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Chorus from 'Atalanta in Calydon' -- Algernon Charles Swinburne

Guest poem submitted by Vikram Doctor:
(Poem #857) Chorus from 'Atalanta in Calydon'
 Before the beginning of years,
     There came to the making of man
 Time, with a gift of tears;
     Grief, with a glass that ran;
 Pleasure, with pain for leaven;
     Summer, with flowers that fell;
 Remembrance fallen from heaven,
     And madness risen from hell;
 Strength without hands to smite;
     Love that endures for a breath;
 Night, the shadow of light,
     And life, the shadow of death.
 And the high gods took in hand
     Fire, and the falling of tears,
 And a measure of sliding sand
     From under the feet of the years;
 And froth and drift of the sea;
     And dust of the laboring earth;
 And bodies of things to be
     In the houses of death and birth;
 And wrought with weeping and laughter,
     And fashioned with loathing and love,
 With life before and after,
     And death below and above,
 For a day and a night and a morrow,
     That his strength might endure for a span,
 With travail and heavy sorrow,
     The holy spirit of man.
 From the winds of the north and the south,
     They gathered as unto strife;
 They breathed upon his mouth,
     They filled his body with life;
 Eyesight and speech they wrought
     For the veils of the soul therein,
 A time for labor and thought,
     A time to serve and to sin;
 They gave him light in his ways,
     And love, and a space for delight,
 And beauty and length of days,
     And night, and sleep in the night.
 His speech is a burning fire;
     With his lips he travaileth;
 In his heart is a blind desire,
     In his eyes foreknowledge of death;
 He weaves, and is clothed with derision;
     Sows, and he shall not reap;
 His life is a watch or a vision
     Between a sleep and a sleep.
-- Algernon Charles Swinburne
Swinburne is known for the musicality of his verse. There's another
frequently anthologised part of Atlanta in Calydon, "When the hounds of
spring are on their winter traces", which is one of the most insistently
rhythmic and musical pieces of verse I know. But he also had the ability to
create verse which is almost epigrammatic in its precision and polish -
without any loss of musicality. These lines sound like they are engraved on
the wall of a tomb - omniscient, tragic, hard edged and clear. They are so
simple that they enter your memory almost without your knowing it.


[thomas adds]

Swinburne's poetry fascinates me, and repels me. There's no denying the
felicity (I would hesitate to call it 'beauty') of his verse, the flowing
end-stopped lines, lush with alliteration, laden with promise. But it's a
promise which never seems to be fulfilled. Instead, the poetry turns in on
itself, phrase piled on phrase until the reader is left gasping for any
breath of meaning, any escape from the suffocating music of the words. The
synaesthesia they induce is tempting at first, but its sickly sweet odour
quickly becomes cloying.

Part of the problem is the poet's irritating vagueness. Swinburne never
particularizes; indeed, he delights in using twenty words where one will do.
He never offers details for readers to latch on to; his material is almost
completely abstract. And yet, to rebuke him for this is to miss the point
entirely: for Swinburne, words _are_ meaning; they do not exist to describe
an external world; they form a world in themselves. Their vagueness is not
the vagueness of bad poetry; rather, it forms a vital part of the poet's
style. Eliot puts it well: "The diffuseness is essential; had Swinburne
practised greater concentration his verse would be, not better in the same
kind, but a different thing. His diffuseness is one of his glories".


5 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

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