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Swinburne's Heptalogia Improved by Robert A. Greenberg
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Swinburne's Heptalogia Improved
Robert A. Greenberg

Swinburne's continuing interest in the Theban legend, "with its infinite suggestions and significances,"[1] provided the binding metaphor when in 1880 he gathered a series of his parodies, written over a period of two decades, under the omnibus title, Specimens of Modern Verse: The Heptalogia, or The Seven against Sense: A Cap with Seven Bells. The volume was issued anonymously, and obviously with good cause since six of its subjects were alive and still writing. It was essential, moreover, to Swinburne's design that it be published on the same date as his Studies in Song, which he intended to acknowledge. "How is it," he inquires irritably of Andrew Chatto, "that no copies of the Heptalogia accompanied these Studies? You will remember that it was my particular desire that the two books should appear together on the same day."[2] Though simultaneous


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publication would have the effect of associating the two collections, the overtness of the gesture might serve to keep them sufficiently apart as to prevent the matter of authorship from becoming more than a tantalizing likelihood. Two further measures were calculated to cloud the issue. In the "Nephelidia" parody, Swinburne numbered himself among the modern heroes (Tennyson, the Brownings, Patmore, "Owen Meredith," Rossetti) besieging the walls of poetic sense; and then as a sign of friendship with Browning, he borrowed the opening lines of Landor's "To Robert Browning" for the epigraph to his own "Song for the Centenary of Walter Savage Landor," which initiated the Studies volume. Since the two poets responded to the same master and had received in their several ways his acknowledgement, it was as unlikely that Swinburne would parody Browning as that he would parody himself or his old friend Rossetti.

Ambiguity there was, but the truth, as Swinburne doubtless assumed, was not to remain dark for very long. On the book's appearance, Rossetti wrote briefly to Watts-Dunton, asking whether the "whole" was from Swinburne's hand and whether it appeared with his sanction. Though he had yet to see the collection, its contents "as reported seemed very dubious as to friendship."[3] Whatever the mollification Watts-Dunton may have offered, it is not recorded; and indeed the record of allusion to the Heptalogia gradually closes off, much as though an indiscretion (however well-loved) were henceforth to be dead and buried. Perhaps this was a further concession to the cautious new regimen imposed at The Pines, though it is to be recalled that Watts-Dunton proved no obstacle when late in 1881 the poet published his "Disgust: A Dramatic Monologue" in reaction to Tennyson's "Despair: A Dramatic Monologue." In any event, as late as 1896, T. J. Wise and W. R. Nicoll thought it safe to pronounce, as if drawing upon a private confidence, that "it may without hesitation now be stated that Mr. Swinburne has admitted the authorship of The Heptalogia, but has at the same time expressed his determination never to republish the volume."[4]

What enterprise may have already been brewing in Wise's imagination must be left to inference, but he and Nicoll would have done well to hesitate before entering the second claim. For when Swinburne proceeded to order his poetry for the Collected Poems of 1904, the Heptalogia was accorded its proper position among the later miscellanies that compose the fifth volume. At that point, Swinburne not only formally acknowledged his authorship, but, contrary to his usual practice, made substantial alterations


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in the contents. Having shown himself a false prophet, Wise simply passed the matter over in his Swinburne Bibliography of 1919, not without noting, however, that all of the revisions the poet was to absorb in his reprint had been recorded in "two copies of the first edition. . . . One of these, which had belonged to Andrew Chatto, was sold . . . on June 29th, 1916, for £69. The other, which belonged to Watts-Dunton, was included in a bequest . . . to one of his executors."[5] Of the two copies Wise mentions, only one — the Chatto — has come to light,[6] and its provenance becomes evident from two letters published for the first time in Cecil Lang's edition of the correspondence. On December 7, 1899, Swinburne writes to Georgiana Burne-Jones, the widow of his long-time friend:
It would be a very great kindness to me, and I hope not any trouble to you if you could send me back the copy of my little book "The Heptalogia," with a quantity of MS additions on the margins which I once sent to Ned. It is to be reprinted, and I have lost a copy in which I had transcribed these additions.
The volume was duly received, and two months later, Swinburne presumably having copied from it, it is returned "with many thanks."[7]

