Swinburne at Eton
The Times Literary Supplement, December 25, 1919
TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES
Sir,—As Mr. Coulson Kernahan’s book has caused a renewal of interest in stories about Swinburne, may I take the opportunity of relating a few incidents of the poet’s schooldays?
It is stated in Mr. Gosse’s Life of Swinburne that there is no truth in the legend that he was bullied at Eton; it is, however, a fact that Swinburne’s Eton career was not altogether an untroubled one. My father-in-law, the late Rev. J. L. Joynes, who was his tutor and housemaster, used to tell how Swinburne once came to him before school and begged to be allowed to “stay out,” because he was afraid to face some bigger boys who were temporarily attached to his Division—“those dreadful boys,” he called them. “Oh, sir, they wear tall coats! Sir, they are men!” The request was not granted; but his tutor soothed the boy by reading a Psalm with him, and thus fortified he underwent the ordeal.
One very characteristic anecdote has unfortunately been told incorrectly. Lady Jane Swinburne had come to Eton to see her son, who was ill, and she read Shakespeare to him as he lay in bed. When she left him for a time, a maid, whom she had brought with her, was requested to continue the reading, and she did so, with the result that a glass of water which stood on a table by the bedside was presently dashed over her by the invalid. In the version quoted by Mr. Gosse the glass of water has become “a pot of jam”—quite wrongly, as I can testify, for I heard Mr. Joynes tell the story more than once.
Swinburne was not allowed to read Byron or Shelley while he was at Eton. In Mr. Joynes’s house there was a set of volumes of the old English dramatists, and the young student urgently begged to be permitted to read these, “Might he read Ford?” To settle so difficult a question recourse was had to the advice of Mr. Cookesley, a master who was reputed “to know about everything”; and Mr. Cookesley’s judgment was that the boy might read all Ford’s plays except one—the one, of course, which has a title calculated to alarm.
There were lately rescued from destruction some pages of an old note-book, once kept in Mr. Joynes’s home library, in which the boys wrote their names and the titles of the books taken out by them. There are about a dozen entries by Swinburne (1850-1853), the works selected by him included Old Plays, Corpus Poetarum Latinorum, The Acharnians, &c.
I was told by Swinburne’s tutor that the poet’s grammar was bad, though he had a great aptitude for Greek. On one occasion he translated a Greek chorus to Latin Aleaics; on another, when his Division had to compose English verses, his were by far the best, but so badly written that he was ordered to copy them again. Mr. Joynes remembered the great zest with which Swinburne read out, at “construing,” the Virgilian line, “Jura magistratusque legunt sanctumque senatum.”
Twelve years after he left Eton, Swinburne sent his tutor a copy of the beautiful first edition of “Atalanta in Calydon”; but Mr. Joynes gratification was somewhat marred by a remark made to him by William Johnson, afterwards known as Cory, the author of “Ionica”; “Do you know what your pupil Swinburne has written a most godless poem?” What Mr. Cookesley, who knew about everything, though of “Atalanta” is not recorded.
Mr. Joynes always spoke affectionately of Swinburne; and once, years later, when through Mr. Watts-Dunton’s hospitality I had the privilege of meeting the poet, he made many most friendly inquiries about his “dear old tutor.”
Yours faithfully,Henry S. Salt