“One of Swinburne’s earliest works about love is Rosamond, a drama in the Elizabethan style, but one that employs a medieval setting and real historical figures as characters. Published in 1860, this play is extra-ordinarily significant for the poet’s future themes and artistic development.
Algernon Charles Swinburne was born in 1837 to a rather illustrious family. His father was Admiral Charles Henry Swinburne (son of Sir John Henry Swinburne) and his mother was Lady Jane Henrietta Ashburnham (daughter of the 3rd Earl of Ashburnham) and so, as their eldest child and a son, great things were no doubt expected of little Algernon. He grew up in lovely East Dene in Bonchurch on the Isle of Wight (or as I like to call it, the ‘Isle of Victorian Splendidness’) and went off to Eton, then to Oxford. So far, so traditional. You can see by the portrait of him at six years old (above), he already had his vibrantly red hair, and by 16 he was already writing poetry. The only blip on his record was being temporarily expelled (or ‘rusticated’, which sounds like a type of bread. I do like a rusticated loaf) for publically supporting the attempted assissination of Napoleon III by Felice Orsini.
Rosamond possesses many of the virtues of Swinburne’s later tragedy Chastelard, which has attracted somewhat more critical attention, but the earlier work is usually dismissed as a mere Pre-Raphaelite exercise. Both plays, however, prove inspired throughout by Swinburne’s youthful enchantment with courtly love topoi. In these dramas we can discern the depth of his fascination with the topoi of medieval romance and tourbadour poetry, as well as their effect [37/38] on his treatment of the carnal and the ideal aspects of his constant theme, love.
Analysis of these two works with emphasis on their courtly elements reveals the extent of his early assimilation of values fundamental to medieval love literature, which he adapted to his “modern,” that is, Romantic world view and to his unique artistic needs. In Swinburne’s version of Rosamond, the passionate entanglement between Henry II and his mistress culminates with Rosamond’s murder by his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, perhaps the most famous heroine of courtly love lore.2 Similarly, an ethos derived from courtly convention underlies Chastelard’s love for Mary Stuart.
The first of Rosamond’s five scenes is the most forceful in demonstrating Swinburne’s debt to troubadour conventions as well as to Pre-Raphaelite stylistic influences. Courtly love preoccupations and the medieval setting overshadow elements of Jacobean revenge tragedy throughout the play. Swinburne’s Rosamond, rather than the historical queen of the Courts of Love, espouses the religion of love and, as a result of her lived creed, is poisoned by Eleanor out of jealousy. The play’s predominantly lyrical psychodramatic vignettes stress highlights of the relationships among the four main characters during the last months of Rosamond’s life. The action begins in spring and ends in late summer, but the only explicit time lapse occurs between the fourth and fifth scenes, when Henry is abroad, subduing the French provinces. In addition to the historical characters, Swinburne creates the courtier Bouchard, the serviceable object of the jealous Queen’s ambivalent affections. But Rosamond is significant primarily for the characterization of its tragic heroine, whose passion for Henry suggests the power of the courtly love influence on young Swinburne. In the “Prelude” to Tristram of Lyonesse (written nine years later), Swinburne catalogues “the sweet shining signs of women’s names / That [38/39] mark the months out and the weeks anew,” which Love “moves in changeless change of seasons through / To fill the days up of his dateless year” (Poems, IV, 208. Alongside Guenevere, Hero, Cleopatra, and the rest is “The rose-white sphere of flower-named Rosamond.” This Swinburnean heroine conceives of herself not as an individual but rather as a type, the beautiful woman who inspires insatiable and potentially destructive passions: “Yea, I am found the woman in all tales, / The face caught always in the story’s face.” She is Helen, Cressida, Hero, and Cleopatra. In her particular “tale,” as in Swinburne’s versions of stories about Cleopatra, Guenevere, and Yseult, the heroine herself is destroyed. Yet we are conditioned from the play’s first scene, as the “flower-white” Rosamond wrestles with the fact of her own mutability, to accept the drama of her death as merely one episode in Love’s timeless, cyclic tragedy.
Swinburne’s choice of the “rose of the world” as one of his first subjects for verse suggests that he associated his conception of Rosamond with courtly love allegory, specifically the Roman de la Rose, in which the rose is the eternal symbol of the beloved and of the perfect beauty that is fearfully transient but simultaneously immortal.3 As in Swinburne’s later lyrics “Before the Mirror” and “The Year of the Rose,” Rosamond’s central symbol is the rose, and, like them, this play recapitulates the major preoccupations of courtly love poetry: the apotheosis of beauty; love as the necessary consequence of beauty fear of mutability; and a final insistence on the immortality of both love and beauty, which can be attained, paradoxically, only through death.
