Swinburne’s Love of the Sea (Gosse, 1917)

1.77-81. Edmund Gosse, The Life of Algernon Charles Swinburne, (London: Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1917), pp. 8, 50, 83, 118-19. BL 2409.b.2

Extracts from Edmund Gosse, Life of Swinburne (1917), on Swinburne’s love of the sea.

Gosse makes mention of Swinburne’s love of the sea on a number of occasions in his biography, including the appeal to the sea as “great sweet mother” which Mulligan remembers. The first extract refers to Swinburne’s childhood:

In all his pleasures, however, although they included riding, roaming, and climbing, the sea took the foremost place. His own words are significant:

As for the sea (he wrote to Stedman), its salt must have been in my blood before I was born. I can remember no earlier enjoyment than being held up naked in my father’s arms and brandished between his hands, then shot like a stone from a sling through the air, shouting and laughing with delight, head foremost into the coming wave.… I remember being afraid of other things, but never of the sea.

The next refers to Swinburne’s time at Oxford (the year referred to here is 1858):

In some verses, apparently addressed to W. B. Scott, written twenty years afterwards, but hitherto only circulated privately, Swinburne describes his sensations in Northumberland at this time:

Whenever in August holiday times
I rode or swam through a rapture of rhymes,
Over heather or crag, and by scaur and by stream,
Clothed with delight by the might of a dream,
With the sweet sharp wind blown hard through my hair,
One eyes enkindled and head made bare; …
Or loosened a song to seal for me
A kiss on the clamorous mouth of the sea.

On Swinburne’s ‘The Triumph of Time’:

The appeal to the sea in “The Triumph of Time,” as to “the great sweet Mother and lover of men,” was extremely natural on the lips of one who loved the sea as it was never loved before even by an Englishman:

I shall sleep, and move with the moving ships,
Change as the winds change, veer in the tide;
My lips will feast on the foam of thy lips,
I shall rise with thy rising, with thee subside;
Sleep, and not know if she be, if she were,
Filled full with life to the eyes and hair,
As a rose is fulfilled to the roseleaf tips
With splendid summer and perfume and pride.

On Atalanta in Calydon:

There are many lovers of poetry to-day who would confess that their apprenticeship to the mysteries of such melody as lies hidden in the woven texture of English speech began in their appreciation of [among other choruses from Atalanta in Calydon] perhaps most of all the inestimable recitative around the dying body of Meleager, with its violin-like, wailing harmonies:

For the dead man no home is;
Ah, better to be
What the flower of the foam is
In fields of the sea,
That the sea-waves might be as my raiment, the gulf-stream a garment for me.

Who shall seek thee and bring
And restore thee thy day,
When the dove dipt her wing
And the oars won their way,
Where the narrowing Symplegades whitened the straits of Propontis with spray?

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