A gap-toothed & hoary-headed ape

In January of 1874, on hearing that fellow poet Ralph Waldo Emerson had described him as “a perfect leper, and a mere sodomite” in an interview, Algernon Charles Swinburne wrote the following letter to the New York Tribune and delivered one of the greatest ripostes I’ve ever read. It was published in the paper the next day, and as far as I can tell generated no response from Emerson.

(Source: The Yale Edition of The Swinburne Letters: Volume 2, 1869-1875; Image: A. C. Swinburne, via The Guardian.)

January 30, 1874


I am informed that certain American journalists, not content with providing filth of their own for the consumption of their kind, sometimes offer to their readers a dish of beastliness which they profess to have gathered from under the chairs of more distinguished men. While the abuse lavished on my name and writings could claim no higher than a nameless source, I have always been able to say with Shelley, “I have neither curiosity, interest, pain nor pleasure, in anything, good or evil, they can say of me. I feel only a slight disgust, and a sort of wonder that they presume to write my name.” If I am to believe that that name has been made the mark for such vile language as is now publicly attributed to men of note in the world of letters, I, who am not sufficiently an expert in the dialect of the cesspool and the dung-cart to retort in their own kind on these venerable gentlemen — I, whose ears and lips alike are unused to the amenities of a conversation embroidered with such fragments of flowery rhetoric as may be fished up by congenial fingers or lapped up by congenial tongues out of the sewerage of Sodom — can return no better or more apt reply than was addressed by the servant Octavia to the satellites of Nero, and applied by Lord Denman, when counsel for Queen Caroline, to the sycophants of George IV.

A foul mouth is so ill matched with a white beard that I would gladly believe the newspaper scribes alone responsible for the bestial utterances which they declare to have dropped from a teacher whom such disciples as these exhibit, to our disgust and compassion, as performing on their obscene platform the last tricks of tongue now possible to a gap-toothed and hoary-headed ape, carried first into notice on the shoulder of Carlyle, and who now, in his dotage, spits and chatters from a dirtier perch of his own finding and fouling; Coryphaeus or choragus of his Bulgarian tribe of autocoprophagous baboons who make the filth they feed on.

Averting, with a peculiar emotion which I need not specify, my eyes and nostrils from the sight and savour of such things, I need not stoop as though to blow off any speck of their leaving from a name which I trust and think, though it may well be that it has gained nothing, has at least lost nothing in my hands of its hereditary honour. Those to whom it is known only as an object of reviling from writers with or without a name of their own may yet do well to ask themselves how far such follies and such villainies may be likely to affect the repute or disturb the conciousness of one to whom it is given to remember that well-nigh at the very outset of his course he had earned the praise and won the friendship of Landor, of Hugo, and of Mazzini; and who, though he may see no need and feel no inclination to seek shelter behind the name or beneath the countenances of any man, has yet, in the sense of this not unmerited honour, an enduring source of such pleasures and such pride as the “most sweet voices” of his revilers are about equally competent to give and to take away.

A. C. Swinburne