“A Match”: Match and Mismatch in A. C. Swinburne

At first reading, A. C. Swinburne’s poem “A Match” is singsong and uncomplicated – a simple set of rhymes, possibly for children, certainly not entirely out of place in a book of children’s poetry. The rhyme scheme is easy to follow, the ostensible theme a traditional one of a lover’s desire to become one with the beloved. It’s a common idea in love poems, and the mere sound of the poem itself lends an extra veil of simplicity.

But on a level below the superficial, “A Match” is full of troubling dichotomies and, eventually, a sexuality directly opposed to the traditional, “normal” British standard of acceptable sex. The poem begins with a pleasant stanza about love and greenery, echoing the marriage vows in its inclusion of “sad or singing weather” and “green pleasure or grey grief” – in sickness and in health, for better or for worse. While not a direct repetition of these extremely traditional words, the dichotomies here reflect the typical, time-honored marriage vows, creating in the first stanza an image of normalcy and tradition-bound love that Victorians would have expected and accepted.

The second stanza maintains this customary view of love: words, tune, and song are equated to love. The first mentions of physical sex are here: “with double sound and single/delight our lips would mingle, with kisses glad as birds are.” The idea of single delight, although cleanly separated by the line break, evokes a sexual aspect emphasized by the “double sound” and “kisses.”

However, the second stanza is still pretty tame. The third stanza initiates the first troubling dichotomy: “If i were life, my darling, and I your love were death.” This coupling, of life and death, while inevitable in biological life, is atypical of “normal” love poetry: life and death exist around each other but not at the same time in one body or semblance, which contradicts the previous two stanzas’ coupling of two things which typically exist at the same time in one form.

The fourth stanza continues the dichotomies, making them even more troubling. Sorrow and joy go together now, and the lovers “play for lives and seasons/with loving looks and treasons.” The idea of the lovers playing, possibly against of each other, especially with the added opposition of loving looks and treasons – a deceit to conceal a betrayal – is undoing the conventional, unexceptional love poetry of the first two stanzas, and the fifth stanza continues the pattern of opposition. “Till day like night were shady/and night were bright like day” undoes the traditions established in the first stanza: while maintaining a dichotomy, the conventionality of the marriage vows has been eclipsed by a new, inexplicable dichotomy far from the marriage conventions of obedience and fidelity (the treasons of the last stanza).

The last stanza at last reveals the goal that the previous five stanzas have been working towards. Here, pleasure and pain are equated, and love is not only hunted, plucked, and taught (perhaps disciplined), but given a rein. These ideas are far, very far, from the utterly conventional, classical love from earlier in the poem. The poem ends on the repetition of pleasure and pain; all the previous stanzas have ended on similar repetitions, but the last stanza ends on a distinctly sinister note. Love plus hunting, plucking, teaching, and reining equals a view of sexuality and love that the Victorians would have ostensibly abhorred: with its echoes of BDSM and violence in a sexual context, the last stanza undoes all the work of the last several stanzas without breaking the rhyme scheme or in any way changing the pattern of the rest of the poem.

Swinburne has used the conventions of Victorian love poetry agains the Victorian conception of love. Since he never breaks the pattern that he sets up, and since the poem is so easy to mistake for a simple paean to a beloved, Swinburne is essentially fooling readers (especially readers contemporary to him, who would in the main choose to ignore the more troubling aspects of the poem) into a conception of love which they already expect.

The progression of the poem and its eventual descent into sexual “perversion” is a strong reflection of the degeneration/regeneration so curious to the Victorians. The motifs of weather and cycles which fill the poem are distinctly regenerative, but the Victorians would call the progression of sexuality degenerative. “The degenerate was…anything deviating from a middle-class-defined ‘normalcy'” (Ledger and Luckhurst xxii). By following the standards of poetry, Swinburne completely undoes the Victorian standard of love and sex.

The Self in the Object: Materialism in Dorian Gray

Objects get almost as much attention in Dorian Gray as people. Whole pages of Chapter XI are devoted to listing Dorian’s various materialist pursuits and passions; we often hear about what a character is wearing or lying down on; the material world is as important to the characters as the social and emotional ones. In fact, objects define the characters: Lord Henry’s cigarettes and expensive clothes display his vanity and opulence, the painting defines Dorian Gray. Objects – and objectification – are so important in Dorian Gray because they define the era, its interactions, and its people.

As Dorian becomes more and more corrupt, he collects more and more things: jewels, tapestries, all sorts of luxurious and expensive things. But the painting is the possession that Dorian values most and from which he can’t bear to be away, and eventually it is the painting that kills him.

In Dorian’s death scene, it is unclear who does the stabbing: whether Dorian stabs himself, the painting stabs Dorian, or Dorian stabs the painting and some metaphysical interaction winds up with the knife in Dorian’s heart. The pictures is Dorian’s possession; he is “in” it in that he possesses it and that his soul is inside it; and when he attempts to kill the possession, he kills himself.

Thinking of Basil Hallward’s murder, Dorian feels no need to confess. “Who would believe him? There was no trace of the murdered man anywhere. Everything belonging to him had been destroyed” (Wilde 211). By destroying both Basil’s body and his possessions, Dorian ensures his utter disappearance; the destruction of the possessions, the things that Basil owns, is more crucial to the death than Basil’s body. Basil’s life is in his possessions as well as his body, and only when both these things are destroyed can he really be dead.

Furthermore, as Dorian’s murderous instincts turn to the painting, he thinks “There was only one bit of evidence left against him. The picture itself – that was evidence. He would destroy it. . . . It had been like conscience to him. Yes, it had been conscience. He would destroy it” (Wilde 212). The painting is a “bit,” a physical thing; Dorian believes it is evidence against himself, despite the fact that no innocent observer would understand its significance having come upon it unawares. Dorian’s knowledge of the painting, his knowledge that it was slowly growing older and uglier, his memories of it which had marred his emotions, has acted as his conscience, reminding him of the evil he has done.

The painting as a material object acted as an emotional or mental part of Dorian’s self: an object has been part of Dorian’s entire identity. When Dorian stabs the picture, he himself is stabbed through the heart, and despite the vagueness of this actual event – how does the knife actually end up in Dorian? – the connection between physical self, intangible soul, and material painting is clear. Dorian’s soul is contained in the painting. When he tries to kill the soul, through the painting, he himself is killed.

The criticism of materialism inherent in this passage is clear: too much of Dorian is in the painting (as Basil Hallward feared too much of himself would go into it), and his attempt to destroy a material object ends in his own death. With this hindsight, all the objects in the book are thrown into a more menacing light; Lord Henry’s cigarettes and clothes, Sybil’s props, all the possessions and objects belonging to various characters throughout the book appear now as manifestations of selves, of identities trapped in material goods. The consumer society of the Victorian Era was dangerous and frighteningly superficial; through the connection between Dorian and his painting, Wilde reveals the worst possible outcome of placing too high a value on objects.

Dorian’s definition by objects is solidified in the last sentence of the novel. “It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognized who it was” (Wilde 213). At the last, Dorian’s material possessions – his rings – define his identity, not his appearance or his selfhood. Dorian himself is reduced to the material qualities of the things he owns; at his death, he too is an object, no longer possessed or possessing anything, and unable to be defined or even recognized by anything except the possessions left on his body.

Fear of Ourselves

“The narrators insist that they are agents to God and are able to ignore their similarity to the vampire because their commitment to social values . . . enables them to conceal their violence and their sexual desires from each other and even from themselves. Stoker, however, reveals that these characteristics are merely masked by social convention. Instead of being eliminated, violence and sexuality emerge in particularly perverted forms.” (Senf 430)

The central fear at the heart of Dracula is not of “the other” in any of its forms – foreignness, exoticism, difference – nor of Dracula himself as the ultimate “othered” figure, fearful as these things are in the context of the novel. Rather, the most potent anxiety is the fear of our own selves: human nature, the human potential for evil, humanity’s weaknesses. Lucy in her vampirized state is the subject of more description, more repulsion, and more emotion than Count Dracula; similarly, the three vampire women, who appear in Dracula’s castle and again in their coffins being killed by Van Helsing, are feared not only for their own power but for their power to create evil in others.

The first experience with the desire for evil comes to Jonathan Harker half-asleep in Dracula’s castle. The three vampire women hover over him: “all three had brilliant white teeth, that shone like pearls against the ruby of their lips. There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time some deadly fear. I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips” (Stoker 45)

Here, desire and fear – and perhaps fear of the desire – are mixed. The women are entirely artificial: their teeth are “brilliant white,” their mouths are like jewels rather than human mouths, and “something” makes Jonathan uncomfortable – their desirability. Yet Jonathan feels the effect of their attractiveness; their beauty influences him, giving him a new emotion – sexual desire – which falls far outside accepted English emotions. Part of Jonathan’s fear is of his own desire for the women; he feels a “wicked, burning desire” which evokes sin and images of hell. The wickedness is his own, as the desire is his own. Jonathan fears not only the women but himself – his own desires.

Later, when the men visit Lucy’s tomb, she advances on them.

