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A Short Note on the Swinburne Manuscripts at Worcester College, Oxford

Rikki Rooksby

[This article was originally published in The Victorians Institute Journal, Volume 18 (1990).]
    At Worcester College Library there is a small collection of Swinburne manuscript material which deserves to be more widely known; and to this end I have compiled a brief description of the contents. The most significant item is probably the early draft of part of "The Armada," published in Poems and Ballads, Third Series (1889), on the usual blue paper, written at all angles and with such density that a transcription would be a minor Herculean labour. There is also a complete draft of "The Union," printed in Astrophel (1894) and written sometime around March 1893. A copy of Poems and Ballads has pasted into its front a letter in Swinburne's hand addressed to the Athenaeum, March 10th, 1877. The text is printed in Lang, The Swinburne Letters (Vol. 3, 296), a spirited public scotching of the idea that the 1866 book was ever reprinted with some of its original contents suppressed.
    The bulk of the collection at Worcester is represented by a large boxful of more than forty sheets of "The Flogging Block" material, flagellation writings Swinburne wrote and compiled over a number of years. The sheets include completed poems and dialogues which describe with obsessive repetitiveness the beating of schoolboys. Present is a draft (dedicated "To M.") of "Eton. An Ode," a burlesque of Swinburne's own "Eton. An Ode" published in Astrophel. As other critics have pointed out, in one sense these writings are innocuous, in that they have nothing overtly sexual or obscene in them whatsoever. Yet merely to glance over these manuscripts, with their sketches and plans for an uncompleted major work and their repulsive school-noticeboard lists of names with the number of "cuts" received, is to be forcibly reminded of how bizarre was a part of Swinburne's personality. These manuscripts must be of interest to any serious biographer. The boxed material is supplemented by a number of other flagellation manuscripts kept separately: "Redgie's Luck," "Redgie's Return" and "The Swimmer's Tragedy." All these were bequeathed to the Library by the late Librarian of the College, C.H. Wilkinson, in 1960.
    Finally, there is a volume of undergraduate essays by Swinburne, from his years at Balliol, written in black ink in a black notebook. The six essays are "On Political and Speculative Liberty," "The Mystical Philosophy of Greece," "On the Character of Socrates," "On the Dialectic of Plato," "On the Province of Logic," and on the question "How far does any metaphysical science exist, corresponding to the dialectic theory of Plato?". Most are initialled by Robert Scott, Master of Balliol; the "Dialectic of Plato" essay by Edward Woolcombe (ECW). Balliol records reveal that Swinburne was studying logic in Lent term and Michaelmas 1857, so one can conjecture that "On the Province of Logic" may belong to that year. He studied the first three books of the Republic in Michaelmas 1858 and Lent 1859, but it seems more likely the essays were written at roughly the same period.
    The longest essay by far is "On Political and Speculative Liberty," running to fifteen sides, and the text is transcribed below for the first time, by kind permission of the Librarian, the Provost and Fellows of Worcester College, and William Heinemann Ltd. It was evidently written with a greater personal involvement than most undergraduate essays, showing that even as a commoner, Swinburne exhibited that passion for Liberty which later inspired so many poems, especially Songs before Sunrise, though one can appreciate the frustration of his tutors having to follow it.