If you were queen of pleasure, and I were king of pain: Great poem by Swinburne

On a recent series of flights, between getting work done and staving off perhaps the most magnificent migraine I’ve had in years (sinus and altitude induced, who can say, but fitting for an Ash Wednesday), I dipped again into Nicholson Baker’s clever comic novel about poetry, The Anthologist, and read about the Victorian poet, inventor of the roundel, Algernon Charles Swinburne, who wrote these stunning, chill-inducing lines:

If you were queen of pleasure, 
And I were king of pain, 
We’d hunt down love together, 
Pluck out his flying-feather, 
And teach his feet a measure,
And find his mouth a rein; 
If you were queen of pleasure, 
And I were king of pain.

I’m not sure how I’ve managed to rummage around in poetry and literature for so many years and not become acquainted with this poem – though Baker (or Baker’s poet narrator in The Anthologist) says that Swinburne, “the greatest rhymer in human history,”  fell victim to the backlash of Futurism, and though his poetic descendants remain well known, he has all but been forgotten.

Which is too bad, if this poem is any indication of the greater body of his writing.

Here’s the poem in its entirety:

A Match

Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837–1909)

IF love were what the rose is,
And I were like the leaf,
Our lives would grow together
In sad or singing weather,
Blown fields or flowerful closes,
Green pleasure or gray grief;
If love were what the rose is,
And I were like the leaf.

If I were what the words are,
And love were like the tune,
With double sound and single
Delight our lips would mingle,
With kisses glad as birds are
That get sweet rain at noon;
If I were what the words are,
And love were like the tune.

If you were life, my darling,
And I your love were death,
We’d shine and snow together
Ere March made sweet the weather
With daffodil and starling
And hours of fruitful breath;
If you were life, my darling,
And I your love were death.

If you were thrall to sorrow,
And I were page to joy,
We’d play for lives and seasons
With loving looks and treasons
And tears of night and morrow
And laughs of maid and boy;
If you were thrall to sorrow,
And I were page to joy.

If you were April’s lady,
And I were lord in May,
We’d throw with leaves for hours
And draw for days with flowers,
Till day like night were shady
And night were bright like day;
If you were April’s lady,
And I were lord in May.

If you were queen of pleasure,
And I were king of pain,
We’d hunt down love together,
Pluck out his flying-feather,
And teach his feet a measure,
And find his mouth a rein;
If you were queen of pleasure,
And I were king of pain.

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