A Swinburne song catalogue, a work in progress, and two Holy Grails

21Here is a catalogue of songs which were set to the lyrics of Swinburne and published between 1866-1920. It also lists a few important unpublished songs and some musical oddities and odds and ends that I’m not sure how to classify, but which I have included in the final pages. I’m making this available as I have now completed my PhD thesis: ‘Swinburne and Wagner: Poetry and Music’. This forms the third appendix of the thesis, although as the thesis was being written it often appeared to be what Swinburne might have called an ‘extraneous tail or fin stitched on’.[1] Not an essential part of the whole, the catalogue acted more as an accompaniment, definitely a prolongation, and perhaps an excursion into realms that a more sensible student might have visited later.

I started compiling this catalogue after reading T. S. Eliot’s chapter in The Sacred Wood (1920), called ‘Swinburne as Poet’. Here Eliot claims that the beauty of Swinburne’s verse and its effect of sound is ‘neither that of music nor that of poetry which can be set to music’, and, again, ‘what we get in Swinburne is an expression by sound, which could not possibly associate itself with music’.[2] Eliot makes several other denials about Swinburne’s musical suitability which I will not go into here, but these critical declarations acted as a sort of matador’s cloak and after reading them I was determined to charge Eliot down. By the end of an afternoon I had found several examples of Swinburne musical settings and before long I had well over a hundred items and so presented my findings at the 150th Poems and Ballads Conference at St John’s College in Cambridge in 2016. After this, I went on to write an article based on an earlier version of this list, which eventually appeared in the Journal of Victorian Culture as ‘Swinburne, Wagner, Eliot and the Musical Legacy of Poems and Ballads’.[3] Since its first presentation at St John’s, I have updated, revised, and altered the catalogue as more items have come to light or as I have got hold of pieces that have now proved to be of no interest.

This is a work in progress not a finale. If you happen to find any songs not given in this catalogue or discover an error, please don’t hesitate to contact me and I will update the catalogue and credit you accordingly. (I have included several American examples and some French and German songs, but there are bound to be more.) Additionally, should you wish to use this catalogue in your work, I would be grateful if you could give me credit. Compiling this list has cost a great deal of time, caused many fingernails to be bitten, exotic teas to be drunk, and quite a few trains to be caught – with necessary costs – in trying to track down tatty Victorian musical scores. A link or citation in recognition of this would be much appreciated.

Lastly, if you happen to come across two pieces set to the lyrics of Swinburne by Theophilus Marzials – other than Félise or Ask Nothing More – please immediately drop everything and get in touch. To me, these (if they were ever written) are the Victorian song equivalents of the Grail or the Ark of the Covenant. While I will not pay handsomely for their recovery, I may take you out for a drink or two.[4]

To download the catalogue: Swinburne song list 110820i


[1] Swinburne was referring to his additions to Alexander Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake: Pictor Ignotus (1863) but which later formed part of his own William Blake (1868). See The Swinburne Letters (hereafter TSL), ed. by Cecil Y. Lang, 6 vols. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1959-1962), I, 59.

[2] T. S. Eliot, ‘Swinburne as Poet’, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (London: Methuen, 1980), pp. 144-150 (p. 146).

[3] In this article I tackle Eliot’s use of the word ‘beauty’ in his arguments concerning the unsuitability/impossibility of musical adaptation of the Swinburnian lyric, which I also do – at greater length – in the last chapter of my thesis.

[4] On 17 November 1876, Swinburne wrote to Edmund Gosse that ‘Marzials is most welcome to publish his music to (and with) any words of mine. What are his four chosen pieces? I should like to see and hear them’. I have only found two of these pieces so far. See TSL, III, 214.

Categories: music, poetry

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