Sketch of A.C. Swinburne by D.G. Rossetti, The Rossetti Archive


“Anactoria” by A.C. Swinburne can be classed as a dramatic monologue, in which the speaker ruminates on her desire for her lover, Anactoria. The speaker in question is the Greek poetess, Sappho, whose poetry is known not only for its beauty, but also for its homoerotic tendencies. These tendencies appear in ‘Anactoria’ in full force, with Sappho’s lust often turning violent and sadistic as Sappho attempts to meld herself to Anactoria’s body. Sappho is driven to the point of frenzy in her desire to become one with her lover, and when this proves impossible for her, the only respite she is able to find is in death.

However, the problem with “Anactoria” as a poem (if it can be described as a problem) is that “the expressly homoerotic nature of the speaker’s desire and the ostensibly sadistic complexion of her lust have led most critics to dismiss “Anactoria” as a pornographic tour de force, interesting, perhaps, but ultimately insignificant” (Cook 78). There is so much happening at the surface level that many readers are not able to (or, perhaps, do not even bother to) look beyond it. They do not realize that beyond the homoerotic metaphors lies an intricate look at Victorian men and women’s predilection towards restraining their own desires. This website aims to lift the veil on the richness of the text and help the reader examine just how carefully Swinburne constructs his arguments. In particular, it focuses on ‘Anactoria’s’ interconnectedness with Sapphic texts, and how Swinburne uses these connections with Greek society as a lens through which to examine his own.

As previously established, critics have often viewed “Anactoria” as little more than a pretty poem on sexual deviance. Why, then, does Swinburne take so much effort on including Sapphic fragments and Greek cultural allusions in his work? I propose that these intertextual relationships provide evidence of a deeper meaning to the poem, and that, Instead of reading “Anactoria” as a singularly sexual work mirroring Swinburne’s own desires, we can uncover a different interoperation by better understanding his use of and relationship with Sappho. Swinburne uses Sappho as a mask in his dramatic monologue because of her reputation for sexual deviance, which allows him to freely explore, through overt sexual imagery as a manifestation of desire, his own ideologies regarding the unattainable, despite Victorian constraints on the subject.

Allusions to Sappho’s songs are scattered throughout the text, from the obvious (“Who doth thee wrong, Sappho?” in lines 73-74) to the more subtle (“sleepless moon,” on line 221). They help to demonstrate the care with which Swinburne went about constructing his work. They also establish Sappho as the primary speaker of the poem, which can then be interpreted as a dramatic monologue. By masking his own thoughts under the guise of Sappho’s, Swinburne is able to explore his own questions of desire (sexual or otherwise) and the unattainable. “Anactoria” functions as a statement on the artistic longing for the perfect. In the poem, Sappho meditates on her own lust for Anactoria, with whom she wishes to join together in a moment of perfection. Because Anactoria is repeatedly associated with music— “a lyre of many faultless agonies,” for example (Swinburne 140)– Sappho’s feelings translate as the artist’s desire to achieve perfection in their work (lyrical or otherwise), and their ultimate inability to do so.

To help further my argument, annotations were added to the text to aid the reader in critical analysis. These annotations include, but are not limited to: comparisons with Sappho’s original poetry, explanations regarding Greek cultural norms, historical notes about the Victorian era, and independent critical analysis of the text. Some of the comparisons between Sappho’s poetry and Swinburne’s were made with the help of Kenneth Haynes’s edition of “Anactoria.,” and the Greek cultural allusions were analyzed using Gregory Nagy’s The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. Both types of annotations underscore how carefully Swinburne created his poem. Historical notes and critical analysis are meant to give the reader some additional insight with which to make their interpretations. My research on “Anactoria” lead me to David Cook’s “Content of Anactoria” and Robert Greenberg’s “‘Erotion,’ ‘Anactoria,’ and the Sapphic passion,” both of which helped further clarify some of the lines in Swinburne’s poem.

Take footnote 18 as an example, which pertains to lines 66-67 of “Anactoria”:

Comparisons can between these lines and sections of Sappho 31, the second and third stanzas of which is produced here:

and lovely laughing — oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
is left in me

no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
fills ears

The full poem shows “the epiphany of the bride, whose identity fuses with that of Aphrodite at the moment of her wedding. And, in still another sense, what is shown in Song 31 is the epiphany of the speaking ‘I’ who identifies with Aphrodite by virtue of vicariously identifying with the ‘you’ of the bride who is Aphrodite at this very moment” (Nagy 5.84).

The fusing of bodies in this sublime moment is paralleled by the speaker in Swinburne’s poem, who wishes to fuse with Anactoria. For instance, Swinburne writes:

…O that I
Durst crush thee out of life with love, and die,
Die of thy pain and my delight, and be
Mixed with thy blood and molten into thee! (Swinburne 129 – 132).

The annotation goes on a bit further, but, regardless, the background regarding Sappho’s own fragment demonstrates how Swinburne sought to create a Sapphic persona within the poem. The cultural significance of the melding of the sublime (as explained by Nagy) is paralleled in Swinburne’s themes of the frenzy attempting to reach unattainable desire. This information (and other relevant notes) is presented plainly and easily on the website for the reader.

There were several things I had to consider when organizing the website: what aesthetic choices did I wish to make? What information did I need to present? How did I make that information easily accessible? As far as aesthetic choices were concerned, I decided to keep the look of the website simple. The majority of the site is presented through longform text, and an overly cluttered interface would interfere with the readability of said text. “Anactoria” is a rich enough poem on its own— too many design elements could just as easily detract from its beauty as add to it.

I included an “About” page to give the reader some basic information on Swinburne and Sappho before they begin reading. This historical background gives context to some of the footnotes I added to the text. The text itself is presented in two ways. The first is in the form of images of the original text from Poems and Ballads: Volume 1. I wanted to give the reader an opportunity to see the text as Swinburne intended (albeit, on a computer screen as opposed to paper). The second version of the text also provides the full poem, but this time it is searchable and the lines are numbered. Annotations are scattered throughout, all of which are hyperlinked back and forth to one another for easy navigation.

Before I could begin the website, however, I first had to gather the necessary resources. I first began with “Anactoria” itself, annotating my copy and making note of repeated words and themes using Voyant. I then turned to Sappho— Swinburne’s primary influence. Swinburne likely would have used the Loeb-Page edition of Sappho’s translations that was common at the time (Haynes 133), however, I was not able to find a completed version of this edition anywhere. Instead, I decided to make use of the most modern translation I could find, just as Swinburne no doubt made use of his most modern translation. This search lead me to Anne Carson’s “If Not, Winter,” a complete collection of Sappho’s fragments (both in the original English and in Greek). I read through this text with ‘Anactoria’ in mind, making note of any fragments that seemed to echo with similar words or themes to Swineburne’s poetry. I also began to research Ancient Greek culture. Once I had noted the relevant Sapphic fragments and Greek history, I turned to further critical analysis of Swinburne, looking in particular for critics who focused on his relationship with Sappho and Sapphic passion.

Ultimately, all of this information was condensed and added to Swinburne’s original text in the form of over forty detailed footnotes, all of which aim to present to a reader all the pertinent information necessary to a proper analysis of the poem. I hope that in doing so, I have created a website that will give the reader the opportunity study “Anactoria” in depth, and that they will leave with a better appreciation and understanding of Swinburne.