Wednesday, 9 June 2010

A. C. Swinburne: 'Transvaal'

I'm starting to think about Boer War poetry for my talk at next week's symposium in Bristol on Kipling's 'The Absent-Minded Beggar'. Kipling supported the Boer War, although he retained a great admiration for 'the Burgher of the Transvaal and Orange River Colony'. After the war he admitted that he was 'almost sorry to see them go under'. But Kipling's primary concern throughout was for Empire, believing it to be a civilising power, and he considered the Boer War a timely warning against national complacency: beforehand, we had been 'bung-full of beastly unjustified spiritual pride as we were with material luxury and over much ease.' Kipling's rage against the Establishment --- the politicians and generals who would betray the nation during the Boer War and fail to heed the warnings in the run-up to the Great War --- predicts the ire directed by the war poets of 1914-18 at the enemy behind the lines.

Kipling is often portrayed as a jingoist by those who have never read him. Yet his Boer War poetry makes him seem like a moderate whose work charts a route between extremists like Hardy, who was denounced as a pacifist for being outspokenly against the war, and Swinburne, whose 'Transvaal' is an exercise in hatred.


Patience, long sick to death, is dead. Too long
Have sloth and doubt and treason bidden us be
What Cromwell's England was not, when the sea
To him bore witness given of Blake how strong
She stood, a commonweal that brooked no wrong
From foes less vile than men like wolves set free
Whose war is waged where none may fight or flee---
With women and with weanlings. Speech and song
Lack utterance now for loathing. Scarce we hear
Foul tongues that blacken God's dishonest name
With prayers turned curses and with praise found shame
Defy the truth whose witness now draws near
To scourge these dogs agape with jaws afoam,
Down out of life. Strike, England, and strike home.

It did not take long for the anti-war movement to respond that the only jaws afoam were Swinburne's own. But such poetry was admired, and could expect to be published in leading broadsheets. Kipling, at other times, was the great writer of hatred, and he did not hold back in his assaults against Germans and Russians. 'Mary Postgate' is one of the most brilliantly vicious stories ever written. Even so, for all his populism, Kipling never sacrificed his art as Swinburne does here. So overwhelmed with fury does the sonnet become that its syntax lapses into incoherence, if not incontinence. Never mind his reputation as a 'braggart in matters of vice': it is his Boer War poetry for which Swinburne deserves vilification.


  1. This is pretty interesting - thank you! I don't know much about this period in history yet, but it's on the list for further reading.

  2. I'm massively surprised that Algy even noticed there was a war on. He's always struck me as the most self-absorbed of writers. Fascinating.

  3. Incontinent? I guess we know which continent he means. But I'd say incompetant instead... and, not to put too fine a point on any aspect, piss on it.

  4. Dear Tim, What do you think about the book of Boer War written by Winston Churchill? I think it's a kind of journalist chronicle. Thank you for all the information we can find in your blog

  5. Sorry, I forgot it, As far as Swinburne is concerned it's a pity but here in Spain he is very unkown, I have only read very few poems of him, but I'll try to get some book of him. Thanks a lot