Meta Sorting


MY LIFE is bitter with thy love; thine eyesBlind me, thy tresses burn me, thy sharp sighsDivide my flesh and spirit with soft sound,And my blood strengthens, and my veins abound.I pray thee sigh not, speak not, draw not breath;Let life burn down, and dream it is not death.I would the sea had hidden us, the fire(Wilt thou fear that, and fear not my desire?)Severed the bones that bleach, the flesh that cleaves,And let our sifted ashes drop like leaves.I feel thy blood against my blood: my painPains thee, and lips bruise lips, and vein stings vein.Let fruit be crushed on fruit, let flower on flower,Breast kindle breast, and either burn one hour.Why wilt thou follow lesser loves? are thineToo weak to bear these hands and lips of mine?I charge thee for my life’s sake, O too sweetTo crush love with thy cruel faultless feet,I charge thee keep thy lips from hers or his,Sweetest, till theirs be sweeter than my kiss:Lest I too lure, a swallow for a dove,Erotion or Erinna to my love.I would my love could kill thee; I am satiatedWith seeing thee live, and fain would have thee dead.I would earth had thy body as fruit to eat,And no mouth but some serpent’s found thee sweet.I would find grievous ways to have thee slain,Intense device, and superflux of pain;Vex thee with amorous agonies, and shakeLife at thy lips, and leave it there to ache;Strain out thy soul with pangs too soft to kill,Intolerable interludes, and infinite ill;Relapse and reluctation of the breath,Dumb tunes and shuddering semitones of death.I am weary of all thy words and soft strange ways,Of all love’s fiery nights and all his days,And all the broken kisses salt as brineThat shuddering lips make moist with waterish wine,And eyes the bluer for all those hidden hoursThat pleasure fills with tears and feeds from flowers,Fierce at the heart with fire that half comes through,But all the flower-like white stained round with blue;The fervent underlid, and that aboveLifted with laughter or abashed with love;Thine amorous girdle, full of thee and fair,And leavings of the lilies in thine hair.Yea, all sweet words of thine and all thy ways,And all the fruit of nights and flower of days,And stinging lips wherein the hot sweet brineThat Love was born of burns and foams like wine,And eyes insatiable of amorous hours,Fervent as fire and delicate as flowers,Coloured like night at heart, but cloven throughLike night with flame, dyed round like night with blue,Clothed with deep eyelids under and above—Yea, all thy beauty sickens me with love;Thy girdle empty of thee and now not fair,And ruinous lilies in thy languid hair.Ah, take no thought for Love’s sake; shall this be,And she who loves thy lover not love thee?Sweet soul, sweet mouth of all that laughs and lives,Mine is she, very mine; and she forgives.For I beheld in sleep the light that isIn her high place in Paphos, heard the kissOf body and soul that mix with eager tearsAnd laughter stinging through the eyes and ears;Saw Love, as burning flame from crown to feet,Imperishable, upon her storied seat;Clear eyelids lifted toward the north and south,A mind of many colours, and a mouthOf many tunes and kisses; and she bowed,With all her subtle face laughing aloud,Bowed down upon me, saying, ‘Who doth thee wrong,Sappho?’ but thou—thy body is the song,Thy mouth the music; thou art more than I,Though my voice die not till the whole world die;Though men that hear it madden; though love weep,Though nature change, though shame be charmed to sleep.Ah, wilt thou slay me lest I kiss thee dead?Yet the queen laughed from her sweet heart and said:‘Even she that flies shall follow for thy sake,And she shall give thee gifts that would not take,Shall kiss that would not kiss thee’ (yea, kiss me)‘When thou wouldst not’—when I would not kiss thee!Ah, more to me than all men as thou art,Shall not my songs assuage her at the heart?Ah, sweet to me as life seems sweet to death,Why should her wrath fill thee with fearful breath?Nay, sweet, for is she God alone? hath sheMade earth and all the centuries of the sea,Taught the sun ways to travel, woven most fineThe moonbeams, shed the starbeams forth as wine,Bound with her myrtles, beaten with her rods,The young men and the maidens and the gods?Have we not lips to love with, eyes for tears,And summer and flower of women and of years?Stars for the foot of morning, and for noonSunlight, and exaltation of the moon;Waters that answer waters, fields that wearLilies, and languor of the Lesbian air?Beyond those flying feet of fluttered doves,Are there not other gods for other loves?Yea, though she scourge thee, sweetest, for my sake,Blossom not thorns and flowers not blood should break.Ah that my lips were tuneless lips, but pressedTo the bruised blossom of thy scourged white breast!Ah that my mouth for Muses’ milk were fedOn the sweet blood thy sweet small wounds had bled!That with my tongue I felt them, and could tasteThe faint flakes from thy bosom to the waist!That I could drink thy veins as wine, and eatThy breasts like honey! that from face to feetThy body were abolished and consumed,And in my flesh thy very flesh entombed!Ah, ah, thy beauty! like a beast it bites,Stings like an adder, like an arrow smites.Ah sweet, and sweet again, and seven times sweet,The paces and the pauses of thy feet!Ah sweeter than all sleep or summer airThe fallen fillets fragrant from thine hair!Yea, though their alien kisses do me wrong,Sweeter thy lips than mine with all their song;Thy shoulders whiter than a fleece of white,And flower-sweet fingers, good to bruise or biteAs honeycomb of the inmost honey-cells,With almond-shaped and roseleaf-coloured shellsAnd blood like purple blossom at the tipsQuivering; and pain made perfect in thy lipsFor my sake when I hurt thee; O that IDurst crush thee out of life with love, and die,Die of thy pain and my delight, and beMixed with thy blood and molten into thee!Would I not plague thee dying overmuch?Would I not hurt thee perfectly? not touchThy pores of sense with torture, and make brightThine eyes with bloodlike tears and grievous light?Strike pang from pang as note is struck from note,Catch the sob’s middle music in thy throat,Take thy limbs living, and new-mould with theseA lyre of many faultless agonies?Feed thee with fever and famine and fine drouth,With perfect pangs convulse thy perfect mouth,Make thy life shudder in thee and burn afresh,And wring thy very spirit through the flesh?Cruel? but love makes all that love him wellAs wise as heaven and crueller than hell.Me hath love made more bitter toward theeThan death toward man; but were I made as heWho hath made all things to break them one by one,If my feet trod upon the stars and sunAnd souls of men as his have alway trod,God