[(essay date 1990) In the following essay, Carley discusses the defining characteristics of Swinburne's Arthurian poems.]
Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) was one of the large group of poets and artists who fell under the spell of the Arthurian legend in the mid nineteenth century. As he would later explain in Under the Microscope (1872)
The story as it stood of old had in it something almost of Hellenic dignity and significance; in it as in the great Greek legends we could trace from a seemingly small root of evil the birth and growth of a calamitous fate, not sent by mere malevolence of heaven, yet in its awful weight and mystery of darkness apparently out of all due retributive proportion to the careless sin or folly of presumptuous weakness which first incurred its infliction; so that by mere hasty resistance and return of violence for violence a noble man may unwittingly bring on himself and all his house the curse denounced on parricide, by mere casual indulgence in light love and passing wantonness a hero king may unknowingly bring on himself and all his kingdom the doom imposed on incest.
For Swinburne, as for so many others, Sir Thomas Malory's great collection, the Morte Darthur (which had become widely available through two editions--one by the poet Robert Southey--earlier in the century) represented a major source of inspiration. Even earlier, however, Swinburne's firsthand acquaintance with the fine illuminated medieval manuscripts in the library of his uncle, the Earl of Ashburnham, exerted a formative influence; years later he told Edmund Gosse 'that the medieval and French sections of his uncle's famous collection had been a source of unfailing enjoyment to him.' As an undergraduate at Oxford, he became a disciple of William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti and wrote the first poems of the complete Arthuriad he envisaged in conscious imitation of their renditions.
The early poems are all short and several remain unfinished. Although he knew the general outlines of the Tristram story both from Malory and from various medieval French versions, Swinburne's chief model in his 'Queen Yseult' (an incomplete work of six cantos in irregular iambic tetrameter rhyming triplets, written in 1857-58) was Sir Walter Scott's edition of Sir Tristrem. The poem begins at the point when Tristram's mother, Blancheflour, takes Roland 'to paramour' and ends with Yseult of Ireland's lonely vigil in Cornwall after Tristram has married Yseult of the White Hands: 'So she saw days go and come, / And at night in the old room / Lay she gazing thro' the gloom.' 'Queen Yseult' stands as a verbal portrait of Yseult in all her beauty, emblemized by 'her golden corn-ripe hair'; the poem is a kind of equivalent to the voluptuous paintings being produced by Morris, Rossetti and others. 'Joyeuse Garde' (1859) describes a meeting between Tristram and Yseult at Lancelot's castle. Summer heat and stillness are evoked--'the noon outside them seem to throb and sink / Wrought in the quiet to a rounded rhyme'--and form a...