The fanciful English poet Algernon Charles Swinburne delighted in making people think he was a flagrant sexual debauchee who indulged in every known vice—and then some. As an Eton schoolboy, he learned to take pleasure in masochistic flagellation and devoured the licentious writings of the Marquis de Sade and the adventurer Richard Burton. During a year that he lived at the home of Oxford classmate Dante Gabriel Rossetti, he annoyed Rossetti and interrupted his painting by whooping and hollering as he and a boyfriend slid naked down the banisters. Rossetti once tried to enlist the help of the infamous American actress Adah Isaacs Menken to introduce Swinburne to heterosexual copulation, but she gave up, claiming, “I can’t make him understand that biting is of no use.” Swinburne even spread stories that he had once had sex with a monkey, which he then ate.
Fellow poet and pederast Oscar Wilde thought these lurid tales were gross exaggerations or pure fiction. Swinburne, he insisted, was “a braggart in matters of vice, who has done everything he could to convince his fellow citizens of his homosexuality and bestiality without being in the slightest degree a homosexual or a bestialiser.” There is no question, however, that the diminutive Swinburne, who was just over five feet tall, was a serious alcoholic, who would undoubtedly have been dead in his forties, if he hadn’t been rescued and dried out by a friend.
This peculiar and paradoxical chap was born April 5, 1837, in Grosvenor Place, London, the eldest of six children of an admiral and the daughter of an earl. He led a privileged childhood, growing up on the Isle of Wight, where he was known as a “demoniac boy,” who would sometimes skip about the room reciting poetry at the top of his lungs. After Eton, he studied (or not) at Balliol College, Oxford, but was rusticated before earning a degree. After that he lollygagged around literary circles in London, gaining a reputation as a poet, novelist, and critic, as well as a dissolute roué. His most famous poetical works were Atalanta in Calydon, Poems and Ballads, Songs Before Sunrise, and Tristram of Lyonesse. He also wrote novels, plays, and critical studies of Shakespeare, Jonson, Hugo, Blake, Shelley, and Baudelaire. A poet noted for his metrical dexterity and a contributor to the Encyclopædia Britannica, Swinburne was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature six times—but never won it.
Although raised as a high-church Anglican, Swinburne was a pagan at heart and savagely satirized all organized religion. A frail man, with an excitable disposition and an abnormally large head, he was subject to frequent seizures and falls, which left him bruised and bloody, and which may have been the result of epilepsy, not to mention excessive drinking. In 1879, at the age of forty-two, he suffered a complete physical breakdown.
His friend and literary agent, Theodore Watts-Dunton, intervened and sequestered Swinburne at The Pines, his suburban home in Putney, weaning him from drink and isolating him from his former rowdy companions. Swinburne remained under Watts-Dunton’s care for the next thirty years, leading a sober and sedate life, growing increasingly deaf and reclusive, and continuing to write verse, drama, and criticism. In the spring of 1909 Swinburne contracted influenza, which developed into pneumonia, and he died April 10 at the age of seventy-two. He was buried at St. Boniface Church in Bonchurch on the Isle of Wight, his boyhood home.
Note: Portrait of Swinburne at age 23 by William Bell Scott, online collection of Balliol College, Oxford