In May 1864, Robert Browning set Caliban's voice indelibly upon Setebos. But the year before, Algernon Swinburne placed it briefly in the sky. "Caliban in the Clouds"--this was the original title for a vicious, twenty-two-folio manuscript essay Swinburne penned on his contemporary. Its Shakespeare conceit, selected before Browning published Dramatis Personae, feels retrospectively prophetic. (1) "But Caliban, under extreme provocation of cramps and pinches, never uttered a sound like that," Swinburne wrote of "Through the Metidja to Abd-el-Kadr" (1842); "Bishop Blougram's Apology" (1855) was declared "the music of transcendental Caliban uttered through the organ of mutilated Gigadibs." (2) When he amended the title, it remained oddly prescient: Long before Robert Buchanan's 1871 Contemporary Review article banished the Pre-Raphaelites to their fleshly academe, Swinburne condemned Browning to "The Chaotic School."
That sentence was never passed in public. For a century, "The Chaotic School" remained unpublished, and when it came to light thanks to Cecil Lang's scrupulous reconstruction, it caused little stir. Lang cast the essay as an unjust reaction to a personal slight--unenthusiastic words from Browning to Frederick Chapman lost Swinburne a potential publisher--and scholars have largely followed his lead. Occasionally, they lift an epigram on critical method, cite a passage on the anapest, or connect the essay to Swinburne's Heptalogia (1880). (3) But provocative suggestions lurk in their footnotes, such as Robert Peters's aside that the essay poses a "fascinating problem in Swinburne criticism" (p. 168) or Robert Greenberg's suggestion that "within the excess is an essential attitude, confirmed in the verse parody" (p. 264).
This paper begins--and will end--by questioning the relation between "excess" and "essential attitude," those links we often posit between textual affect and textual evidence. Why, I ask, is vitriol fueled by social slight judged less reliable than the laudatory excursus on Browning in Swinburne's George Chapman (1875)--which Lang calls an "affectionate attempt to redress the balance so rudely upset" (p. 200)--or the plaintive "Sequence of Sonnets on the Death of Robert Browning" (1890)? What undergirds the belief that public encomia and elegies are more reliable sources than private polemics?
"The Chaotic School," after all, was no outlier for the Swinburne of the early 1860s, a period in which he produced critical and poetic works with a remarkable diversity in voice and tone. As a reviewer for The Spectator, Swinburne experimented with dialogism and satire in essays on Charles Baudelaire and Victor Hugo, going so far as to invent authorial personae in two hoax reviews of Felicien Cossu and Ernest Clouet. Just as he was scorning Browning's handling of the dramatic lyric, Swinburne was developing his own variants of the form: poems like "Laus Veneris," "The Leper," "Itylus," and "Anactoria" that became touchstones of Poems and Ballads (1866). (4)
Attending slowly and seriously to "The Chaotic School," I suggest, offers us new insight into that embryonic moment, for the essay reveals Swinburne's concerted, and unexpected, attention to issues of character, story, and decorum in the dramatic monologue. Browning's talent for establishing those contextual determinants has long...