Melting Bodies: The Dissolution of Bodily Boundaries in Milton and Swinburne


  • Laura Fox Gill (University of Sussex)



This paper explores connections between treatments of the body and its boundaries in the poetry of John Milton and Algernon Charles Swinburne. My aim is twofold: first, I wish to assert Milton’s direct influence on Swinburne’s poetry, rather than as a vague indirect background for Victorian poetry in general. Second, I argue for Swinburne’s importance to our understanding of Victorian sexuality and Milton’s consequent importance as a significant source for Swinburne’s conception of the sexual body.

Swinburne’s poetry is immersed in the tense and conflicted discourse surrounding the sexual body in the nineteenth century, represented by medical and cultural writing of the period on the figure of the hermaphrodite, and more widely, by the increasing dissolution of bodily boundaries. Milton directly provides Swinburne with ways of rethinking and presenting these ‘melting bodies’, making the Swinburnean body, and that of Victorian culture more generally, Miltonic in fundamental ways.

The two poets are related first through their mutual engagement with the figure of the hermaphrodite as the pinnacle of a metaphysics of melting: a pervasive concern with melting bodies and the dissolution of fleshy thresholds. Moving beyond the hermaphroditic, I explore a more omnipresent sense of melting, merging, cleaving-together identifiable in Milton’s metaphysics and in the poetic composition of both Milton and Swinburne. Placed in relation to the importance of Sappho and Baudelaire’s conception of the sexual body for Swinburne, Milton’s influence is significant for what it can offer to supplement and surpass that of these two noteworthy figures.