7 Chester St, Belgravia, London SW1X 7BB, UK
Capheaton Hall, Capheaton, Newcastle upon Tyne NE19 2AB, UK
Eton College, Windsor SL4 6DW, Regno Unito
University of Oxford, Oxford, Oxfordshire OX1 3PA
16 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, London SW3 5RA, Regno Unito
3 Great James St, London WC1N 3DB, Regno Unito
The Pines, 11 Putney Hill, London SW15 1BZ, UK
St Boniface, Bonchurch, Ventnor PO38 1NS, Regno Unito
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. Hermaphroditus (1863) is cited as example in Sexual Heretics: Male Homosexuality in English Literature from 1850-1900, by Brian Reade. The Cannibal Club was populated by several somewhat eccentric personalities of the time: along with Richard Burton, vice president of the Anthropological Society, founder of the Club and one of the most famous translators of pornographic Oriental literature of his time, members included the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. The term ‘cannibalism’ eventually came to function as a shorthand for male–male desire within the group.
The choice of the topics of discussion among the Cannibals included Walt Whitman’s collection of poems, Leaves of Grass, and phallic worship. Discussions of Leaves of Grass led to considerations of the literary inspiration provided by manly love and homosocial bonds. Talking about Whitman became a linguistic code to deal with homosexuality without openly articulating it, and his poetry inspired debates about the possibility of expressing a ‘pure’ form of love through art and lyricism. Algernon Swinburne was particularly enthusiastic about Whitman’s poetry and celebrated it both during informal gatherings and in more official contexts.
Parodic references to Priapus abounded in the private correspondence among the Cannibals with explicit references to male–male desire. For example, Swinburne began a letter to Richard Monckton Milnes, 1st Baron Houghton with the salutation: ‘Salus in X Priapo et Ecclesia / Sub invocatione Beatissimi Donatiani De Sade (Salvation in Christ, Priapus and His Church / by the Intercession of the most blessed De Sade).’ Other recurring expressions in the letters written between the Cannibals were ‘swishing’, which was used as a slang word for effeminate and a disparaging term for homosexual. It was also used with double reference to flagellation and homosexuality. The irreverent inversion of religious symbols like the Holy Trinity and the mocking devotional references to De Sade were frequent. For example, in a letter to Swinburne, E. Villine wrote ‘Un petit mot par charité s’il vous plait my dear brother and we shall bless you in the name of Voltaire, Sade – and the Devil into the bargain.’ Voltaire, Sade and the Devil made up the blasphemous and irreverent Cannibal Holy Trinity.
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").
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.
As a child, Swinburne was "nervous" and "frail," but "was also fired with nervous energy and fearlessness to the point of being reckless."
Swinburne attended Eton College (1849–53), where he started writing poetry. At Eton, he won first prizes in French and Italian. He attended Balliol College, Oxford (1856–60) with a brief hiatus when he was rusticated from the university in 1859 for having publicly supported the attempted assassination of Napoleon III by Felice Orsini. 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.
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. From Menton, Swinburne travelled to Italy, where he journeyed extensively. 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'.
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.
In 1868 Swinburne shared a cottage at Etretat, Normandy with his friend George Powell; above the entrance was the inscription "La Chaumière de Dolmancé" (Dolmancé's Cottage), named for the homosexual corrupter in Sade's La Philosophie dans le boudoir. Guy de Maupassant visited the place twice, and left accounts of a house of decadence staffed by fresh-laced lads, and full of weird knick-knacks like a parricide's flayed hand. There was a monkey on the loose, and hard liquor served at lunchtime, after which the two Englishmen pulled out gigantic folios of pornographic photographs, taken in Germany, all of male subjects. "I remember one of an English soldier masturbating on a pane of glass," recalled Maupassant, whose interests lay elsewhere.
Swinburne was an alcoholic and algolagniac and highly excitable. He liked to be flogged. His health suffered; and, in 1879 at the age of 42, he was taken into care by his friend, lawyer Theodore Watts-Dunton, who looked after him for the rest of his life at The Pines, 11 Putney Hill, Putney. Thereafter, he lost his youthful rebelliousness and developed into a figure of social respectability. It was said of Watts that he saved the man and killed the poet. Swinburne died at the Pines on 10 April 1909 at the age of 72 and was buried at St. Boniface Church, Bonchurch on the Isle of Wight.
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