Those of us of a bookish disposition should never forget that there are plenty of sensible people who never read a book from one year’s end to the next. Furthermore, it is possible to be wildly famous within the world of books and yet not make any impression whatever upon the consciousness of the non-book-reading populace. This is rather nicely illustrated by a story about the poet Swinburne.
In the nineteenth century, poets were at least as famous as novelists, if not more so. The list of household names, then and now, is lengthy: Byron, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and so forth.
In his day, Algernon Charles Swinburne was at least as famous a poet as any of those listed above. Indeed in 1892, when it was necessary to appoint a new Poet Laureate, Queen Victoria is reported to have said to Gladstone: ‘I am told that Mr Swinburne is the best poet in my dominions.’ And this was true. But it was also true that Swinburne was a republican with a private life which bordered upon the scandalous, and so a second-rate but much safer man was appointed in his place.
Swinburne was born in 1837 and died in 1909. He rose to fame in the 1860s and thereafter was not only famous but notorious, because his poetry was considered dangerously sensual. Even after his death his reputaton was such that, with the funeral scarcely over, the Canon of Canterbury Cathedral preached a sermon condemning Swinburne in forthright terms: he held the wretched Algernon personally responsible for the sad decline in sexual morality.
It seems, however, that Swinburne was not famous throughout the land. There were places in which the passage of this blazing meteor across the literary sky went entirely unnoticed.
In 1923 (give or take a year or two), Sir Osbert Sitwell found himself seated at luncheon next to a old gentleman who admitted to being eighty-six years old. In due course, the old boy began to reminisce about his time at Eton.
‘If a man – or a schoolboy for that matter,’ he said, ‘does not get on well, it’s his own fault. I well remember, when I first went to Eton, the head-boy called us together, and pointing to a little fellow with a mass of curly red hair, said, “If ever you see that boy, kick him – and if you are too far off to kick him, throw a stone.”
‘He was a fellow named Swinburne,’ the old man added. 'He used to write poetry for a time, I believe, but I don’t know what became of him.’