The two copies alluded to by Wise were thus unquestionable latecomers, their transcriptions based on the copy Swinburne had presented long before to Burne-Jones. Though this volume has yet to be unearthed, it turns out that another, contemporary with it, does in fact exist; and there is good reason to assume that it is a close approximation, if not a precise version, of the volume that Swinburne used as his source. In its margins are to be found, in Swinburne's hand, virtually all of the revisions he was to incorporate in the reprint. Attached to it, and of significant bibliographical and biographical relevance, are three letters in the hand of its original owner, John Nichol, addressed to his Glasgow bookseller, Hugh Hopkins.

Nichol had first met Swinburne while both were undergraduates at Oxford, and though he was to return to Scotland soon after taking his degree, their friendship remained fast through the 1860's and 1870's. In June of 1880 Nichol passed a gratifying week with Swinburne and Watts-Dunton at their new accommodations; the Heptalogia appeared in December of that year; and in March of the next Nichol published his review of it in the Glasgow Herald.[8] But as happened so often to Swinburne's old friendships, his relations with Nichol gradually lessened and came finally


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to seem irrelevant to the needs of his present world.[9] Nichol's resentment, of which Swinburne seems never to have been conscious, provides the biographical burden of the letters that follow.

The first, dated 20 September 1890, establishes the context and tone of the other two:

Dear Sir,

I do not myself value Heptalogia at so much as is offered for it, especially as I have already said in a review all that I have to say of it: & I do not like the attack on my friend "Owen Meredith" at all. But in full reflection I have come to the conclusion that I cannot sell the book with notes which may seem or be said to be of the nature of a private communication, ie that it must not be sold while both Swinburne & I are alive. He has of late years become such an egotist that I do not so much as I once wd have done, consider his feelings in the matter: but I can allow no one [anyth deleted] anywhere to be able to say that for the sake of a little money I did an ungentlemanly thing. I did not send the book to you for sale but for sight. Your foreman may have misunderstood me however: & you may give my explanation, with my excuses, to the gentleman who has offered for the book.

Yours truly

The second letter, dated 19 October, shows still the firmness of Nichol's resolve, though with a minor concession:

Dear Sir,

I called when in town last but you were out. As I may be hurried when passing through on my way south, it would save trouble if you could make up our balance — on one side my debt to you for packing, etc, on the other sums due for Atalanta & doing estimate of books taken in & amounts received from Messrs Smart and McCormick. Then if convenient send me here a cheque for the balance. I shall call for Heptalogia: tell the gentleman that he may have it for the sum offered immediately on [Swin deleted] my death or Swinburne's.

Yours truly

Nichol's allusion to the sale of Atalanta in Calydon, quite possibly Swinburne's presentation copy, suggests the degree of souring of their friendship. His commitment at this point to only a posthumous sale of the Heptalogia gives way in the next letter, dated 23 October. The opening concerns Nichol's accounts, and then he promises to come down on the 31st.

. . . I shall tell you definitely about the "Heptalogia". The author has not answered a letter of mine which required an answer: & if he really means to cut me because I [have become a friend of deleted] accepted an invitation from Lord Lytton ["Owen Meredith"], I shall cut him.


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Three lines are then heavily stricken out, so emphatically that only two words — "old days" — are at all intelligible; but they perhaps intimate the drift of the rest. The letter resumes:

Tell your customer, with my compts: — 1 / I do not like the MS abuse, or I should not dream of parting with it.

2. I do not think he would be making a bad bargain, if he had liberty to sell the book; for it is a curiosity & to Swinburne worshippers (of whom I am not one), a treasure.