[39/40] The first scene of Rosamond characterizes its heroine as simultaneously enchanted with her own beauty, exalted by her love affair with Henry, and insecure about the permanence of her beauty and her love. Surrounded by the ephemeral rose blossoms with which she identifies in the maze at Woodstock, she is alone with her maid, Constance. Here Rosamond reveals her concern with the world’s slanderous gossip about her, and as the scene progresses she attempts gradually to rebuild her self-confidence-in her beauty, in Henry’s continuing devotion, and in the unassailable value of beauty and of love. At first, she is defensive:
If six leaves make a rose, I stay red yet
And the wind nothing ruins me; who says
I am at waste? (Tragedies, I, 231)
She repeatedly challenges Constance to “say I am not fair,” in order to elicit the praise she pretends to despise. She equivocates between self-doubt and unabashed vanity: “Leave off my praise . . . quaint news to hear, That I am fair, have hair strung through with gold” (Tragedies, I, 232). Then she renews herself by remembering Henry’s courtly verses of adulation, and concludes by defining her own and the world’s goodness purely in terms of beauty, the ultimate value that Swinburne everywhere associates with love:
But I that am
Part of the perfect witness for the world,
How good it is; I chosen in God’s eyes
To fill the lean account of under men, The lank and hunger-bitten ugliness
Of half his people . . . I that am, ah yet,
And shall be till the worm has share in me,
Fairer than love or the clean truth of God,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I . . . have roses in my name, and make
All flowers glad to set their colour by. (Tragedies, I, 236- 37)
Earlier, Eleanor has revealed that the source of her jealousy is her homeliness. Angrily and plaintively, she compares herself with Rosamond:
Sweet stature hath she and fair eyes, men say;
I am but black, with hair that keeps the braid,[40/41]
And my face hurt and bitten of the sun
Past medicine of all waters. (Tragedies, I, 245)
Nonetheless, feelings of jealousy are mutual. Throughout the play Rosamond schizophrenically alternates between vanity and insecurity. Since she values herself exclusively for her beauty, she needs a man continually to reinforce her self-esteem, as does every courtly lady. She nourishes her vanity by goading the king to denigrate his queen:
As you are king, sir, tell me without shame
Doth not your queen share praise with you, show best
In all crowned ways even as you do? I have heard
Men praise the state in her and the great shape. (Tragedies, I, 260)
That Henry can describe Eleanor coldly as “A Frenchwoman, black-haired and with grey lips / And fingers like a hawk’s cut claw” (Tragedies, I, 261) explains Eleanor’s rabid antagonism toward Rosamond. In the play’s aesthetic theology, ugliness is equivalent to damnation, and Henry’s adulterous relations with so beautiful a mistress as Rosamond entirely undermine the queen’s pride and reputation.
Rosamond and Eleanor both need courtly praise and devotion, because the love that beauty inspires is their supreme value. Beauty not only assures love, it assures immortality: “Love’s signet-brand stamps through the gold o’ the years” (Tragedies, I, 238). In Scene I, Rosamond articulates the courtly apotheosis of love upon which the whole action of the play depends. Here, as always, a life of love assures salvation. It is the one crucial sacrament:
God has no plague so perilous as love,
And no such honey for the lips of Christ
To purge them clean of gall and sweet for heaven.
It was to fit the naked limbs of love
He wrought and clothed the world with ordinance.
Yea let no wiser woman hear me say
I think that whoso shall unclothe his soul
Of all soft raiment coloured custom weaves,
And choose before the cushion-work of looms
Stones rough at edge to stab the tender side,
Put honour off and patience and respect
And veils and relics of remote esteem
To turn quite bare into large arms of love,[41/42]
God loves him better than those bitter fools
Whom ignorance makes clean, and bloodless use
Keeps colder than their dreams. (Tragedies, I, 238)
Rosamond’s emphasis here on the transcendent value of passion that defies convention and her earlier emphasis on the power of beauty that defies mortality are reminiscent of two arguments implicitly proferred in Morris’ “The Defence of Guenevere,” composed at about the same time as Swinburne began the first draft of Rosamond (see Jeunesse, I, 235-36). But Guenevere’s values are more strained and tentative than Rosamond’s. Of even greater importance in differentiating Morris’ attempt at a sternly realistic adaptation of medievalist amatory and religious values and Swinburne’s iconoclastic recasting of them, however, is that Guenevere pathetically capitulates in “King Arthur’s Tomb,” her monologue’s companion piece, to conventional religious orthodoxies, as Swinburne’s medievalist heroines and heroes often refuse to do.
