The first series of Poems and Ballads was published in 1866 and immediately met with considerable controversy and scandal largely because of its subject matter. Swinburne boldly covered topics like lesbianism, hermaphroditism, necrophilia and sadomasochism, and also made clear expressions of antitheism and pessimism more generally. In a famous review for the Saturday Review, John Morley called Swinburne a "scornful apostle of a crushing iron-shod despair" or "the libidinous laureate of a pack of satyrs." Swinburne's publisher withdrew the work, but Swinburne reprinted the text under another publisher accompanied by a personal justification of the work.
A Ballad of Life
The collection begins with "A Ballad of Life" followed by "A Ballad of Death." Swinburne's imagery is immediately unexpected; in "A Ballad of Life," a woman has sorrow in her eyelids, holds a cithern of a dead lute player, and is surrounded by three men: Lust, Shame, and Fear. As he looks upon this scene, the speaker realizes that lust was love, shame was sorrow comforted, and fear was pity that was dead. Here, Swinburne revises orthodox conceptions of love, sorrow, and pity, showing their close relation to other values which may seem much more negative.
A Ballad of Death
"A Ballad of Death" continues the subject matter from "A Ballad of Life" but here, the lady has died and the speaker laments. He imagines seeing Venus, who tells him to "Arise, lift up thine eyes and see / if any glad thing be or good / Now the best thing is taken forth of us." In the rest of the poem, the speaker fondly describes in detail the beautiful sight of the lady's corpse, with lips "Sweet still, but not now red."
Laus Veneris (The Praise of Venus)
This poem is based on the medieval Tannhauser legend, in which the poet Tannhauser spends time with Venus in her subterranean home, emerging to seek absolution from the Pope. The Pope doesn't grant it, but later realizes that he should have when the papal staff breaks out in flowers. Tannhauser has returned to Venus by that time. Edward Burne-Jones created a painting in 1879 to accompany Swinburne's poem. In the poem, the speaker can't escape his desire, though he wants escape, through death: "Ah yet would God this flesh of mine might be / Where air might wash and long leaves cover me, / Where tides of grass break into foam of flowers, / Or where the wind's feet shine along the sea." The speaker also reveals clearly sadomasochistic tendencies: "Ah, with blind lips I felt for you, and found / About my neck your hands and hair enwound. / The hands that stifle and the hair that stings / I felt them fasten sharply without sound." The sharpness of desire, and its imbrication with pain directly has bearing on how the poet views his faith. Going before Christ, he realizes that he cannot receive mercy because he feels that the burning love which he feels is "more beautiful than God." The poet ultimately suggests that the intensity of his sensory and sensual experience communicated in violent yet sensual recurring images of "crushed fruit" and flames is like the intensity of Hell's fires, so what might he care that he should burn in Hell for enjoying erotic experiences in the present? Vividly, he writes, "And I forget tear and all weary things / All ended prayers and perished thanksgivings, / Feeling her face with all her eager hair / Cleave to me, clinging as a fire that clings..." This fire is clearly akin to "such-like flame / Shall cleave to me for ever; yea, what care, / Albeit I burn then, having felt the same?" The idea that there might be pleasure in Hell fire, if it should be like love's fire seems to be the logical extension of Swinburne's unprecedented ideas.
Isobel Armstrong succinctly reads the poem as presenting "two equally unsatisfying poles of Eros and Christ," though Eros is strong, it is not necessarily stronger than God. The matching of Hell fire with love's fire certainly suggests a kind of equality in inflicting pain.