3. But, in such a curious transaction (if I decide to complete it), as he knows my name, I think, I ought to know his: and I would require his promise not to show about, or part with, the book till my death or Swinburne's. In the first event I should certainly, save through "planchet," have no more to say; in the second (which be far hence) I would feel free from obligation.

Ascertain, & then let lie till I call . . . .

The identity of the shadowy gentleman — indeed, whether it was he who made the purchase — remains uncertain. When the volume next appears, it is as part of the Jerome Kern Collection, from which it was bought in 1929 by Owen D. Young, with whose library it passed into the Berg Collection, where it now resides.[10]


What is especially apparent in the preceding correspondence is that though Swinburne's revisions were first published in the Poems of 1904, he did not compose them (but for certain exceptions subsequently to be noted) specifically for that edition. At the very outermost, they can conceivably be dated of the summer of 1890; but the likely time is considerably earlier, quite possibly soon after the volume's appearance in 1880. Two reconstructions seem to me possible. Swinburne, whose parodic powers are hardly to be matched in English literature, received an early issue of the Heptalogia and reimmersed himself in the several parodies. Having made his revisions, he transcribed them into certain of the presentation copies — to Burne-Jones, to Nichol, perhaps to others. The possibility of a second edition so soon after the first was probably furthest from his mind: the revisions, rather, were in the nature of a private pleasure, what Nichol scrupulously termed a "private communication." Seen in this light, their closest parallel occurs in the day-to-day correspondence with these same friends: those parodic flights on the wings of Dickens, Sade, a newspaper clipping, the Old Testament; Swinburne could hardly restrain himself at such moments, and they make a considerable joy for the reader of the letters.


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The alternative construction would have the poet returning some time in the 1880's to the text, making the changes, transcribing them in other copies of the first edition, and then sending them for some unclear reason (perhaps as yet unclear) to Burne-Jones, Nichol, and possibly others. Nor is it likely, even disregarding the restraining hand of Watts-Dunton, that Swinburne would have had hopes for a new edition some time in the 1880's. The book's initial reception had been far from happy, as Swinburne may be heard complaining in the Letters; and he resigns himself once more to the lack of a readership. Having learned long before to expect little, he can hardly be disappointed.[11]

And so the matter rested, until the poet's request of Georgiana Burne-Jones in 1899. It is doubtful that the allusion in that letter to a "reprint" implies that he was contemplating a separate issue of the Heptalogia. But for Swinburne himself, all those he had taken as fair game were long dead; the volume by itself was not likely to matter much as a greeting to the new century. Very probably his intent was to prepare a complete version for the forthcoming Poems, which had been in the planning at least as far back as 1896: by then he had already begun composing the "Dedicatory Epistle" to Watts-Dunton.[12]


Swinburne's revisions separate by time into two categories: those we find transcribed in the Nichol copy, and those not present there and presumably incorporated at some point between 1900 and 1904. A subdivision of the second category consists of Swinburne's revision of his revisions, his several minor changes in the material he had added to the Nichol. The three parodies left untouched are those of Mrs. Browning ("The Poet and the Woodlouse"), of Rossetti ("Sonnet for a Picture"), and of Swinburne himself.

"The Higher Pantheism in a Nutshell"
Modeled upon Tennyson's "The Higher Pantheism," which had appeared in 1869, Swinburne's version consisted originally of twenty-four lines, six more than the original. In the margins of the Nichol are inked two additional lines, which in 1904 become lines 15-16:
More is the whole than a part: but half is more than the whole:
Clearly, the soul is the body: but is not the body the soul?
"John Jones's Wife"
Browning's "James Lee" appeared initially in Dramatis Personae (1864), but when reissued four years later it bore the title "James Lee's Wife." On its first appearance, Swinburne's parody was called simply "John Jones"; no change of title occurs in the Nichol, which suggests that Swinburne was


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still unaware of Browning's adjustment and, perhaps, that little time passed between the publication of Heptalogia and Swinburne's revisions. However, in the Chatto and then in 1904, it is newly titled to reflect Browning's revision, and possibly to parody it since Swinburne's emphasis is as much on Browning's unintelligibility (who is the speaker?) as on his diction. In keeping with the original, Swinburne divides his poem into parts, each with its appropriate heading ("By the Cliff," "Up the Spout"); but though Browning's sections total nine, Swinburne relents at five.

