'Love and Sleep' by Algernon Charles Swinburne

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Love and Sleep

Lying asleep between the strokes of night
I saw my love lean over my sad bed,
Pale as the duskiest lily's leaf or head,
Smooth-skinned and dark, with bare throat made to bite,
Too wan for blushing and too warm for white,
But perfect-coloured without white or red.
And her lips opened amorously, and said -
I wist not what, saving one word - Delight.

And all her face was honey to my mouth,
And all her body pasture to mine eyes;
The long lithe arms and hotter hands than fire
The quivering flanks, hair smelling of the south,
The bright light feet, the splendid supple thighs
And glittering eyelids of my soul's desire.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Poetry, Love and Sleep by Algernon Charles Swinburne: A Literary Criticism and Interpretation

Have you ever read a work of literature that leaves you feeling as though you have just been transported to another dimension, one where the boundaries of reality are blurred and the imagination is given free rein to explore the deepest recesses of the human psyche? Well, that is exactly what Algernon Charles Swinburne's Poetry, Love and Sleep achieves.

Published in 1881, Poetry, Love and Sleep is a collection of 31 poems that delve into the themes of love, desire, death, and the unshakeable human need for connection. Swinburne's poetic style is akin to a whirlwind, sweeping the reader up in its frenzy of images, emotions, and ideas, and leaving them breathless and exhilarated.

In this literary criticism and interpretation, we will delve deep into the heart of Poetry, Love and Sleep, examining the themes, style, and structure of Swinburne's work, and exploring the ways in which it continues to captivate and enthrall readers more than a century after its initial publication.


At its core, Poetry, Love and Sleep is a meditation on the human quest for connection and meaning in a world that is often indifferent and cruel. Swinburne explores these themes through a series of poems that are by turns sensual, melancholy, and hauntingly beautiful.

One of the most striking aspects of Swinburne's work is the way in which he seamlessly weaves together the themes of love and death, creating a sense of urgency and intense longing that permeates each poem. In "Hesperia," for example, the speaker longs to be reunited with his beloved in death, dreaming of a world where they can be together forever:

One sweet hour to be glad in, One sweet hour to be sad in, One hour to hold and to have, And to lose, and to find, and to take again, And forever in one sweet hour forget again All the pain of the vain things we said and we did, And the bitter things done and forgotten of old.

This sense of yearning and longing is present throughout the collection, as Swinburne explores the complexities of human desire and the ways in which love can both uplift and destroy us.

Another key theme in Poetry, Love and Sleep is the power of poetry itself. Swinburne is a master of language, and his poems are infused with a musicality and lyricism that is simply breathtaking. In "The Garden of Proserpine," for example, he writes:

From too much love of living, From hope and fear set free, We thank with brief thanksgiving Whatever gods may be That no life lives for ever; That dead men rise up never; That even the weariest river Winds somewhere safe to sea.

Here, the power of poetry lies in its ability to capture the fleeting beauty of life and death, to find meaning in the midst of chaos and uncertainty.


Swinburne's poetic style is lush, decadent, and often highly erotic. He revels in the pleasures of the flesh, exploring the physical and emotional depths of human desire in a way that is both sensuous and deeply affecting.

One of the hallmarks of Swinburne's style is his use of repetition and alliteration, creating a musicality and rhythm that is both hypnotic and seductive. In "A Match," for example, he writes:

If love were what the rose is, And I were like the leaf, Our lives would grow together In sad or singing weather,

Here, the repetition of the "l" sound creates a sense of intimacy and closeness, evoking the way in which the speaker and his beloved are intertwined and connected.

Another key aspect of Swinburne's style is his use of vivid, often shocking imagery, exploring the darker, more taboo aspects of human desire in a way that is both thrilling and unsettling. In "Faustine," for example, he writes:

Sweet life, if life were stronger, Earth clear of years that wrong her, Then two things might live longer, Two sweeter things than we; And the world's waste grow vaster, And the stars pale and faster, And the soul of man's disaster Seem sadder than the sea.

Here, the speaker longs for a world in which he and his beloved can live forever, free from the constraints of time and mortality. Swinburne's use of the word "disaster" to describe the human condition is particularly striking, as it suggests that our very existence is fraught with danger and uncertainty.


Poetry, Love and Sleep is structured in a way that is both organic and fluid, with each poem flowing seamlessly into the next. Many of the poems are written in free verse, allowing Swinburne to explore the themes of love, death, and desire in a way that is both intimate and unstructured.

At the same time, however, there is a sense of order and symmetry to the collection, with certain themes and images recurring throughout. The image of the rose, for example, appears in several of the poems, representing both the beauty and fragility of life.

Similarly, the theme of sleep, and its connection to death and the afterlife, is present in several of the poems, creating a sense of continuity and interconnection throughout the collection.


In conclusion, Algernon Charles Swinburne's Poetry, Love and Sleep is a masterpiece of Victorian poetry, exploring the themes of love, death, and desire in a way that is both sensual and hauntingly beautiful. Swinburne's poetic style is lush, decadent, and often highly erotic, while his use of repetition, vivid imagery, and musicality creates a sense of urgency and intensity that is simply breathtaking.

Whether you are a fan of Victorian poetry or simply someone who loves to explore the complexities of the human condition, Poetry, Love and Sleep is a collection that you simply cannot afford to miss. So why not pick up a copy today and let Algernon Charles Swinburne's words transport you to a world of beauty, longing, and unquenchable desire?