knows I might be crueller than God.For who shall change with prayers or thanksgivingsThe mystery of the cruelty of things?Or say what God above all gods and yearsWith offering and blood-sacrifice of tears,With lamentation from strange lands, from gravesWhere the snake pastures, from scarred mouths of slaves,From prison, and from plunging prows of shipsThrough flamelike foam of the sea’s closing lips—With thwartings of strange signs, and wind-blown hairOf comets, desolating the dim air,When darkness is made fast with seals and bars,And fierce reluctance of disastrous stars,Eclipse, and sound of shaken hills, and wingsDarkening, and blind inexpiable things—With sorrow of labouring moons, and altering lightAnd travail of the planets of the night,And weeping of the weary Pleiads seven,Feeds the mute melancholy lust of heaven?Is not his incense bitterness, his meatMurder? his hidden face and iron feetHath not man known, and felt them on their wayThreaten and trample all things and every day?Hath he not sent us hunger? who hath cursedSpirit and flesh with longing? filled with thirstTheir lips who cried unto him? who bade exceedThe fervid will, fall short the feeble deed,Bade sink the spirit and the flesh aspire,Pain animate the dust of dead desire,And life yield up her flower to violent fate?Him would I reach, him smite, him desecrate,Pierce the cold lips of God with human breath,And mix his immortality with death.Why hath he made us? what had all we doneThat we should live and loathe the sterile sun,And with the moon wax paler as she wanes,And pulse by pulse feel time grow through our veins?Thee too the years shall cover; thou shalt beAs the rose born of one same blood with thee,As a song sung, as a word said, and fallFlower-wise, and be not any more at all,Nor any memory of thee anywhere;For never Muse has bound above thine hairThe high Pierian flower whose graft outgrowsAll summer kinship of the mortal roseAnd colour of deciduous days, nor shedReflex and flush of heaven about thine head,Nor reddened brows made pale by floral griefWith splendid shadow from that lordlier leaf.Yea, thou shalt be forgotten like spilt wine,Except these kisses of my lips on thineBrand them with immortality; but me—Men shall not see bright fire nor hear the sea,Nor mix their hearts with music, nor beholdCast forth of heaven with feet of awful goldAnd plumeless wings that make the bright air blind,Lightning, with thunder for a hound behindHunting through fields unfurrowed and unsown—But in the light and laughter, in the moanAnd music, and in grasp of lip and handAnd shudder of water that makes felt on landThe immeasurable tremor of all the sea,Memories shall mix and metaphors of me.Like me shall be the shuddering calm of night,When all the winds of the world for pure delightClose lips that quiver and fold up wings that ache;When nightingales are louder for love’s sake,And leaves tremble like lute-strings or like fire;Like me the one star swooning with desireEven at the cold lips of the sleepless moon,As I at thine; like me the waste white noon,Burnt through with barren sunlight; and like meThe land-stream and the tide-stream in the sea.I am sick with time as these with ebb and flow,And by the yearning in my veins I knowThe yearning sound of waters; and mine eyesBurn as that beamless fire which fills the skiesWith troubled stars and travailing things of flame;And in my heart the grief consuming themLabours, and in my veins the thirst of these,And all the summer travail of the treesAnd all the winter sickness; and the earth,Filled full with deadly works of death and birth,Sore spent with hungry lusts of birth and death,Has pain like mine in her divided breath;Her spring of leaves is barren, and her fruitAshes; her boughs are burdened, and her rootFibrous and gnarled with poison; underneathSerpents have gnawn it through with tortuous teethMade sharp upon the bones of all the dead,And wild birds rend her branches overhead.These, woven as raiment for his word and thought,These hath God made, and me as these, and wroughtSong, and hath lit it at my lips; and meEarth shall not gather though she feed on thee.As a shed tear shalt thou be shed; but I—Lo, earth may labour, men live long and die,Years change and stars, and the high God deviseNew things, and old things wane before his eyesWho wields and wrecks them, being more strong than they—But, having made me, me he shall not slay.Nor slay nor satiate, like those herds of hisWho laugh and live a little, and their kissContents them, and their loves are swift and sweet,And sure death grasps and gains them with slow feet,Love they or hate they, strive or bow their knees—And all these end; he hath his will of these.Yea, but albeit he slay me, hating me—Albeit he hide me in the deep dear seaAnd cover me with cool wan foam, and easeThis soul of mine as any soul of these,And give me water and great sweet waves, and makeThe very sea’s name lordlier for my sake,The whole sea sweeter—albeit I die indeedAnd hide myself and sleep and no man heed,Of me the high God hath not all his will.Blossom of branches, and on each high hillClear air and wind, and under in clamorous valesFierce noises of the fiery nightingales,Buds burning in the sudden spring like fire,The wan washed sand and the waves’ vain desire,Sails seen like blown white flowers at sea, and wordsThat bring tears swiftest, and long notes of birdsViolently singing till the whole world sings—I Sappho shall be one with all these things,With all high things for ever; and my faceSeen once, my songs once heard in a strange place,Cleave to men’s lives, and waste the days thereofWith gladness and much sadness and long love.Yea, they shall say, earth’s womb has borne in vainNew things, and never this best thing again;Borne days and men, borne fruits and wars and wine,Seasons and songs, but no song more like mine.And they shall know me as ye who have known me here,Last year when I loved Atthis, and this yearWhen I love thee; and they shall praise me, and say‘She hath all time as all we have our day,Shall she not live and have her will’—even I?Yea, though thou diest, I say I shall not die.For these shall give me of their souls, shall giveLife, and the days and loves wherewith I live,Shall quicken me with loving, fill with breath,Save me and serve me, strive for me with death.Alas, that neither moon nor snow nor dewNor all cold things can purge me wholly through,Assuage me nor allay me nor appease,Till supreme sleep shall bring me bloodless ease;Till time wax faint in all his periods;Till fate undo the bondage of the gods,And lay, to slake and satiate me all through,Lotus and Lethe on my lips like dew,And shed around and over and under meThick darkness and the insuperable sea.

