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Pleasure, pain and rhyme

June 25, 2013

A Match

By Algernon Charles Swinburne

In his novel The Anthologist (2009) Nicholson Baker has his protagonist, Paul Chowder, go off on a long riff about how Swinburne, “the nineteenth century’s King of Pain, the greatest rhymer in the history of human literature has been lost to casual view”. Here’s what he has to say about the final verse of this poem.

If you were queen of pleasure
 And I were king of pain

“Doesn’t that give you a strange shudder? If you were queen of pleasure (rest), And I were king of pain (rest),”

We'd hunt down love together,
 Pluck out his flying-feather,
 And teach his feet a measure,
 And find his mouth a rein;
 If you were queen of pleasure,
 And I were king of pain.

“Pretty good eh? What is it? It’s a four beat line – three beats and a rest. Good with an inevitable step-slide of goodness to it.”

Swinburne knew what he was writing about – masochism was his thing. The poem first appeared in his 1866 collection Poems & Ballads, along with poems about lesbianism and bisexuality, and upset the Victorians so much that the book had to be withdrawn from sale – they knew about S&M too

Here it is in full. Mostly conventional love guff about opposites attracting, unsurprisingly lost to casual view. But Baker/Chowder are right about the final verse.

A Match

If love were what the rose is,
And I were like the leaf,
Our lives would grow together
In sad or singing weather,
Blown fields or flowerful closes
Green pleasure or grey grief;
If love were what the rose is,
And I were like the leaf.

If I were what the words are,
And love were like the tune,
With double sound and single
Delight our lips would mingle,
With kisses glad as birds are
That get sweet rain at noon;
If I were what the words are,
And love were like the tune.

If you were life, my darling,
And I your love were death,
We’d shine and snow together
Ere March made sweet the weather
With daffodil and starling
And hours of fruitful breath;
If you were life, my darling,
And I your love were death.

If you were thrall to sorrow,
And I were page to joy,
We’d play for lives and seasons
With loving looks and treasons
And tears of night and morrow
And laughs of maid and boy;
If you were thrall to sorrow,
And I were page to joy.

If you were April’s lady,
And I were lord in May,
We’d throw with leaves for hours
And draw for days with flowers,
Till day like night were shady
And night were bright like day;
If you were April’s lady,
And I were lord in May.

If you were queen of pleasure,
And I were king of pain,
We’d hunt down love together,
Pluck out his flying-feather,
And teach his feet a measure,
And find his mouth a rein;
If you were queen of pleasure,
And I were king of pain.

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