The Gallows Nightingale: Swinburne’s Translations of Villon

  • Nick Freeman


Popular conceptions of the Victorian view of the Middle Ages often revolve around idealized chivalric treatments of Arthurian myth by Tennyson, an all-purpose sentimentalized “prettiness” loosely, and unfairly, associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, and the “dream worlds” painted by J. W. Waterhouse and other artists who followed the lead of Edward Burne-Jones.1 There certainly is Victorian literature, art, and even fashion that support this view, but it is important to recognize that there is no single dominant strand of “Victorian medievalism,” for interest in the Middle Ages took many forms. Artists and writers were often unconcerned with the niceties of history, especially if those “niceties” were violent, sordid, or otherwise unsuited to the tastes of the Victorian middle class. However, this did not mean that sentimentality and idealism always prevailed or that those terms were themselves fixed and constant. Victorian art was reluctant to consider events such as the Hundred Years War (1337–1453), itself a term invented during the late nineteenth century, the Black Death (1348 onward), and the Peasants’ Revolt (1381),2 but it did not regard the medieval period purely as fodder for escapists and romantics, despite acknowledging its appeal for them. Many today judge the Victorian view of the Middle Ages by the architecture of the Gothic Revival or the swooning beauties on art gallery walls, but another strand of Victorian medievalism dramatized a very different world.


Oxford Dictionary French Literature British Poetry Moral Hypocrisy Public Execution 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Following William E. Freedman in his Pre-Raphaelitism: A Bibliocritiail Study (1965), one should see the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, and Pre-Raphaelitism as “sequential terms descriptive of a continuous, if not unified aesthetic force”CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. (quoted in Derek Stanford, ed., Pre-Raphaelite Writing: An Anthology [London: Dent, 1973], xiv). The first of these refers to the original “PRB” formed by John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, and D. G. Rossetti, together with James Collinson (a minor painter who regularly fell asleep in PRB meetings), the sculptor Thomas Woolner, and the art critics W M. Rossetti and F. G. Stephens. When this grouping broke up, some of its ideals were retained by Holman Hunt and by artists who had not belonged to the original Brotherhood such as Ford Madox Brown. The term “Pre-Raphaelitism” became increasingly associated with Rossetti’s later pictures, the “languorous depictions of femmes fatales” that had little connection with the painstaking detail advocated by the original PRB (Ian Chilvers, Harold Osborne, and Dennis Farr, eds., “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood,” in The Oxford Dictionary of Art [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988], 400). Rossetti, Burne-Jones, and Morris were popularly, if wrongly seen, as pursuing unified aims. “Thus in the popular imagination the term ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ conjures up pictures of medieval romance, and ironically a movement that began as a rebellion against artificiality and sentimentality is now identified with a kind of escapism,” note the editors of the Oxford Dictionary of Art (400). The popularity of “pseudo-medievalism” began in the 1860s, and artists were still producing such work in the 1920s and 1930s. There is an excellent selection of it in John Christian, ed., The Last Romantics (1989). The notion that Rossetti and others are “escapist” has been reinforced by many “coffee table” art books since interest in “Pre-Raphaelitism” reawakened during the 1960s.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Antony H. Harrison, Swinburne’s Medievalism: A Study in Victorian Love Poetry (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988), 10.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Algernon Swinburne, New Writings by Swinburne, ed. Cecil Y. Lang (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1964), 186.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    François Villon, Selected Poems, trans. Peter Dale (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978), 10.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    As Michael Freeman has noted, Rossetti’s popular translation of the refrain, “But where are the snows of yester-year?,” is rather smoother and more “poetic” than the rest of the ballad. There is a sinister edge to much of the poem, notably in the second verse’s reference to “the Queen / Who willed that Buridan should steer / Sewed in a sack’s mouth down the Seine,” D. G. Rossetti, Collected Poetry and Prose, ed. Jerome McGann (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 119. That is rarely acknowledged by those who quote “the snows of yester-year”Google Scholar
  7. (Michael Freeman, François Villon in His Works: The Villains Tale [Amsterdam: Rodoipi, 2000], 156–160).Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Derek Stanford, ed., Pre-Raphaelite Writing: An Anthology (London: Dent, 1973), xvii.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Ian Fletcher, ed., British Poetry and Prose 1870–1905 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 416.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Joyce Reid, ed., The Concise Oxford Dictionary of French Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976).Google Scholar
  11. 12.
    “In the Orchard” uses the Provençal “alba” or “dawn-song,” “a genre without a fixed meter or form in which a lover laments the imminent separation from the other lover at the break of day.” (Algernon Swinburne, Poems and Ballads & Atalanta in Calydon, ed., Kenneth Haynes [London: Penguin, 2000], 340.) The result is oddly akin to a rhymed version of Tennyson’s “Tears, idle tears” (The Princess, 1847).Google Scholar
  12. 14.
    Edmund, Gosse, The Life of Algernon Charles Swinburne (London: Macmillan, 1917), 148.Google Scholar
  13. 15.
    Ubi sunt (“where are they?”) are the opening words of a number of Medieval Latin poems. “[T]hey are now used to classify a particular kind of poem that dwells on and laments the transitory nature of life and beauty,” writes J. A. Cuddon, who includes Ballade des Dames du temps jadis as an example (J. A. Cuddon, “Ubi Sunt,” in The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory [London: Penguin, 1999], 952).Google Scholar
  14. 16.
    Algernon Swinburne, The Swinburne Letters, vol. III., ed. Cecil Y Lang (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960), 164.Google Scholar
  15. 18.
    Jerome J. McGann, Swinburne: An Experiment in Criticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), 89–91.Google Scholar
  16. 19.
    Clyde K. Hyder, ed., Swinburne: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970), 179–180.Google Scholar
  17. 24.
    Philip Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives (London: Methuen, 1985), 240–251.Google Scholar
  18. 26.
    Richard Jenkyns, Dignity and Decadence: Victorian Art and the Classical Inheritance (London: Harper Collins, 1991), 264.Google Scholar
  19. 27.
    François Villon, Selected Poems, trans. Peter Dale (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978), 160.Google Scholar
  20. 30.
    “Many circumlocutions have undoubtedly been invented to describe … the highly tinted Venuses who form so favorite a study of the connoisseurs of the Haymarket,” noted the Saturday Review in 1862 (Sheila Fisher, “Taken Men and Token Women,” in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Seeking the Woman in Late Medieval and Renaissance Writings: Essays in Feminist Contextual Criticism, ed. Sheila Fisher and Janet E. Halley (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989), 74–75.Google Scholar
  21. 31.
    François Villon, Complete Poems, trans. Barbara N. Sargent-Baur (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994), 13.Google Scholar
  22. 32.
    Algernon Swinburne, Selected Poems, ed. L. M. Findley (Manchester: Carcanet, 1982), 169.Google Scholar
  23. 34.
    Donald Thomas, Swinburne: The Poet in his World (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1979), 120.Google Scholar
  24. 36.
    J. A. George, “Poetry in Translation,” in A Companion to Victorian Poetry, ed. Richard Cronin, Alison Chapman, and Antony H. Harrison (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002. 272.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Lorretta M. Holloway and Jennifer A. Palmgren 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Nick Freeman

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations