, and anti-theism. His poems have many common motifs, such as the ocean, time, and death. Several historical people are featured in his poems, such as Sappho ("Sapphics"), Anactoria ("Anactoria"), Jesus ("Hymn to Proserpine": Galilaee, La. "Galilean") and Catullus ("To Catullus").[1]


Algernon Charles Swinburne, 1862, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Swinburne was born at 7 Chester Street, Grosvenor Place, London, on 5 April 1837. He was the eldest of six children born to Captain (later Admiral) Charles Henry Swinburne (1797–1877) and Lady Jane Henrietta, daughter of the 3rd Earl of Ashburnham, a wealthy Northumbrian family. He grew up at East Dene in Bonchurch on the Isle of Wight.[2]

As a child, Swinburne was "nervous" and "frail," but "was also fired with nervous energy and fearlessness to the point of being reckless."[3]

Swinburne attended Eton College (1849–53), where he started writing poetry. At Eton, he won first prizes in French and Italian.[3] He attended Balliol College, Oxford (1856–60) with a brief hiatus when he was rusticated[4] from the university in 1859 for having publicly supported the attempted assassination of Napoleon III by Felice Orsini.[5] He returned in May 1860, though he never received a degree.

Swinburne spent summer holidays at Capheaton Hall in Northumberland, the house of his grandfather, Sir John Swinburne, 6th Baronet (1762–1860), who had a famous library and was president of the Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle upon Tyne. Swinburne considered Northumberland to be his native county, an emotion reflected in poems like the intensely patriotic "Northumberland", "Grace Darling" and others. He enjoyed riding his pony across the moors, he was a daring horseman, "through honeyed leagues of the northland border", as he called the Scottish border in his Recollections.[6]

Swinburne caricatured by Carlo Pellegrini In Vanity Fair in 1874

In the period 1857–60, Swinburne became a member of Lady Pauline Trevelyan's intellectual circle at Wallington Hall.

After his grandfather's death in 1860, he stayed with William Bell Scott in Newcastle. In 1861, Swinburne visited Menton on the French Riviera, staying at the Villa Laurenti to recover from the excessive use of alcohol.[7] From Menton, Swinburne travelled to Italy, where he journeyed extensively.[7] In December 1862, Swinburne accompanied Scott and his guests, probably including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, on a trip to Tynemouth. Scott writes in his memoirs that, as they walked by the sea, Swinburne declaimed the as yet unpublished "Hymn to Proserpine" and "Laus Veneris" in his lilting intonation, while the waves "were running the whole length of the long level sands towards Cullercoats and sounding like far-off acclamations".[8]

NPG P416. Algernon Charles Swinburne with nine of his peers at Oxford, ca. 1850s (James Bryce, 1st Viscount Bryce, Albert Venn Dicey, Thomas Hill Green, Sir Thomas Erskine Holland, John Warneford Hoole, George Rankine Luke, Aeneas James George MacKay, John Nichol, Joseph Frank Payne, Algernon Charles Swinburne)

At Oxford, Swinburne met several Pre-Raphaelites, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He also met William Morris. After leaving college, he lived in London and started an active writing career, where Rossetti was delighted with his "little Northumbrian friend", probably a reference to Swinburne's diminutive height—he was just five foot four.[9]

Swinburne's gravestone
Swinburne's grave at St. Boniface Church, Bonchurch, Isle of Wight, pictured in 2013

Swinburne was an alcoholic and algolagniac and highly excitable. He liked to be flogged.[10] His health suffered, and in 1879 at the age of 42, he was taken into care by his friend, lawyer Theodore Watts, who looked after him for the rest of his life at The Pines, 11 Putney Hill, Putney.[11] His friend, named Theodore Watts-Dunton by WG Sebald, took him to the Suffolk coast at the lost town of Dunwich on several occasions in the 1870s [12]

Thereafter, he lost his youthful rebelliousness and developed into a figure of social respectability.[1] It was said of Watts that he saved the man and killed the poet. Swinburne died at the Pines[13] on 10 April 1909 at the age of 72 and was buried at St. Boniface Church, Bonchurch on the Isle of Wight.[14]

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