SWINBURNE WAS A slight, carroty-topped Eton schoolboy when he began seriously reading Hugo. During holidays he would roam the beach of his native Isle of Wight, declaiming Hugolian verse across the waves. On the other side was France, from which his hero had been banished for advocating the republican cause—with himself as its leader—in opposition to Louis-Napoleon. The young English aristocrat was himself a fervent republican. Hugo was fifty, Swinburne fifteen.
Life brought disillusionment to Swinburne, but the master’s example never failed him. It was as it he sought to out-Romantic Hugo—in poetry, drama, fiction, life itself. Hugo and the sea—these were the constants in his often erratic existence. One September Swinburne was visiting a friend on the Normandy coast, and while bathing was carried far out by a treacherous current. Rescued by a fishing boat and wrapped in sailcloth, he was a fantastic apparition, his red hair dripping seawater down his long pale neck as he intoned Hugo’s poems to a bemused crew all the way back to shore.
The tale spread; perhaps it was then that Hugo first learned of his disciple. A meeting in Guernsey, site of the rebel poet’s exile, never materialized. Then the Second Empire fell. In November of 1882 Swinburne, his fiery head dulled with time, was invited to Paris by a white-bearded Hugo for the anniversary celebration of his play Le Rois’amuse. Both men had grown quite deaf. Hugo gave a dinner party; much as he tried, Swinburne understood not a word of the toast in his honor. When he in turn lifted his glass to his host and then dashed it to the ground in extravagant homage, Hugo thought only of the broken goblet. Still, a bond had been forged. Later, at the theater, neither man could hear the actors, but both already knew the dialogue anyway. “Êtes vous content?” Hugo asked in a moment of rare simplicity, and Swinburne replied from his heart that yes, he was. —Nancy Caldwell Sorel