Long long ago, when I was a teenage wannabe poet, I took a special fancy to 19th century decadent poets. Two of my favourites were the bad boys shown here: Charles Baudelaire and Algernon Charles Swinburne. It wasn’t so much that I loved their poetry – though it had a certain, well, decadent, appeal – as that I loved the idea of them. Their wild, anarchic lives, rebelling against social norms and accepted bourgeois morality. Myself, I could hardly have been a less rebellious youth, on the outside at least. But inside I was a roiling mass of hating and wishing I could overthrow the established order, as long as I could do it without any risk or danger to myself.
Nowadays I’m rather glad I didn’t become an opium addict, or an alcoholic, or contract syphilis from prostitutes. But then, I didn’t become a poet, either.
And today I’m feeling disillusioned as I think about poor old Swinburne who didn’t die young and had a rather miserable old end. He had some alarming sexual proclivities, it’s true, and once spread a rumour that he had had sex with, and then eaten, a monkey. But it seems he may not really have been as decadent as he pretended to be. Oscar Wilde stated that Swinburne was “a braggart in matters of vice, who had done everything he could to convince his fellow citizens of his homosexuality and bestiality without being in the slightest degree a homosexual or a bestialiser.” (And Oscar Wilde probably should know.)
I used to visit Swinburne’s grave in St Boniface Churchyard, Bonchurch, IoW, and stand there thinking maudlin poetic thoughts for minutes on end. In this respect, he is unique among poets I have admired and wanted, without knowing anything about them, to emulate.