I don’t remember when or how I began to read Swinburne. When I try it’s like trying to remember a dream. All I see are outlines of images, rough around the edges and endlessly moving. It may have been from Pound, who introduced me to all sorts of things I’d never have come to otherwise: the Troubadours; the grimy, worm-like part of Venetian literature; a certain way of considering the past. It might, though, have been from somewhere else, from a friend or a person I was falling in love with (this was a decade ago). I do know for sure that Swinburne haunts me, in the way that a pretty thing is haunting, and that I’ll never get over it.
At first I must have loved the titles because I put a lot of stock in a good titles-and Swinburne has very good ones: The Triumph of Time; A Ballad of Life; A Ballad of Death; A Ballad of François Villon, Prince of All Ballad Makers. They are absurdly broad, austere and almost awkward except for the fact that the poem that follows always overwhelms far more than the title, and not only does the title then seem appropriately grandiose but it seems slightly modest. And then it must have been that I felt like he was speaking through me, because around that time I felt like I didn’t have any words of my own and maybe I never do and for that matter maybe no one ever does but especially at that time I didn’t and couldn’t even pretend that I had my own words so I let his become mine because he seemed to need to repeat them over and over, even in the same line, in the way that I needed to repeat words silently to myself after I said them out loud.
Later that haunting would come, like all real haunting comes, precisely when expected. And at that moment of emptiness or eagerness or flightiness or anger or elation or fear that sprawling, sweeping sound of his verse returned. More than anything his poetry is a triumph of the ceaseless return. And it’s a reminder that we’ll never lose anything, not even our pain.