The Triumph of Time
Written in ababccab stanzas. The speaker reproaches an unnamed lover for her infidelity: "We had grown as gods, as the gods above, / Filled from the heart to the lips with love, / Held fast in his hands, clothed warm with his wings, / O love, my love, had you loved but me!" He reflects on how time triumphs in that it perpetuates the transitoriness of all strong feelings. He laments beautifully that "It is not much that a man can save / On the sands of life, in the straits of time...Some waif washed up with the strays and spars / That ebb-tide shows to the shore and the stars; / Weed from the water, grass from a grave, / A broken blossom, a ruined rhyme." Eventually he reaches a kind of pessimistic resolution, saying that he will surrender himself by drowning in the sea, "the great sweet mother, / Mother and lover of men, the sea." This is kind of a scary sweetness, though, as she is "fed with the lives of men," "subtle and cruel of heart." The speaker's reasoning, however, is that death "is the worst that comes of thee," referring to the sea, and that although she feeds on the dead, his lover has done worse by feeding on his heart. Near the end of the poem, the speaker moves abruptly to talk about how he would rather be a "singer in France of old" who had a woman who loved him, bade him to live, and then who died right afterwards because for the speaker, "Love will not come to me now though I die, / As love came close to you, breast to breast." Ultimately though, the speaker's seemingly defiant acceptance of death doesn't really cement itself, he wonders longingly in the final lines, in reference to his lover, "...in heaven, / If I cry to you then, will you hear or know?"
Extreme, sadomasochistic desires are expressed in this poem which imagines Sappho's lesbian love of Anactoria: "I would my love could kill thee; I am satiated / With seeing thee live, and fain would have thee dead." Desire only grows, and having been satisfied, must now seek a realm beyond--the wish that the beloved may suffer pain and die: "I would find grievous ways to have thee slain, / Intense device, and superflux of pain / Vex thee with amorous agonies, and shake / Life at thy lips, and leave it there to ache." Cannibalism also forms a part of the speaker's desire, she expresses of Anactoria, "That I could drink thy veins as wine, and eat / Thy breasts like honey! that from face to feet / And in my flesh thy very flesh entombed!" As suggested also in "Laus Veneris," this kind of intense love imbricated by pain is all the more attractive because it seems to rival the intensity of God: it is "crueller than Hell," "crueller than God." Ultimately it is even a resistance to God, in that the speaker refuses to be suppliant and satiated with the little things that God generally allots us with: she refuses to be "like those herds of his / Who laugh and live a little, and their kiss / Contents them, and their loves are swift and sweet..."
In simple tetrameter lines rhymed abab, the speaker details his love of a woman who has gotten leprosy. Again his desire is in resistance to God: "Yea, though God always hated me, / And hates me now that I can kiss / Her eyes..." after she is a corpse. Everyone casts her out when she gets leprosy, but he takes her in, giving her water and bread because "such joy I had / To do the service God forbids." The poem ends with some ghastly images of her being dead for six months, while the speaker still holds "In two cold palms her cold two feet." "Her hair, half grey half ruined gold, / Thrills me and burns me in kissing it." Still, his dominion over her isn't quite enough for him, despite the radical intensity of his desire and devotion. At the end of the poem, he still envisions that "she kept at heart that other man's," and this undoubtedly yet bothers him.
This poem unrestrainedly celebrates the unorthodox beauty of androgyny which the speaker claims is beautiful because of its strangeness: "I dreamed of strange lips yesterday / And cheeks wherein the ambiguous blood / Was like a rose's--yea, / A rose's when it lay / Within the bud." There's something deliciously transgressive about someone who isn't just man or woman, and the speaker feels oddly reverent towards the genitalia of a hermaphroditic individual, while also expressing sexually explicit desires without much abandon: "I dare not kiss it, lest my lip / Press harder than an indrawn breath, / And all the sweet life slip / Forth, and the sweet leaves drip, / Bloodlike, in death." The poem also connects something virginal to the strangeness ("virginal strange air") further signaling the pleasure in transgression.
