Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Allen Dunn

Committee Members

David Goslee, Nancy Goslee, Bryant Creel


In this study, I demonstrate how Swinburne develops an aesthetic that involves re-examining the contradictions and ambiguities arising in the tension between the celebration of the creative power of the imagination and the consideration of the material limitations that constrict the applications of the imagination’s power. He finds artistic integrity and productivity in the failure of the imagination to allow one to transcend the material world, because he determines that such failure allows one to discover many previously undetected possibilities for imaginative expression still inherent in the material world. Swinburne accomplishes this by privileging the fantasy component of art while recognizing fantasy as artifice, artifice in which failure is always already immanent. By emphasizing the artificiality, the fantastic quality, of art, he modifies conventional perceptions of art as well as conventional modes of conveying and interpreting “meaning” in art. In this way, Swinburne presages the explorations of the negative dialectic as well as the reconfigurations of material limitations that Theodor Adorno undertakes in the Aesthetic Theory.

In my first three chapters, I establish how Swinburne’s creative reconsideration of the biography and works of William Blake allows him to explore the qualities of aesthetic particularity and individualized perspective made possible by the revaluation of artifice. Swinburne “misreads” or transforms Blake into an idealized artist who pioneers an aesthetic that depends on the very failures of actual, complete representation to occur within ideological conventions in order to modify radically, if not exceed, those conventions. In chapters four and five, I demonstrate how this aesthetic of failure is manifest in the process of serial identifications Swinburne uses in his depictions of the various “Ladies of Pain” in his Poems and Ballads, First Series. Swinburne applies this process of recasting failure as an aesthetically productive process of serial identifications to his explorations of Italian revolutionary politics and the carefully crafted images of Giuseppe Mazzini in Songs before Sunrise, as I demonstrate in chapter six. Finally, in chapter seven, I investigate Swinburne’s use of the polis as a trope exemplifying constructive struggle within failure through a comparison of his two major Greek tragedies, Atalanta in Calydon and Erechtheus.

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