"I. At the Piano." The one revision in this section is in the form of an omission. In 1880 line 12 reads,

Hues of the prawn's tail or comb that makes dawn stale,1 so red for our sins!
The number is resumed at the bottom of the page:
1Whose youth and freshness
Wrinkles Apollo's, and makes stale the morning. — SHAKESPEARE.
The juxtaposition sets Shakespeare's felicity against Browning's harshness; in showing the comparison, Browning is made presumably to vaunt his improvement on the original. Number and note remain unaltered in both the Nichol and the Chatto, but are omitted from the published version of 1904.

"III. On the Sands." Totals twenty-four stanzas in 1880; three more (X through XII) are added in the Nichol, the remainder renumbered. Minor revisions of the Nichol material show in 1904:

1. 49: contents for suffices; (see?), added
1. 59: o'for oh
As much as he admired the vigor of Browning's imagination, Swinburne could not be reconciled to his style — his "miserable English language, garotted, gouged, her jaw broken and the teeth driven down her throat."[13] Two revisions which strongly suggest the texture Swinburne sought are recorded for the first time in the Chatto:
1. 8: Chicken or egg for Nay, but, Meg
1. 25: and be hanged to the pup! for and who cares for the pup?

"V. Off the Pier." Consists of eight stanzas in 1880, to which a ninth (VI) is added in Nichol, Swinburne renumbering those that follow. The nine are given without further change in 1904. Allusions in the new stanza help, I think, in the question of dating:


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. . . Shakespeare (Malone's)
Might have said sleep was murdered — new scholiasts have sent
you pills
To purge text of him! Bread? give me — Scottice — scones!
The "new scholiasts" alludes, obviously, to the followers of F. J. Furnivall, with whom Swinburne had been feuding since the mid-1870's. Their controversy, after a momentary lapse in intensity, reached high climax by the start of 1881 with the appearance of two pamphlets: Furnivall's The 'Co.' of Pigsbrook & Co. (for Pigsbrook we are to read Swines-burn) and J. O. Halliwell-Phillipps' Correspondence with Robt. Browning, president of New Shakespere society, relative to language used by Mr. Furnivall in speaking of Mr. Halliwell-Phillipps. Swinburne was especially concerned that Browning should be in alliance with Furnivall, and he made the overture of sending him a copy of Studies in Song, which Browning gracefully acknowledged.[14] Neither poet alludes to the Heptalogia, nearly a half of which is devoted to Elizabeth and Robert Browning.
"The Person of the House"
Patmore's Angel in the House had appeared in 1854, and if Wise's dating is to be trusted, Swinburne composed his version in 1859, while he was yet at Oxford.[15] The one revision, present in Nichol and retained in 1904, occurs in line 16 which as first printed had read: "Kit, Nick, Dick, Mark, Aminadab." For "Kit," the diminutive of Christopher, the Christ-bearer, Swinburne substitutes "Luke." The change was motivated probably by the desire to afford a private pleasure since its effect is primarily visual, the inked in replacement demonstrating to Nichol and Burne-Jones how the poet can modulate from assonance to consonance, sustain the association with Mark and especially with Aminadab (see Luke 3:33), and generally affirm the household religiosity of the speaker. Swinburne knew better than to intrude when later the new-born in question is christened Paul Cyril Athanasius John.
"Last Words of a Seventh-Rate Poet"
This is the longest and, as its title implies, the most merciless of the seven parodies; it assaults poet and works. Swinburne was, or pretended to be, personally offended by Lytton's public sneers in his direction;[16] more important, as a poet he was affronted by the mannerisms of this "poeticule" — at once casual and flaccid and unoriginal, the qualities brought into focus in the parody. Swinburne accuses Lytton of plagiarism and seems to have enjoyed the irony of plagiarizing the plagiarist; his additions, the bulk of them in Nichol, are lavish.


