Swinburne’s ‘Appeal to England’ (Gosse, 1917)

1.77. Edmund Gosse, The Life of Algernon Charles Swinburne, (London: Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1917), pp.174-5. BL 2409.b.2

An extract from Edmund Gosse, Life of Swinburne (1917), on Swinburne’s Appeal to England.

This passage gives an account of Swinburne’s “defence of Ireland” in his Appeal to England of 1867 and further reflects on Swinburne’s lack of political ambitions at around the same time. The Appeal to England was cited as evidence that Swinburne had tergiversated on an earlier pro-Home Rule stance with the publication of ‘The Union’ and with other pro-Unionist remarks in press comment during 1904.

¶¶The British public, still dominated, in those Podsnapian days, with an equal respect for kings and scorn for foreigners, failed to perceive the point [of A Song of Italy], and it was even less attracted by a pamphlet of verse, an Appeal to England against the execution of the Manchester Fenians, which Swinburne circulated late in 1867. This, however, is a political poem of great merit, direct, intelligible, and brief, written in language of high simplicity. The Appeal, which is rather to England for mercy than in commendation of the condemned Fenians in particular, is remarkable because Swinburne never repeated his defence of Ireland or hinted again at an Irish republic; and also because it has a very fine passage in celebration of the United States, a country otherwise scarcely mentioned in all the poet’s writings.
¶¶The Appeal scandalised the reviewers, but it had one interesting result. The Reform League, then a body of some influence, solicited the poet to enter Parliament, offering to ensure his seat and pay his expenses. They took this step on the ground that Swinburne was representative of more advanced or republican opinions than any member of the existing House of Commons. The poet, excessively gratified, but conscious that never in his life had he “felt any ambition for any work or fame but a poet’s, except, indeed, while yet a boy, for a soldier’s,” very wisely applied to Mazzini for advice. The Italian patriot at once instructed him to refuse the invitation; telling him that he had other service to do. Swinburne was greatly relieved when he found he could dismiss the application with a wholly clear conscience, and thus ended his one and only episode on the brink of public affairs. One cannot imagine him in the House of Commons; he would have been a portent of ineffectuality in a place where even John Stuart Mill was little better than a failure.