In the passage from Rosamond quoted earlier, we discover the first lengthy formulation of Swinburne’s consistently fatalistic “religion” of love and beauty, which “makes the daily flesh an altar-cup / To carry tears and rarest blood within / And touch pained lips with feast of sacramant” (Tragedies, I, 239). Indeed, in this play as elsewhere in Swinburne’s poetry, the experience of passion temporarily becomes a kind of religious ecstasy. The oblivion it engenders, however, simulates death. In a sad and loving mood, after singing a Swinburnean imitation of a sorrowful troubadour lyric, Rosamond ends Scene III with this plea to Henry:
Yea, kiss me one strong kiss out of your heart,
Do not kiss more; I love you with my lips,
My eyes and heart, your love is in my blood,
I shall die merely if you hold to me. (Tragedies, I, 265)
The hyperbole of this last line is typical of courtly rhetoric. Further, Rosamond’s postponement of carnal satisfaction, and her demand for a single kiss, reflects an “orthodox” courtly love convention in which the degree of restraint a lover feels compelled to employ is merely a measure of promised bliss and present woe, the mixed pain and pleasure of passion. [42/43]
With Rosamond it is not so much the intensity of insatiable love as the fear of forfeiting her beauty and, consequently, her lover’s praise that makes her desire death. Although she is terrified and cowardly when actually confronted by Eleanor, Rosamond opens the play’s last scene with a weary and sorrowful soliloquy in which she ponders the ugliness age is sure to bring, and because of that inevitability, she prays, “God . . . / get me broken quickly.” Finally she meets death as a succedaneum and is consoled to die with her beauty and Henry’s love undiminished: “To die grown old were sad, but I die worth / Being kissed of you” (Tragedies, I, 287). It is appropriate that the heroine should end this play receiving the traditional kiss or consolamentum of courtly love, for Swinburne has produced in Rosamond an only slightly modified- that is, sensualized-recapitulation of what he perceived to be the essential values and basic conventions of medieval love literature.
Chastelard reflects the same adherence to the courtly love ethos as does Rosamond. However, Swinburne’s religion of love by 1865 contained Sadean elements with which the poet was unacquainted five years before. In Chastelard we find the ideals of Rosamond sensationalized with a graphic carnal awareness. Moreover, the desire for death as love’s supreme consummation had become more than a convention. By 1865, Swinburne’s own mythology of passion had subsumed the ideology of medieval love literature that had earlier inspired his work. The reciprocal influences of London life and Swinburne’s own artistic experiments of the early 1860s are reflected in a play that crystallizes Pre-Raphaelite, Sadean, and courtly love influences. But in it, historically empty conventions of courtly love are presented dramatically as earnest and moving solutions to the problem of human passion.
Chastelard constitutes an even more convincing transposition of courtly love values than does Rosamond, partly because of Swinburne’s improved dramatic technique and partly because of his ability to write more vigorous verse, but primarily because of an ostensibly deeper personal involvement in the emotional issues that the play dramatizes. Although Chastelard was not published until 1865, it was — as Georges Lafourcade plausibly asserts — the focus of Swinburne’s [43/44] attention immediately after, if not simultaneously with, “The Triumph of Time,” his own elegy on the loss through marriage of Mary Gordon. We know, however, by Swinburne’s own assertion, that Chastelard was first conceived and begun in 1859 or 1860 and that it went through numerous revisions (Letters, II, 235). Following Rosamond so closely, early drafts of Chastelard perhaps laid more stress on Swinburne’s unsophisticated acceptance of courtly love ideals than the final version does. The play’s hero, who describes Ronsard as “The sweet chief poet, my dear friend long since” and as “my old lord” (Tragedies, II, 139), not only espouses courtly love values but acts them out in his life. Whether additions to the original version of Chastelard resulted from Swinburne’s disappointment with Mary Gordon, as “The Triumph of Time” is assumed to have done, or simply from a more epic conception of his evolving mythology of insatiable passion, Chastelard in its final form is a palpable and artistically successful reflection of Swinburne’s ethos of love. Dramatic tension in the play is generated almost exclusively by the dynamic and suicidal passion of the hero for the dark and capricious heroine.
Chastelard is depicted from the start as a warrior-poet who is also Mary Stuart’s courtier and lover. Lafourcade has pointed out the play’s biographical significance: Swinburne’s identification with the ideals that Chastelard embodies is transparent. The poet’s most important early critic remarks that Swinburne
crée, comme Dieu, à son image. . . . Chastelard est poète comme Swinburne; et ce dernier ne manque pas de lui donner l’auréole qu’il avait, adolescent, ambitionnée: celle des armes et de la gloire militaire; il mêle ses rêves de Mary à des visions de bataille.