“She still advanced, however, and with a languorous, voluptuous grace, said: –

‘Come to me, Arthur. Leave these others and come to me. My arms are hungry for you. Come, and we can rest together. Come, my husband, come!”

There was something diabolically sweet in her tones – something of the tingling of glass when struck – which rang through the brains of us who heard the words addressed to another. As for Arthur, he seemed under a spell; moving his hands from his face, he opened wide his arms. She was leaping for them, when Van Helsing sprang forward and held between them his little golden crucifix. She recoiled from it” (Stoker 226).

The apex of this scene is not Lucy’s appearance but Arthur’s attempt to go to her – to become like her. He is tempted by evil to become evil, and the fear here is not only of Lucy’s evil but of Arthur’s temptation. Lucy’s voice is “diabolical,” yet also “sweet” – it holds appeal for the listeners, and this is what makes them believe it diabolical. Their attraction to it creates their repulsion from it. Arthur’s attempt to give in to Lucy’s addresses, although “under a spell” and not of his own volition, echoes Jonathan’s desire to be kissed by the vampire women. Their own desire for the vampires, not the vampires themselves, creates fear; the men fear their own capacity for desire and yielding and possibly their own hidden stores of evil.

As Senf describes, the characters’ violence, sexuality, and behavior outside societal conventions is simply hidden by their own societally-driven claims about themselves. They claim to be moral, well-intentioned, intrinsically “good” (and godly) people – but their desires, which the vampires play on, tell a different story. “Stoker implies that the only difference between Dracula and his opponents is the narrators’ ability to state individual desire in terms of what they believe is a common good” (Senf 427). They believe Dracula is selfish, while they are selfless. Senf’s parallels between good and evil illuminate the central fear of the novel: our own flawed, possibly corrupted humanity.

The Desirable Other: Dracula, Modern Culture, and the Othered Self

Since the publication of Dracula, vampires have taken over a place in our cultural consciousness that no other phenomenon has come close to encompassing. Vampires smudge the line between terror and desire; in our modern conception of them, they are at once frightening, interesting, powerful, and eminently attractive. Anne Rice and Stephenie Meyer, plus countless other writers, have both taken advantage of and created the recent sensation and call for “supernatural” fiction: TwilightVampire AcademySalem’s LotInterview with the Vampire. These have spawned their own offshoots involving witches, werewolves, ghosts, and a positive plethora of other beings.

These beings, like Dracula did in 1897, represent “the other” as intensely desirable, not only as physical representations of forbidden sexiness but as a potential lover or friend or spouse. Dracula’s physical appeal and mental power have been perpetuated and diluted by more recent characters in popular fiction – Edward Cullen, Adrian Ivashkov, Bunnicula – but the essence of Dracula as an idea is there in all of them. Searching the word “vampire” into Google Images brings up a few gory depictions of ghastly old men, but mostly the images are of young and beautiful people – who just happen to have fangs and/or blood dripping from their mouths. Because of Count Dracula, vampires are sexy.

To someone not steeped in our modern conceptions, vampires aren’t sexy at all; they have mutant teeth and they eat people. But in fantasy or “supernatural” novels (Dracula included, more notably books like Harry Potter, the Divergent series, the All Souls trilogy and a thousand more), it often turns out that the protagonist is the most “other” of all the others. Harry Potter is the wizard prophesied to defeat Voldemort; Tris is divergent; Diana Bishop is the witchiest witch of them all. We ourselves desire to be “the other” because we want to be different – the most special.

Or maybe this desire to be “the other,” the most powerful witch or the sexiest vampire or the bitiest werewolf, stems from a desire to be part of the community to which we’ve truly always belonged. (Harry leaves Privet Drive for the wizarding world.) This displacement into the place we were meant to be reflects fear that we’re not in the place that we actually belong, that we don’t fit in. And couldn’t the entire concept of a supernatural world conceal and reveal the fear that our own world is mundane, that our lives have too little meaning? A supernatural world right around the corner is so much better and more exciting – and in all the fantasy novels, the vampire novels, that world is the world where we truly belong.

What does this have to do with Dracula? Perhaps Count Dracula represents the ultimate other: foreign, sexy, powerful, and dead. Yet despite their revulsion, the characters in Dracula also feel a strange attraction to him – they describe him in uncomfortably physical language (“parted red lips,” etc), and Dracula’s enduring status as a figure not of violence and gore but of sex and even romance surely owes something to our own desire to see him that way. We want to be – not Dracula but something like him: our enchantment with Dracula stems from our attraction to the idea of the best, most special “other” – and finding out that the other is actually ourselves. Lucy’s transformation into something other than human and Mina’s close escape from the same fate mirror modern novels which involve the protagonist being the other all along and not knowing it. We all want to be that other – the most powerful, the most magical, the most special – despite the fear and discomfort that often come with it.