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  • 1. 41: lava for ova (in Nichol and retained)
  • 11. 54-55: in Nichol and retained
  • 11. 72-77: in Nichol and retained
  • 1. 83: disputing my claim to Empedocles, Maud for assign to his hand the Confessional, Bill (in Nichol and retained)
  • 11. 130-133: in Nichol and retained with minor revisions:
  • 1. 132: disdainful for contemptuous
  • 1. 133: it was for they were
  • 1. 140: lips for life (in Nichol and retained)
  • 11. 206-213: in Nichol and retained with minor revisions:
  • 1. 207: title for rank; always, added
  • 1. 211: reader — to for public, to
  • 11. 222-229: in Nichol and retained
  • 1. 237: vent for write (in Nichol and retained)
There is, however, one major addition which appears initially in the Chatto copy from which it is then carried into the 1904 edition. As his close, under the heading "Specimen from the speaker's original poems," Swinburne appends a travesty of the most famous of the lyrics in Maud, thus offering in evidence a document in support of his earlier revision of line 83:
Come into the orchard, Anne,
For the dark owl, Night, has fled,
And Phosphor slumbers, as well as he can
With a daffodil sky for a bed:
And the musk of the roses perplexes a man
And the pimpernel [worries deleted] muddles his head.
Swinburne's primary target remains, of course, "Owen Meredith," his chosen mask, though one may perhaps suspect the faintest malice in the direction of Tennyson.



The Swinburne Letters, ed. Cecil Y. Lang (1959), II, 122.


Letters, IV, 180; see also IV, 131.


Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, edd. Oswald Doughty and John Robert Wahl (1967), IV, 1849-1850.


Literary Anecdotes of the Nineteenth Century . . . (1896), II, 333. On the same page Nicoll and Wise also mistakenly identify the subject of the third parody, "The Poet and the Woodlouse," as being Walt Whitman. Swinburne himself may have been the culprit, deliberately misleading them as he apparently did Wise on other occasions: see Wise's complaint in the Bibliography appended to the Bonchurch Edition, XX, 575.


A Bibliography of the Writings in Prose and Verse of Algernon Charles Swinburne (1919), I, 306.


This volume, now part of the Tinker holdings at the Beinecke Library, bears the name of Andrew Chatto on the title page. I am grateful to the Yale University Library for permission to draw upon the volume in the present study.


Letters, VI, 145, 146.


Letters, IV, 151-152, 211.


With no intent to hurt, Swinburne writes to Nichol in 1888: "I wish I could visit you — many thanks for the expressed wish . . . but even if I could on all other accounts I could hardly manage so long a railway journey unless in case of something like a necessity" (Letters, V, 243-244).


For permission to use both this volume and the three Nichol letters, I am indebted to the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of The New York Public Library, Astor, Lennox and Tilden Foundations.


Letters, IV, 229.


Letters, VI, 110.


"The Chaotic School," in New Writings by Swinburne, ed. Cecil Y. Lang (1964), p. 42. As Lang shows (pp. 199-200), the whole of this one-sided, intemperate piece was written in momentary rage at Browning; the rage over, Swinburne let the manuscript lie. But within the excess is an essential attitude, confirmed in the verse parody.


Letters, IV, 190, 187; for Browning's acknowledgement, IV, 189. The formation in 1880 of the Browning Society, with Furnivall in prominence, was doubtless an additional grievance.


T. J. Wise, The Ashley Library (1925), VI, 146.


Letters, III, 218, 220.