‘A Match’: Swinburne in Paris, Richard Monckton Milnes, “William Blake”, and Wagner’s “Tannhäuser”

The first two stanzas of A Match by Jeremiah Rhodes, published in 1868. Swinburne’s poem ‘A Match’ from his 1866 collection Poems and Ballads would become one of his most popular lyrics and the poem most often set to music. A Match, Jeremiah Rhodes (London: Charles Jeffreys, 1868)

My interest in this 1868 setting of Swinburne’s poem ‘A Match’ by Jeremiah Rhodes lies not so much in the music, which is charming, but more in its association. The piece was the third musical adaptation of Swinburne’s lyrics and it is fitting that Rhodes dedicated it to Annabel Milnes, the wife of Richard Monckton Milnes, who became Lord Houghton in 1863. Monckton Milnes influenced Swinburne’s formation as a poet, not least because he apparently had an extensive collection of erotica, which gave Swinburne access to the ‘mystic pages of the martyred marquis de Sade’.[1]

Lord Houghton, Richard Monckton Milnes,1809-1885. From T. Wemyss Reid’s The Life, Letters, and Friendships of Richard Monckton Milnes, First Lord Houghton (1890)

Swinburne and the Houghtons were close friends. Annabel’s lunch and dinner diaries show that Swinburne dined or lunched with her and her husband at least 21 times between 1861-9.[2] Her daily diary also mentions Swinburne. On 10 April 1866, for example, Annabel states that she took a trip to Pontefract or ‘Pomfret’ with Swinburne to observe the court sessions. While I can find little about the composer of this musical setting of ‘A Match’, Jeremiah Rhodes appears to have been a church organist in Pontefract. The Bradford Observer of 3 December 1863, has him playing the newly-restored organ of Christ Church Huddersfield. He later moved to Bradford, it seems, where he became the director of the city’s Festival Choir. Presumably, he dedicated ‘A Match’ to Annabel Milnes in the knowledge that she and Swinburne were friends.

Annabel or Annabella Milnes, Lady Houghton, by Camille Silvy
albumen print, 4 July 1861
3 3/8 in. x 2 1/4 in. (85 mm x 56 mm) image size. Licensed from the National Portrait Gallery by Creative Commons Agreement, Purchased, 1904, NPG Ax54765

Swinburne got to know the couple in 1861 because of his work on Alexander Gilchrist’s biography William Blake: Pictor Ignotus (1863). In that year, Swinburne had looked ‘over some books of Blake’s’ with Dante Gabriel Rossetti at Gilchrist’s house at 6 Cheyne Walk.[3] Earlier that day he had replied to an invitation to breakfast from Richard Monckton Milnes for the following morning. As the reply is formal, this must have been their first meeting. In The Swinburne Letters, Cecil Lang notes that the poet’s friendship with Milnes had surely been pre-ordained because of their mutual interests, although ‘how they became known to each other is still undetermined’. Presumably it was because Milnes also owned a great many Blake manuscripts and Gilchrist may have secured the invitation.[4] Swinburne later stated that Milnes’s collection far surpassed that of the British Library’s: ‘it has not a tithe of what you have in the way of Blakes; and we know of no other accessible place that has’.[5]

Gilchrist died in late 1861, leaving his biography unfinished, although Swinburne, D. G. Rossetti and his brother William Michael Rossetti were determined to complete it. Over the next couple of years, Swinburne went back and forth between London and Fryston Hall, Milnes’s house in West Yorkshire. He was initially trying to finish a section in the biography about Blake’s Prophetic Books. This aim changed, however, as Swinburne’s own research led him to worry that his contributions might feel like an ‘extraneous tail or fin stitched on’ to the biography, rather than part of a whole. He proposed instead ‘a distinct small commentary of a running kind’. This became Swinburne’s extraordinary but sadly-neglected William Blake: A Critical Essay (1867/8).[6] This is not to say that Swinburne’s contributions did not make it into Gilchrist’s biography. When reading it, I think it is possible to momentarily glimpse Swinburne’s ‘fin’ rising above the sentence waves.

My own 1868 copy of Swinburne’s extraordinary work William Blake: A Critical Essay

On one of his visits to Fryston, Swinburne is alleged to have embarrassed the Archbishop of York by reading some of his poetry, possibly ‘Les Noyades’ and ‘The Leper’ (both published 1866). This was the recently-enthroned William Thomson, who had been invited to Fryston along with William Makepeace Thackeray and his daughters, who apparently giggled at the Archbishop’s embarrassment. This anecdote comes from Edmund Gosse, Swinburne’s first biographer, who claims to have got it from Anne Ritchie, née Thackeray, one of the gigglers. Unfortunately, he misdates the event to 1862. Annabel Milnes’s diary and Thackeray’s show that the group came together at Fryston in Easter Week, 6-13 April 1863.[7] Gosse’s misdate obscures an important fact. Swinburne had arrived in Fryston from Paris. Monckton Milnes had also been in Paris and he and Swinburne might have travelled together.

William Thomson (1819-1890), the newly-enthroned Archbishop of York. He must have dwarfed Swinburne. The Dictionary of National Biography states that he was tall and imposing, wore a size-eight hat, and had a reputation for vulgarity. The caricature ‘The Archbishop of Society’ comes from Vanity Fair, 1874.

Swinburne’s trip to the French capital in March 1863 is confirmed by the text of one of his most sensual and erotic poems, ‘Hermaphroditus’ (published 1866). It was inspired by a Roman sculpture known as the Sleeping Hermaphroditus in the Louvre, also known as the Borghèse Hermaphrodite. The poem ends with the statement ‘Au Musée du Louvre, Mars 1863’. Swinburne’s biographers state that the poet went to Paris with the painter James McNeill Whistler. While there, he also met Henri Fantin-Latour and Édouard Manet. Both these painters had recently produced works inspired by the music of Richard Wagner. Wagner had left the French capital the previous year after giving a series of concerts of his music in 1860 and a production of his opera Tannhäuser in 1861 – an event which has gained an almost mythological status because of the controversy surrounding it.[8] Shortly after Swinburne met Fantin, the latter forwarded to the poet Charles Baudelaire a copy of Swinburne’s review of his collection Les Fleurs du Mal. Baudelaire responded by sending Swinburne a copy of his pamphlet Richard Wagner et ‘Tannhäuser’ à Paris (1861), which discusses Wagner’s concerts and was published shortly after the Paris Tannhäuser. In a letter that Baudelaire sent to Swinburne, but was unfortunately never received (and was sent before the Wagner pamphlet), Baudelaire impulsively talks about Wagner, suggesting that Swinburne had been asking about or shown enthusiasm for the German composer when with Fantin and Manet. In 1864, Swinburne tried to return the favour by delivering a book to Baudelaire in Paris, but was thwarted by the poet’s absence, as Baudelaire describes in a letter to Fantin.[9]

The Sleeping Hermaphroditus in the Louvre. By Unknown artist – Jastrow (2007), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1874385. Swinburne’s poem ‘Hermaphroditus’ begins with the line ‘Lift up thy lips, turn round, look back for love’

It was in Fantin’s studio that one of Swinburne’s earliest biographers, Georges Lafourcade, says that Swinburne saw

‘a sketch of Tannhäuser at the Venusberg drawn at the time of the failure of Wagner’s opera – just when the poet was composing at Copsham the first verses of Laus Veneris [Swinburne’s own poem on the Tannhäuser legend]; he visited the Louvre and composed about the statue of Hermaphroditus four sonnets which reveal him as steeped in the ethics of Théophile Gautier.'[10]

Lafourcade thus links the Paris trip directly to Swinburne’s poem on the Tannhäuser legend, ‘Laus Veneris’ (‘Praise of Venus’, published 1866). The legend concerns a medieval knight – Tannhäuser – who is lured into the lair of Venus, where the goddess has been residing since the triumph of Christianity over the Classical Gods. There Tannhäuser becomes enslaved in sensual pleasures.

Lafourcade appears to be the source of the belief that Swinburne went to Paris with Whistler: ‘In March 1863 Swinburne visited Paris with Whistler; he was taken round the artistic circles in which the American painter was highly popular’ (p.111). Swinburne was in London until at least 14 March, since George Boyce’s diaries record him at Cheyne Walk on the evening before with D. G. Rossetti and the writer George Meredith.[11] However, Whistler did not get to Paris until the very end of March. The University of Glasgow’s online Correspondence of James McNeill Whistler shows that on Monday 23 March Whistler wrote to Fantin to say:

‘I am coming! – I am coming to find you at home next Sunday – I will explain everything and you will forgive my silence – I am staying in Paris for one day – I am bringing “The White Girl” [the 1862 painting Symphony in White No. 1: The White Girl] – ! may I unroll my canvas and frame it in your studio, so that we may see it together before sending it to the Salon?'[12]

My own copy of the 1876 version of the original 1862 Tannhäuser engraving by Fantin-Latour. This copy is signed in pencil by Fantin for the artist Felix Benoist.

Whistler was still in London on 25 March as he wrote to the solicitor James Anderson Rose about a ‘van’ which was to call the following day to collect ‘The White Girl’, presumably for it to be taken to Paris. Whistler states in this letter that he ‘shall drive down to Salisbury St [where Rose’s offices were] directly the van has gone and try to see you [on 26 March]’.[13] On Sunday 29 March, then, Whistler was in Paris for a day and presumably a night and he went to see Fantin at his studio.[14] Swinburne also went as he later mentions this visit, and that he, Whistler, and Fantin went to Édouard Manet’s studio on the same day, in a letter to the poet Stéphane Mallarmé.[15]

Later that month Whistler was in Amsterdam with the painter Alphonse Legros. Swinburne was not with them, a fact Fantin makes plain in a letter to Whistler which talks about the need to convey Baudelaire’s thanks for the review. Swinburne must also have left Paris soon after meeting Fantin and Manet as he had to be in West Yorkshire for the week beginning 6 April, ready to embarrass the Archbishop of York.

Page from Milnes’s Poems Legendary and Historical (1844) with his second poem on the Tannhäuser legend

However, it is possible that Swinburne went to Paris with Richard Monckton Milnes, not with Whistler, as Lafourcade states. Swinburne may only have met Whistler there.[16] Annabel’s diaries record on 18 March 1863: ‘R [Richard] to leave for Paris’. Given that they were both in Fryston for Easter week and both had come back from Paris, it is possible that Swinburne and Monckton Milnes went to Paris and/or returned together. Milnes would have been the perfect travelling companion. He was highly knowledgeable about Paris, having had dealings – political or otherwise – in the city over the previous decades. Additionally, as Pope-Hennessy’s biography describes, Milnes was also a teutonophile and passionately interested in German Romanticism. In the 1830s he had travelled extensively in Germany, during which he attended the lectures of August Schlegel and met the mother of the philosopher Schopenhauer, the novelist Johanna. As his assistant and biographer T. Wemyss Reid later stated, Milnes was ‘ardent in his admiration for both the Schlegels […] for Heine and Schiller, but, above all, for Goethe, whose many-sidedness delighted him’.[17] These continental travels informed Milnes’s own poetry. His 1844 collection Poems, Legendary and Historical contains an essay originally published in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1839 entitled ‘The Goddess Venus in the Middle Ages’, which discusses the Tannhäuser legend. It also contains two of his attempts to render this legend into English. ‘Venus and the Christian Knight’ is a ‘free paraphrase from the Wunderhorn [settings of German folk songs]’, while another version is called, ‘The Northern Knight in Italy’. This presents a much more fleshy, emotional rendering of the German tale than its predecessor.

Swinburne’s William Blake: A Critical Essay, written with reference to Milnes’s Blake collection, mentions the Tannhäuser myth. It also starts with a quotation from Baudelaire – whom Fantin had put Swinburne in contact with. The quotation concerns the ‘mysterious laws’ of poetry and the ‘divine’ aims in the ‘poetic process’, and it comes from Baudelaire’s Richard Wagner et ‘Tannhäuser’ à Paris.

A couple of months later, Annabel Milnes noted in her diary that she, Richard, and their children invited Swinburne, Whistler, and Legros to lunch. Was one of the topics of conversation the men’s recent trips to Paris, taken together or apart?[18]


[1] The Swinburne Letters (TSL), ed. by Cecil Y. Lang, 6 vols. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1959-1962), I, 46.

[2] The diaries are a series of small pocket books kept in the Houghton Papers at the Wren Library at Trinity College Cambridge. She did not note people for dinner when her husband was absent and so the number of times that Monckton Milnes and Swinburne dined together could be much higher.

[3] The Diaries of George Price Boyce, ed. Virginia Surtees (Norwich: Real World, 1980), p. 33. William Michael Rossetti details how the Blake project was started after Gilchrist’s death in Some Reminiscences of William Michael Rossetti, 2 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906), II, 306-8. 

[4] TSL, I, 44.

[5] 13 November 1862, TSL, I, 62.

[6] TSL, I, 59, 60.

[7] Easter Sunday 1863 was 5 April. See The Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray, ed. Gordon Norton Ray, 4 Vols (London: Oxford University Press, 1945), IV, 285. See also James Pope-Hennessy, Monckton Milnes: The Flight of Youth (London: Constable, 1951), pp. 144-45. 

[8] On Fantin and Manet’s Wagnerism, see Therese Dolan, Manet, Wagner, and the Musical Culture of their Time (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2013).

[9] Baudelaire: Correspondance, ed. Claude Pichois, 2 vols. (Paris: Gallimard), II, 351: ‘M. Swinburne a depose un livre et sa carte chez moi, mais comme l’année dernière, il a oublié de laisser son adresse, de sorte que je ne sais où lui écrire pour le remercier. Voilà une imprévoyance peu anglaise.

Ayez l’obligeance de lui dire que je serais heureux d’avoir son addresse à Paris et d’aller le remercier moi-même. Avertissez-le en même temps que depuis longtemps j’avais chargé M. Nadar de lui remettre une letter qui n’a pas été déposée chez lui et qui est revenue à Paris. Je ne verrais pas d’inconvénients à ce que M. Charles Swinburne [sic] écrivît un mot à Nadar pour la réclamer. Cependant, si cela peut blesser ce grand enfant gâté, que M. Swinburne s’abstienne. Je ferai transmettre à Nadar son addresse’.

[10] Georges Lafourcade, Swinburne: A Literary Biography (London: Bell & Sons, 1932), p. 111.

[11] Boyce, Diaries, p. 37.

[12] https://www.whistler.arts.gla.ac.uk/correspondence/date/display/?cid=11456&year=1863&month=&rs=14

[13] https://www.whistler.arts.gla.ac.uk/correspondence/date/display/?cid=8983&year=1863&month=&rs=16

[14] Whistler could not have gone to the Louvre with Swinburne on the next day (31 March) because the museum was shut on Mondays.

[15] 7 July 1875, TSL, III, 42: ‘je fus conduit chez M. Manet par mes amis MM. Whistler et Fantin’, which suggests that Swinburne had earlier met ‘his friends’ and gone on to meet Manet. This visit is corroborated by a letter from Stéphane Mallarmé of 28 December 1875 to Swinburne which states that Manet remembers Swinburne’s visit and hopes he will come again; see Mallarmé Correspondance, ed. by Henri Mondor and Lloyd James Austin, 2 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, 1985), II, 91. 

[16] Whistler’s role in the Paris trip has perhaps been given too much emphasis. See for example Ronald Anderson and Anne Koval’s James McNeill Whistler: Beyond the Myth (London: John Murray, 1994), which states that Whistler ‘offered’ to take ‘the wildly exhibitionist poet to Paris to meet his friends Manet and Fantin’, and which, they add, shows how Whistler ‘could be totally unselfish when he was genuinely interested in a fellow artist’s well-being’ (p. 129).

[17] T. Wemyss Reid, The Life, Letters, and Friendships of Richard Monckton Milnes, First Lord Houghton, 2 vols. (London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1890), I, 116.  See also Pope-Hennessy’s biography.

[18] ‘Dinner Diaries’ (1863) in ‘Personal Papers of Lady Houghton’, Houghton Papers



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