Dracula is a vampire; he is not Prince Charming. But the modern world – often including people who have actually read Dracula – see him as a blend of the two. The 2013 TV show Dracula shows him as a wounded hero seeking revenge and finding love; there he’s played not by a creepy old man but by Jonathan Rhys Meyers.


Dracula means sex and desire, often forbidden. He’s our fantasies. He’s the “other” we might want to be. He’s the desire for something different, something not like us – and the desire that the “us” we are be different. We love Dracula because we want what he represents – he is “the other” but, in his recent incarnations and in the novels Bram Stoker (directly or indirectly) inspired, he’s also ourselves.

Euphemisms of Horror Sustained

The Island of Dr. Moreau deals with intensely gruesome subjects – not only in the physical monstrosity of the Beast People, with their “strangely distorted talons” which evoke a “quivering disgust” (44), but in Moreau’s morally repulsive experiments full of sadism and wanton cruelty. Yet as the full depth of the island’s gruesomeness becomes clear, I began to find the language surrounding it increasingly strange. The language the characters use is often far less graphic than one might expect, as we begin to understand what exactly they’re referring to; the terms used to explain the actual horrors occurring on the island are often vague. Even after Prendick has come to a full understanding of the island’s horrors, the euphemisms persist. This seems counterproductive; in a book so full of shock and revulsion, why bother trying to maintain language that downplays them?

Early on in the novel, Moreau tells Prendick, “‘This is a biological station – of a sort’” (Wells 19). There is a good deal more going on in Moreau’s island than merely biology, but Prendick doesn’t know this yet; it’s a handy lie for Moreau, easily palatable for a fellow scientist. Shortly after, Moreau changes his tone: “‘Our little establishment here contains a secret or so, is a kind of Bluebeard’s Chamber, in fact. Nothing very dreadful really – to a sane man’” (21). While “biological station” sounds relatively simple, even tame, “Bluebeard’s Chamber” is far more objectionable. Moreau could have called his island a biological station if he was experimenting on different types of grass. His allusion to “Bluebeard’s Chamber,” on the other hand, holds a deadly and deceptive conflict. Bluebeard is a character in a fairy tale – removed from reality, ostensibly harmless, figuring only in a child’s imagination. This fairy tale quality makes the allusion itself seem harmless, placing Moreau’s island in an innocuous context. But Bluebeard was a renowned wife-murderer, and his chamber was kept a secret because it was full of dead bodies. The apparent safety of Moreau’s answer is undermined by the nature of his euphemism. Although this tendency seems natural now, when Prendick is new to the island, Prendick himself maintains the euphemisms surrounding the worst of the island’s horrors, as if he can’t bear to name them.

Prendick and Moreau both use the term “vivisection” most often when referring to Moreau’s work, and although the clinical ring of the word seems to excuse it from being a euphemism, I think it’s another link in a chain of sustained euphemisms for something so horrible neither character nor writer can  address it openly. “Vivisection” means “living dissection” – yet it sounds much cleaner cloaked in Latin. Prendick never asks himself, “Can Moreau really be cutting apart live animals in order to make them more like humans? Can he dissect live humans?” Instead, he says, “Could the vivisection of men be possible?” (37). While vivisection is ostensibly the most applicable scientific term, it is also used exclusively; there are no other more graphic (and realistic) terms applied to Moreau’s research. I think that this repetition, to the exclusion of any other term, reflects a fear of the actual process, even after we understand it.

Chapter 19 is titled “Montgomery’s ‘Bank Holiday.’” This holiday consists of Montgomery losing his hold on his sanity and eventually being killed by the Beast People. The “bank holiday” is a new euphemism, used perhaps for dramatic purpose (to withhold the details of the next chapter) but I think more importantly for the way it reveals Prendick’s discomfort with the events around him. To Prendick, and perhaps to Moreau also, the horror of the “science” happening on the island is so strong that they can’t bring themselves to name it.

It makes some sense that Wells would try to conceal some atrocities; published under Victoria in an era of strict social decorum, the novel could have been shunned had it been judged too appalling. Yet we see atrocities aplenty. Instead, the euphemisms reveal such a depth of disgust and fear for the island’s events that Prendick (and Wells) could not bear to name them. Instead of calling horror by its own name, Wells constantly conceals and obscures it; the euphemisms he uses for the island’s horrors indicate a discomfort deeper than simple revulsion. I think that these euphemisms reflect a social and moral disgust with Moreau’s science, and perhaps science as a whole, that neither Prendick nor Wells can fully articulate.