[Swinburne] created, like God, after his own image ….Chastelard is a poet, like Swinburne; and he did not neglect to give Chastelard the aura which he himself had, as an ambitious adolescent; the aura of arms and military glory; he mixes his dreams of Mary with his vision of battle. [Jeunesse, 280]
Lafourcade does not perceive, however, that all the attributes with which Swinburne invests Chastelard belong also traditionally to the [44/45] troubadours and their successors. Chastelard is represented in the play as a sixteenth-century trouvère whose devotion to the ideal of his love is fanatically orthodox. When the object of his passion proves inaccessible and viciously changeable, his commitment to the ideal supersedes his passion for the beloved. It becomes a passion for death.
Curtis Dahl has already verified the significance of Swinburne’s use of Ronsard in the play. Chastelard’s “old lord” is the author of the book that Mary in the last act brings to Chastelard’s prison cell and that Chastelard reads as he approaches the block. Indeed, Dahl claims that Swinburne’s conception of Mary Stuart was inspired by a misreading of Ronsard, who was writing about Mary Stuart “in a highly artificial convention of courtly compliment developed in the Middle Ages and raised to a paean to physical love in the early Renaissance.” Dahl accurately observes:
By consciously or unconsciously ignoring the conventional quality of Ronsard’s diction and attitudes toward his beloved mistress, Swinburne transforms what is really graceful and beautiful but not unusual flattery by a court poet to a lovely and unfortunate Queen into characterization of a fabulously seductive, partly historical but largely mythological goddess of aesthetic beauty and cruel passion. Whereas in Ronsard the emphasis on Mary’s many physical charms is conventional cataloguing compliment, Swinburne (whether unknowingly or with conscious literary intention) reads into it an almost morbid eroticism.
Swinburne was aware of the convention Ronsard was working in and deliberately undertook to literalize the courtier-poet’s typical love song-to employ courtly rhetoric and hyperbole in earnest. Mary Stuart is thus transformed by Swinburne into a truly threatening femme fatale, and Chastelard becomes a powerfully realized extension of the representative courtly poet-lover, a literary ideologist with troubadour conditioning.
As a result, the play is punctuated with Swinburnean imitations of sorrowful love lyrics. Mary Beaton appropriately sings one as the play begins, for her futile love of Chastelard represents the sad, steadfast, and ethereal counterpart of Chastelard’s carnal and aesthetic passion for Mary Stuart. Mary Beaton and Mary Stuart both sing his songs in [45/46] the second act, and in the last play of the trilogy that Chastelard begins, Mary Stuart’s fate rests on her being able to recognize the author of a lyric composed years before by Chastelard. As with all Swinburne’s pastiches, the verses attributed to Chastelard in the play are authentic reproductions of conventional courtly love lyrics. But they have special significance here, foreshadowing the play’s action and echoing the imagery used to depict it. For instanre, the last two stanzas of Mary Beaton’s opening song characterize the religious quality as well as the consuming intensity of Chastelard’s love for Mary Stuart, which he sustains to his death and which, in fact, transforms his violent end into the final, sacramental act of his passion:
C’est ma flamme,
Mon grand jour,
Blanche et belle,
. . . .
Toi, mon âime
Et ma foi,
Sois ma dame
Et ma loi;
Sois ma mie,
Sois ma vie,
Toute à moi! (Tragedies, II,14)
[“Love is my passion, it is my light, my great day, my beautiful white candle, my shrine. You, my soul and my faith, be my lady and my law; be my love, be Marie, be my life, everything to me.”]
The paradox of Chastelard’s passion is that it is at once what he lives for and what kills him. Life without his love is not only futile but equivalent to damnation, and after Mary jealously and spitefully chooses Darnley as her husband, fulfillment is impossible. Yet Chastelard’s devotion is complete and inevitable, wrongheaded as he knows it is. His conditioning apparently does not allow for the caprice of traditional courtly lovers, expected as well as displayed by Mary Stuart.[46/47]
As in Swinburne’s lived mythology, Chastelard is both made and broken by an irretrievable commitment to one love. However, Mary, in spite of her desire to be loved with devotion like Chastelard’s, can honestly yet remorsefully describe her own fickle nature this way:
I would to God You loved me less; I give you all I can
For all this love of yours, and yet I am sure
I shall live out the sorrow of your death
And be glad afterwards. You know I am sorry.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
God made me hard, I think. Alas, you see
I had been fain other than I am. (Tragedies, II, 75)
Thus, with severe irony, Mary can remark upon expected infidelities after singing one of Chastelard’s mutablity lyrics, which, in Swinburne’s usual manner, associates love with roses:
As-tu vu jamais au monde Vénus chasser et courir? Fille de l’onde, avec l’onde Doit-elle mourir? Aux jours de neige et de givre L’amour steffeuille et s’endort; Avec mai doit-il revivre, Ou bien est-il mort? Qui sait où s’en vont les roses? Qui sait où s’en va le vent? En songeant à telles choses, J’ai pleuré souvent. [Tragedies, II, 56]
[Have you ever seen Venus chasing and running? Daughter of the sea, should she die with the sea? “In days of frost and snow love sheds its petals and goes to sleep, with May should it awaken or is it really dead? “Who knows where the roses have gone? Who knows where the wind goes? One dreams of such things. I have often cried.]
The Venus of the first stanza has already been identified in Act I as Mary herself. “A Venus crowned, that eats the hearts of men” (Tragedies, II, 25) is represented on a breastclasp given her by an admiring artist. As a later incarnation of the archetypal femme fatale with whom Rosamond has identified, this beautiful Queen, fearful of death but [47/48] doomed to be beheaded, is, in fact, immortal. “Doit-elle mourir?” in connection with Mary Stuart is a doubly ironic rhetorical question.
The power of Mary Stuart’s beauty makes her, like Rosamond, the eternal object of men’s desires. For Chastelard, as for Swinburne’s earlier courtly lovers, beauty is the supreme and literally captivating attribute of woman. Because of it, he becomes Mary’s suicidal “sweet fool.” To love in irrevocable earnest is Chastelard’s fatal “flaw.” Yet it is a fault that is most easily understood in terms of the erotic aestheticism of Chastelard’s courtly heritage. Even Mary at first cannot fathom the obstinate depths of his devotion to her beauty. Gradually, however, she begins to perceive the passionate spirit of his unique supplication, along with the power it confers upon her:
Though he be mad indeed It is the goodliest madness ever smote Upon man’s heart. A kingly knight-in faith, Meseems my face can yet make faith in men And break their brains with beauty: for a word, An eyelid’s twitch, an eye’s turn, tie them fast And make their souls cleave to me. (Tragedies, II, 115)
Like any religious fanatic, Chastelard appears mad. For him, as for Rosamond, beauty is the chief measure of goodness in the world. In his last moments with Mary, he explains,
You have all the beauty; let mean women’s lips
Be pitiful, and speak truth: they will not be
Such perfect things as yours. Be not ashamed
That hands not made like these that snare men’s souls
Should do men good, give alms, relieve men’s pain;
You have the better, being more fair than they,
They are half foul, being rather good than fair;
You are quite fair: to be quite fair is best. (Tragedies, II,138)
Chastelard is finally vindicated in his worship of a pitiless and capricious beauty not only by the traditional courtly apotheosis of “fairness” but also by the representation of Mary’s beauty as a characteristic ethereally detached from her other attributes. All the play’s major figures at some point remark upon Mary’s superb beauty and intuit its tragic counterpart, cruelty. Mary knows that her beauty is the exclusive cause of men’s attraction to her and of Chastelard’s passion. [48/49] Chastelard confirms the fact when Mary Beaton tries to understand why he loves Mary Stuart so fervently. In response, he catalogs her physical splendors:
She hath fair eyes: may be
I love her for sweet eyes or brows or hair,
For the smooth temples, where God touching her
Made blue with sweeter veins the flower-sweet white;
Or for the tender turning of her wrist,
Or marriage of the eyelid with the cheek;
I cannot tell; or . . . her mouth,
A flower’s lip with a snake’s lip, stinging sweet,
And sweet to sting with: face that one would see
And then fall blind and die with sight of it
Held fast between the eyelids. (Tragedies, II,20)
Chastelard in fact dies because of his inalterable devotion to an ideal of beauty, of which Mary Stuart is a typical incarnation. In the mythology of this play, as in Rosamond, coalescence with the ideal can be striven for in this world but achieved only in death. His early intuition of some “kindling beyond death / Of some new joys” inspires Chastelard’s last hour. In fact, by the time he dies, he has articulated several visions of possible consummations to his passion that death may supply. When in Act III he hides himself in Mary’s chamber and confronts her with the fact that his love is undiminished though obstructed by her marriage to Darnley, he articulates his yearning for a union with Mary of the type craved by Sappho in “Anactoria.” Between frenzied kisses, he threateningly chides,