Fear in Deviation: the Taboo in Dracula and Swinburne

Throughout Bram Stoker’s classic horror tale Dracula, much of the contemporary fear came from the novel’s deviation from accepted Victorian ideals of sexuality.  This fear also manifests in a similar manner throughout the poetry of Charles Algernon Swinburne, renowned for his taboo themes.  These parallels become particularly evident in his poem A Match, where the relationship between blood, death, and pain with love takes center stage.  Dracula, both by virtue of his undead nature and proclivity to blood as a vampire, fits the poem admirably, and the two works echo similar fears which would have scandalized “proper” Victorian readers.

The first stanza of the poem begins with a conditional view of love, imagining love as a rose, and the speaker a leaf.  While the rose, typically evocative of love and romance, comes also equipped to prick and harm one who comes too close with its sharp thorns.  However, Swinburne, in line 6, equates the green part of the rose (where the thorns would grow) with pleasure: “Green pleasure or grey grief”.  This lends the stanza the first indication of a sexuality which runs contrary to acceptable Victorian ideals.  Instead of finding pleasure in the beauty of the rose petals themselves, the poem equates the prick of the thorns with romantic desire- connecting pleasure and pain.  This follows with one of the central themes in Dracula, where the love three of the main characters feel can only be realized through the mixing of blood; in the pain of Lucy’s passing.  They all demonstrate love for her beauty, and all of them express a desire for her as such, but the closest they come to each other comes after her death, with the mixing of the blood.  This bridges into Swinburne’s third stanza, where love is death and the speaker is life.  This can be read either as the three suitor’s love for the deceased Lucy, or as Lucy’s enthrallment by the undead, by Dracula himself.  In both cases, there is a relationship between the living and the (un)dead, raising scandalous questions of necrophilia and forbidden desire.  Taking the Lucy/Dracula relationship further, the next stanza shows lovers as opposites yet again, both indentured to the other: “If you were thrall to sorrow, // And I were page to joy”.  Again, Lucy’s vitality and life can stand for the joy, enthralled to the Gothic gloom of Dracula’s sorrow.  The final stanza, perhaps the most obviously taboo to Victorian readers with its themes of S&M, offers yet another interpretation of the Lucy/ Dracula relationship.  Dracula, the innocent-ruining vampire invading England, takes the role of king of pain.   Lucy, meanwhile, becomes the queen of pleasure with her widely desired beauty and life.

What strikes as most interesting, however, is the vastly disparate receptions of the two works.  Stoker’s Dracula was widely loved, while Swinburne was labeled as taboo.  Yet both works deal with similar themes of attraction and sexuality.  In both works, pleasure/pain and life/death revolve around each other, yet one is loved and the other not.  It would seem expected that the poem would be better received, as one could simply excuse the themes as one interpretation and make believe there was another meaning.  However, Dracula also presents a solution to this challenging form of desire.  The protagonists kill off the king of pain, and put the queen of pleasure to rest.  The story ends with both halves of this taboo relationship unable to continue, and as such offers a reassurance to Victorian readers: this type of love ends poorly, England will not tolerate it.