Written as four stanzas, each a modified Petrarchan love sonnet: abbaabbacdcdcd. The final sestet "cdcdcd" strongly suggests entanglement rather than the push forward of the traditional cdecde. The first sonnet describes the struggle at the center of the hermaphroditic experience: "Two loves at either blossom of thy breast / Strive until one be under and one above." There is actually quite a bit of despair in this, and the sense of entrapment paints a very different picture of hermaphroditism than "Fragoletta": "A strong desire begot on great despair, / A great despair cast out by strong desire." The second sonnet imagines a hermaphrodites as "a pleasure house" made by Love "for all the loves his kin" but ultimately a kind of mistake on Love's part because the unresolved struggle leads to Love himself not really wanting to enter in to this "pleasure house." The third sonnet offers some measure of redemption, admitting that there is yet something beautiful, other-worldly about hermaphroditism: "To what strange end hath some strange god made fair / The double blossom of two fruitless flowers?" (Yet, note that the flowers are "fruitless"). Finally, in the fourth sonnet, the speaker can't decide how he feels about hermaphrodite: there's kind of a both a love and a fear, "So dreadful, so desirable, so dear?"
Dolores (Notre-Dame Des Sept Douleurs - Our Lady of Seven Sorrows)
This poem is written in anapestic trimeter, usually a comic and light meter but in Swinburne's poem, clearly feels serious, struggling, desirous yet reverentially restrained. It is essentially an ode to Dolores, "Our Lady of Pain" (this address ends each stanza). Subtitled "Our Lady of Seven Sorrows," Swinburne makes the controversial move of linking an epithet for Virgin Mary to this pagan goddess of pain. The poet imagines briefly Dolores's origins, wondering: "Wert thou pure and a maiden, Dolores, / When desire took thee first by the throat?" This might suggest a development from Virgin Mary to Dolores, signaling that Dolores occupies a more advanced, mature, and ultimately more desirable way of living. Most of the poem spends time detailing the sadomasochistic pleasures that Dolores is goddess of, and prays to her to bring these pagan pleasures back to the Christ-loving world. In Blakean fashion, the speaker reverses traditional notions of virtue as a good and turns it into a vice. For example, he prefers the "raptures and roses of vice" to the "lilies and languors of virtue," associating happiness and passino with vice and laziness and wasting away with virtue. The novelty of inflicting or receiving pain is at the heart of the speaker's eagerness in what he feels to be a stilted modern age: "what new work wilt thou find for thy lover, / What new passions for daytime or night?" Here he is almost obsessive and can't help repeating the word "new" over and over again almost like a child awaiting gifts. Importantly, though, such eagerness is a result not of childishness but of great maturity: he is "wearied of sorrow and joy," key concepts of Christian morality and faith which no longer have the power to hold him. He suggests a need for a reversion back to classical times, when "the gladiator, pale for thy pleasure, / Drew bitter and perilous breath;...when the world was a steed for thy rein; / when the nations lay prone in thy porches." The speaker laments quite explicitly the Christian creed when he calls directly upon Dolores to "redeem" them, as if standing in for Christ: " What ailed us, O gods, to desert you / For creeds that refuse and restrain? / Come and redeem us from virtue / Our Lady of Pain." The final line, celebrating the "Joys of thee seventy times seven" directly beats out the "seven sorrows" of Mary.
The Garden of Proserpine
This is a poem of negation in that the speaker says he is "tired of tears and laughter, / And men that laugh and weep; / Of that may come hereafter / For men that sow to reap." He rejects any sense of futurity and wishes just to sleep, the state of being which the Garden of Proserpine offers. The garden is described by a list of things that do NOT grow there, except poppies (signaling forgetfulness). Unlike many of the other poems described so far, this speaker seems completely exhausted from the intense desires which have held such a fascination before: "From too much love of living / From hope and fear set free, / We thank with brief thanksgiving / Whatever gods may be / That no life lives for ever..." Read in conjunction with poems which deal primarily with the fiery and powerful intensity of unorthodox love and its capacity for wrestling with God himself, this poem acknowledges that such intensity isn't sustainable, and calmly finds comfort in death's release from such passions.