Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




From "Queen Yseult," 1857, to "Hertha" of Songs before Sunrise, 1871, three archetypes--the femme fatale, the Terrible Mother, and the androgyne--dominate Swinburne's poems, dramas, and novels. These archetypes project the dominant artistic conflict of the Victorian period, the controversy over the function of art and the role of the artist, for they symbolize the psychological and cultural conflict between the doctrine of art for art's sake and its antithesis, art for morality's sake. The femme fatale becomes a symbol of art and beauty, the goal of the artist-androgyne's aesthetic quest. Her masochistic lover strives to possess beauty in the form of the fatal woman, just as the artist pursues it in his art. Beyond conventional moral judgments, the femme fatale is autonomous because of her beauty and, frequently, her disdain for Philistine mores. Like the vampire, she drains the vitality of her lovers; thus, the man's erotic and aesthetic quest often becomes simultaneously a pursuit of death. Moreover, the Terrible Mother, like Lady Midhurst in A Year's Letters, frequently joins the femme fatale and her lover, the artist-androgyne, in a dramatic triangle. The Terrible Mother represents the restrictive laws of society and conventional morality, forces which deform the artist and warp his creation. She struggles with the femme fatale to control the androgyne, who eventually dies psychically or physically. This study traces the evolution of these figures in Swinburne's early works and uses his criticism, particularly his essay William Blake, as the foundation of his aesthetic doctrine. Swinburne develops the triadic relationship among these three recurring archetypes most fully in Atalanta in Calydon, where Meleager rejects duty, Althaea, for beauty, Atalanta, and thereby chooses death. In Poems and Ballads as the femme fatale becomes more destructive, the Terrible Mother softens, becoming a desire for oblivion and symbolized as the sea or as Proserpine. In Songs before Sunrise Swinburne has a theme, Liberty, and a vision--the Humanity of Positivism--wherein beauty and duty coalesce. Therefore, he constellates a new archetype, the Great Mother, who dominates the volume and reaches her most successful embodiment in "Hertha.".