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry Love and Sleep: A Masterpiece of Romanticism

Algernon Charles Swinburne, one of the most prominent poets of the Victorian era, is known for his passionate and sensual poetry that explores themes of love, death, and beauty. Among his many works, "Poetry Love and Sleep" stands out as a masterpiece of Romanticism, a genre that celebrates the power of imagination, emotion, and nature. In this 2000-word analysis, we will delve into the meaning and significance of this poem, exploring its themes, imagery, and language.

The poem begins with a powerful invocation of the three titular elements: "As one put drunk into the Packet-boat, / Packed up like goods, his luggage stowed below, / Here, where these crossing currents sink and float, / Here, where these winds torment us, we must know / We are not prisoners; yet, though nothing shows / Outside, that watched, within, some mystery / Of an intolerable essence grows, / Forced on us by some unimagined sea." The speaker, who is not identified, is on a boat, presumably crossing the English Channel, and reflects on the nature of poetry, love, and sleep. The use of the metaphor of the sea, with its currents, winds, and mysteries, suggests that these elements are as powerful and unpredictable as the ocean, and that the speaker is at their mercy.

The first stanza sets the tone for the rest of the poem, which is characterized by a sense of longing, uncertainty, and desire. The speaker is aware of the limitations of his physical existence, but he also knows that there is something beyond it, something that he cannot fully grasp or understand. This "unimagined sea" is a metaphor for the unknown, the unconscious, the spiritual, or the divine, depending on how one interprets it. The fact that the speaker is "forced" to confront it suggests that it is not a matter of choice, but of destiny or fate.

The second stanza introduces the theme of love, which is closely linked to poetry and sleep. The speaker says: "Love, what is love? A great and aching heart; / Wrung hands; and silence; and a long despair. / Life, it is life indeed. On me there blows / A cold wind from the fields of snow, that fare / White as the sea, lay smooth as acres sown, / But for the hedgerows crusted here and there, / With snowballs, and the oxeye's mocking crown / Of white that tells of nothing sure but pain." The use of the rhetorical question "Love, what is love?" suggests that the speaker is not sure what love is, or that he is trying to define it in his own terms. The answer he gives, however, is not a positive one: love is associated with pain, despair, and silence. The image of the cold wind from the fields of snow reinforces this sense of isolation and emptiness, as if the speaker is cut off from the warmth and vitality of life.

The third stanza continues the theme of love, but shifts the focus to the beloved: "Dear love, you are so weak, so pale, so lean, / So faint in look, with scarce so much of blood / As in a rose-leaf seen. / Stay yet awhile, and I shall kiss thee soon, / And give thee wine and bread, and honeycomb. / But not till he who sent thee shall return, / Not till the respite of the night is gone." The speaker addresses his beloved, who is described as weak, pale, and faint. The use of the simile "As in a rose-leaf seen" suggests that the beloved is fragile and delicate, like a flower. The speaker offers to comfort and nourish her with wine, bread, and honeycomb, but he also acknowledges that he cannot do so until "he who sent thee" returns. This mysterious figure, who is not identified, may represent fate, death, or some other force that controls the speaker's life.

The fourth stanza introduces the theme of poetry, which is presented as a way of transcending the limitations of the physical world: "Poetry, thou sweet maid, art far away! / Thou art to me as is a summer's night / Amid the northern climes, when drowsy light / Dreams o'er the murmuring pines and birches gray; / And still, amid the hush of woods, alway / Art thou a spirit in my sight." The speaker addresses poetry as a personified entity, a "sweet maid" who is "far away." The use of the simile "as is a summer's night / Amid the northern climes" suggests that poetry is a rare and precious thing, like a moment of beauty and peace in a harsh and cold environment. The image of the "murmuring pines and birches gray" reinforces this sense of tranquility and harmony. The speaker sees poetry as a "spirit" that is always present, even in the silence of the woods.

The fifth stanza continues the theme of poetry, but also connects it to sleep: "Sleep, thou art like a joyous child, so gay, / And laughter-loving, and so full of glee, / Who, when he hath played all the livelong day, / Sleeps soundly through the night, and dreams of thee." The speaker addresses sleep as a personified entity, a "joyous child" who is "gay" and "laughter-loving." The use of the simile "who, when he hath played all the livelong day, / Sleeps soundly through the night, and dreams of thee" suggests that sleep is a natural and innocent state, in which one can escape from the worries and sorrows of life. The fact that the child dreams of poetry reinforces the idea that poetry is a source of inspiration and comfort.

The sixth and final stanza brings together the three elements of poetry, love, and sleep, and suggests that they are all interconnected: "Love, poetry, and sleep! / The joys that make the earth a paradise, / With the sweet sense of music at their feet, / Lingering, and wandering on as loth to die; / Like thoughts whose very sweetness yieldeth proof / That they were born for immortality." The speaker celebrates the joys of love, poetry, and sleep, which he sees as the things that make life worth living. The use of the metaphor "make the earth a paradise" suggests that these elements are not just personal experiences, but universal ones, that have the power to transform the world. The image of "the sweet sense of music at their feet" reinforces this idea, as music is often associated with harmony and beauty. The final lines, which describe love, poetry, and sleep as "thoughts whose very sweetness yieldeth proof / That they were born for immortality," suggest that these elements are not just fleeting pleasures, but enduring ones, that have the power to transcend time and space.

In conclusion, "Poetry Love and Sleep" is a powerful and evocative poem that explores the themes of love, poetry, and sleep, and their interconnections. The use of vivid imagery, rich language, and complex metaphors creates a sense of mystery, longing, and desire, that captures the essence of Romanticism. The poem invites us to reflect on the nature of human experience, and to seek the beauty and meaning that lies beyond the surface of things. As such, it remains a timeless masterpiece of English literature, that continues to inspire and enchant readers to this day.

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