About the author

Algernon Charles Swinburne photo
Algernon Charles Swinburne
224 works

About the poet

Algernon Charles Swinburne was an English poet, playwright, novelist, and critic. He invented the roundel form, wrote several novels, and contributed to the famous Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in every year from 1903 to 1907 and again in 1909.


Swinburne was born at 7 Chester Street, Grosvenor Place, London, on 5 April 1837. He was the eldest of six children born to Captain (later Admiral) Charles Henry Swinburne and Lady Jane Henrietta, daughter of the 3rd Earl of Ashburnham. He grew up at East Dene in Bonchurch on the Isle of Wight and attended Eton College 1849-53, where he first started writing poetry, and then Balliol College, Oxford 1856-60 with a brief hiatus when he was rusticated from the university in 1859 for having publicly supported the attempted assassination of Napoleon III by Felice Orsini, returning in May 1860, though he never received a degree.

He spent summer holidays at Capheaton Hall in Northumberland, the house of his grandfather, Sir John Swinburne, 6th Baronet (1762–1860) who had a famous library and was President of the Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle upon Tyne. Swinburne considered Northumberland to be his native county, an emotion memorably reflected in poems like the intensely patriotic 'Northumberland', 'Grace Darling' and others. He enjoyed riding his pony across the moors (he was a daring horseman) 'through honeyed leagues of the northland border'. He never called it the Scottish border.

In the years 1857–60, Swinburne became one of Lady Pauline Trevelyan's intellectual circle at Wallington Hall and after his grandfather's death in 1860, would stay with William Bell Scott in Newcastle. In December 1862, Swinburne accompanied Scott and his guests, probably including Dante Gabriel Rossetti , on a trip to Tynemouth. Scott writes in his memoirs that as they walked by the sea, Swinburne declaimed the as yet unpublished 'Hymn to Proserpine' and 'Laus Veneris' in his lilting intonation, while the waves 'were running the whole length of the long level sands towards Cullercoats and sounding like far-off acclamations'.

At Oxford Swinburne met several Pre-Raphaelites, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He also met William Morris. After leaving college he lived in London and started an active writing career, where Rossetti was delighted with his 'little Northumbrian friend', a reference to Swinburne's diminutive height—he was just over five feet tall.

His poetic works include: Atalanta in Calydon (1865), Poems and Ballads (1866), Songs before Sunrise (1871), Poems and Ballads Second Series, (1878) Tristram of Lyonesse (1882), Poems and Ballads Third Series (1889), and the novel Lesbia Brandon (published posthumously in 1952).

Poems and Ballads caused a sensation when it was first published , especially the poems written in homage of Sappho of Lesbos such as "Anactoria" and "Sapphics": Moxon and Co. transferred its publication rights to John Camden Hotten.Other poems in this volume such as "The Leper," "Laus Veneris," and "St Dorothy" evoke a Victorian fascination with the Middle Ages, and are explicitly mediaeval in style, tone and construction. Also featured in this volume are "Hymn to Proserpine", "The Triumph of Time" and "Dolores (Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs)".

Swinburne devised the poetic form called the roundel, a variation of the French Rondeau form, and some were included in A Century of Roundels dedicated to Christina Rossetti. Swinburne wrote to Edward Burne-Jones in 1883: "I have got a tiny new book of songs or songlets, in one form and all manner of metres ... just coming out, of which Miss Rossetti has accepted the dedication. I hope you and Georgie [his wife Georgiana, one of the MacDonald sisters] will find something to like among a hundred poems of nine lines each, twenty-four of which are about babies or small children". Opinions of these poems vary between those who find them captivating and brilliant, to those who find them merely clever and contrived. One of them, A Baby's Death, was set to music by the English composer Sir Edward Elgar as the song Roundel: The little eyes that never knew Light.

Swinburne was an alcoholic and algolagniac, and a highly excitable character. His health suffered as a result, and in 1879 at the age of 42 he was taken into care by his friend Theodore Watts, who looked after him for the rest of his life at The Pines, 11 Putney Hill, Putney SW15.Thereafter he lost his youthful rebelliousness and developed into a figure of social respectability. He died at the Pines,on 10 April 1909 at the age of 72 and was buried at St. Boniface Church, Bonchurch on the Isle of Wight.


Swinburne is considered a decadent poet, although he perhaps professed to more vice than he actually indulged in; Oscar Wilde stated that Swinburne was "a braggart in matters of vice, who had done everything he could to convince his fellow citizens of his homosexuality and bestiality without being in the slightest degree a homosexual or a bestializer."

His mastery of vocabulary, rhyme and metre is impressive, although he has also been criticized for his florid style and word choices that only fit the rhyme scheme rather than contributing to the meaning of the piece. He is the virtual star of the third volume of George Saintsbury's famous History of English Prosody, and A. E. Housman, a more measured and even somewhat hostile critic, devoted paragraphs of praise to his rhyming ability.

Swinburne's work was once quite popular among undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge, though today it has gone out of fashion. This is at least somewhat contextual, as it tends to mirror the popular and academic consensus regarding his work, although his Poems and Ballads, First Series and his Atalanta in Calydon have never been out of critical favour.

It was Swinburne's misfortune that the two works, published when he was nearly 30, soon established him as England's premier poet, the successor to Robert Browning This was a position he held in the popular mind until his death, but sophisticated critics like A. E. Housman felt, rightly or wrongly, that the job of being one of England's very greatest poets was beyond him.

After the first Poems and Ballads, Swinburne's later poetry is devoted more to philosophy and politics (notably, in favour of the unification of Italy, particularly in the volume Songs before Sunrise). He does not stop writing love poetry entirely (including his great epic-length poem, Tristram of Lyonesse), but the content is much less shocking. His versification, and especially his rhyming technique, remain in top form to the end.

T.S. Eliot read Swinburne's essays on the Shakespearean and Jonsonian dramatists in The Contemporaries of Shakespeare and The Age of Shakespeare and Swinburne's books on Shakespeare and Jonson. Writing on Swinburne in 'The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism', Eliot found that as a poet writing notes on poets, he had mastered his material, writing "'he is more reliable to them than Hazlitt, Coleridge , or Lamb : and his perception of relative values is almost always correct." However, Eliot disliked Swinburne's prose. About this he wrote "the tumultuous outcry of adjectives, the headstrong rush of undisciplined sentences, are the index to the impatience and perhaps laziness of a disorderly mind."

pædia Britannica. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in every year from 1903 to 1907
Show full text