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Whips and chains, but rather nice verses

Amidst all the flagellation going on about whose crime it was anyway, cast your mind back to 102 years ago. Renuka Narayanan writes.

art and culture Updated: Aug 20, 2011 23:33 IST
Renuka Narayanan

Amidst all the flagellation going on about whose crime it was anyway, cast your mind back to 102 years ago. Someone notable and notably English at that, died then, not so very long ago after all. He was the son of an Admiral in the British navy and a belted Earl’s daughter. He invented the nine-line poetic form called the ‘roundel’ based on the pretty French ‘rondeau’.

Regrettably, he drank like whole shoals and was also an algolagniac (I don’t mind if you say Thank You for this weird new word), which means he liked being beaten up in ‘sensitive’ areas. Does that properly make him a belted earl’s grandson? But he was hailed as England’s premier poet at just 30 and anthologists find themselves including some little ‘mot juste’ that he dashed off between vinos and whippings. I am guilty of this charge too, of including his verse I mean, in the ‘The Book of Prayer’ that I put together for Viking in 2000, though my friends, God bless and keep them all, will swear that I’m also prone to some extraordinary kinds of masochism.

Anyhow, the thing about this poet was that even while they were uncomfortable around him, they had to acknowledge that he had the goods. His verse was highly popular for a golden phase with undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge. But because of his little penchants, his health went to pieces and a goodhearted friend, possibly gay, looked after him until he died. Alas, if schadenfreude (pleasure at another’s misfortune) is the buzz, I’m sorry to have to dash the cup from anyone’s lips. Our poet became a fearfully respectable figure in society and passed away at the acceptable age of seventy-two. Out of fashion now, his prose was damned moreover by none less than the great poet TS Eliot: “the tumultuous outcry of adjectives, the headstrong rush of undisciplined sentences, are the index to the impatience and perhaps laziness of a disorderly mind.” But you have to like a verse like this: “From too much love of living/ From hope and fear set free/We thank with brief thanksgiving/ whatever gods may be/That no man lives forever/ That dead men rise up never/ That even the weariest river/ Winds somewhere safe to sea.”

Our poet’s name was Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) and this verse is from ‘The Garden of Proserpine’. We should wish him whip heaven.

Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture