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Hermaphroditus

An Erotic Poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909)


Dante_Gabriel_Rossetti_-_Algernon_Charles_Swinburne

I

Lift up thy lips, turn round, look back for love,

Blind love that comes by night and casts out rest;

Of all things tired thy lips look weariest,

Save the long smile that they are wearied of.

Ah sweet, albeit no love be sweet enough,

Choose of two loves and cleave unto the best;

Two loves at either blossom of thy breast

Strive until one be under and one above.

Their breath is fire upon the amorous air,

Fire in thine eyes and where thy lips suspire:

And whosoever hath seen thee, being so fair,

Two things turn all his life and blood to fire;

A strong desire begot on great despair,

A great despair cast out by strong desire.

II

Where between sleep and life some brief space is,

With love like gold bound round about the head,

Sex to sweet sex with lips and limbs is wed,

Turning the fruitful feud of hers and his

To the waste wedlock of a sterile kiss;

Yet from them something like as fire is shed

That shall not be assuaged till death be dead,

Though neither life nor sleep can find out this.

Love made himself of flesh that perisheth

A pleasure-house for all the loves his kin;

But on the one side sat a man like death,

And on the other a woman sat like sin.

So with veiled eyes and sobs between his breath

Love turned himself and would not enter in.

III

Love, is it love or sleep or shadow or light

That lies between thine eyelids and thine eyes?

Like a flower laid upon a flower it lies,

Or like the night’s dew laid upon the night.

Love stands upon thy left hand and thy right,

Yet by no sunset and by no moonrise

Shall make thee man and ease a woman’s sighs,

Or make thee woman for a man’s delight.

To what strange end hath some strange god made fair

The double blossom of two fruitless flowers?

Hid love in all the folds of all thy hair,

Fed thee on summers, watered thee with showers,

Given all the gold that all the seasons wear

To thee that art a thing of barren hours?

IV

Yea, love, I see; it is not love but fear.

Nay, sweet, it is not fear but love, I know;

Or wherefore should thy body’s blossom blow

So sweetly, or thine eyelids leave so clear

Thy gracious eyes that never made a tear—

Though for their love our tears like blood should flow,

Though love and life and death should come and go,

So dreadful, so desirable, so dear?

Yea, sweet, I know; I saw in what swift wise

Beneath the woman’s and the water’s kiss

Thy moist limbs melted into Salmacis,

And the large light turned tender in thine eyes,

And all thy boy’s breath softened into sighs;

But Love being blind, how should he know of this?

 

Au Musée du Louvre, Mars 1863.


The Taboo Bard

Early in his career, Swinburne defined himself by tackling erotic and sexual themes in his work. His most famous volume, Poems and Ballads, from which this work is taken, shocked contemporary readers for its descriptive language about various acts of love, even tackling female homosexual content through poems dedicated to the legendary poet Sappho. While Swinburne's work became less pornographic and more political as he grew older, making him respectable to critics (he was even nominated for the Nobel Prize towards the end of his career), his erotic poetry endures well beyond his other works. The interplay of rhythm and meter with alliteration and the occasional rhyme turn these early poems into sensual works of literary art that entice readers even today. Yet it's interesting to consider these works through a more modern lens. For instance, do his suggestive metaphors and images feel stale and obtuse in an era of internet porn? Should we view him simply as a privileged male pervert who exploited sexuality for personal gain? Or does he deserve his reputation as a master of the erotic in poetry who helped push the boundary of acceptable content in art and literature?

As anyone familiar with the term hermaphrodite knows, Hermaphroditus was a mythological figure, the offspring of the messenger god Hermes and the love goddess Aprhodite, who had both male and female genitalia. The most famous story of Hermaphrodius comes from Ovid's Metamorphoses, which Swinburne clearly acknowledges through the reference to Salmacis, the nymph in Ovid's telling of the tale. Yet Swinburne also signals another hint to his primary inspiration by tagging the poem with a location and date at the end: the Louvre Museum in Paris. The "Borghese Hermaphroditus" sculpture was a classical piece retrofitted and mounted by the great Neoclassical sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini that depicts a sleeping figure with the breasts of a woman and the penis of a man. Yet what was it about this sculpture that inspired Swinburne to write this poem to the extent he wanted the readers to know his inspiration? Is the work simply a poetic description of the sculpture itself, or is there a larger idea about the roles men and women play in human sexuality?

In some ways, Swinburne was gender fluid before it was cool. Though most of his erotic poems deal with heterosexual love from the standpoint of a man, the boundary between male and female perspectives, and even heterosexuality and homosexuality, is slippery at best. Swinburne often mused about love could be depicted by a feminine figure like Aphrodite or a masculine figure like Eros, and in this work he uses a figure who is both male and female to evoke a more balanced poetic vision. From what we know of Swinburne's life, he was into some fairly kinky stuff in his younger years, so it's not unfair to wonder if he himself grappled with multiple forms of sexual attraction and gender identification. At the very least, he was able to imagine it in verse.

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