(Group 1 Research): A Lost and Painful Love

Algernon Charles Swinburne’s poem, “The Triumph of Time,” featured in Amy Levy’s Reuben Sachs: A Sketch, is emblematic of the predominant themes of Swinburne’s poetry, Reuben Sachs the novella, and Amy Levy’s life. Swinburne, in many of his literary works and poems, was preoccupied with a concept known as the “live biographical chronicle.” Which is to say that Swinburne enjoyed investigating the characters of certain historical figures and considering whether or not their contextual realities, such as their religion, political alignments, or place in history, constrained them and prevented them from achieving “true spiritual vision.” According to Swinburne, an effective historical poet “distills the permanent, spiritual meaning from representative lives, their events and circumstances.” Thus represents Swinburne’s interest in the “live biographical chronicle” where representative lives refer to the historical figures, such as Charlemagne, with which Swinburne was fascinated. In a similar way, Levy also seems concerned with the “live biographical chronicle.” Though she does not focus on historical figures and chooses to write instead about purely fictional characters, Levy presents characters to her readers that appear real and authentic. Levy’s characters do not represent stereotypes or caricatures; they are instead constructed with verisimilitude in mind. Moreover, the search for “true spiritual vision,” which Swinburne underwent in much of his poetry, is also present within Levy’s novella. This is particularly shown through the character of Leo, who feels that his Jewish religion (at least in the way that he personally has experienced it) prevents him from gleaning spiritual meaning from life.

Furthermore, Swinburne’s poem, “The Triumph of Time,” deals specifically with the idea of unrequited love, a concept that features heavily within the novella, Reuben Sachs, and in the life of its author. “The Triumph of Time,” which retells the historical unrequited romance between Jaufre Rudel and the Countess of Tripoli. Swinburne’s retelling of Jaufre Rudel’s passion for the Countess is said to be inspired by his own unrequited love for Mary Gordon. Of course, the presence of unrequited love is a major component of Reuben Sachs, for Judith loves Reuben unrequitedly in the face of many obstacles. This same sense of unrequited love in Reuben Sachs was perhaps inspired by its author’s own experience with unrequited love, for it is presumed by scholars that Amy Levy was in love with a female contemporary, Vernon Lee, but was unable to requite her passion, at least, physically.

In “The Triumph of Time,” Swinburne discusses a masochistic, insatiable love that cannot be fulfilled due to any number of obstacles. Indeed, Judith was unable to fulfill her love for Reuben due to her lack of fortune just as Levy was unable to fulfill her love for Lee (at least physically) due to the gender norms and societal constraints of her time. Despite being herself a “New Woman,” that is, a woman committed to upheaving patriarchal norms and championing equality and women’s rights, Levy was nevertheless unable to act upon her attractions to Lee and others and therefore was always relegated to unrequited relationships. Additionally, the kind of love that Swinburne writes is one that is fundamentally metaphysical and not carnal. Similarly, the love shared between Judith and Reuben, as well as between Levy and Lee, are unable to bear any kind of physical aspect. Thus, Swinburne, in “The Triumph of Time” and many of his other poems, argues that death is the only release from the pains of love. Furthermore, Swinburne claims death as not just the only vehicle of escape from love’s pains but also as the fulfillment of love’s “physical and spiritual passions.” This notion expressed in Swinburne’s poem through the documentation of the unrequited and lost love between Rudel and the Countess is also carried out in Reuben Sachs, as the novella concludes with the death of its titular character. While it is not the unrequited lover, Judith, who dies, it can be presumed that Reuben’s death nevertheless provides her with a release from the pain of unrequited love, as is evidenced by the sadistic smile she produces upon hearing of Reuben’s demise.

Finally, Swinburne’s primary objective in poetry, aside from investigating the lived experiences and spiritual components of historical figures, was to display “instances of illumination” particularly as a result of a loss of love or life. This is paralleled within Reuben Sachs through the character of Judith, who experiences spiritual enlightenment upon reading Swinburne’s works and realizing the fundamentally unrequited nature of her love for Reuben. Indeed, when Reuben chooses political progress over her, Judith finally recognizes that her love for Reuben will never be reciprocated and also realizes, particularly through her essentially forced marriage to Bertie Lee-Harrison, that she is trapped in a patriarchal system. If we interpret Reuben Sachs in conjunction with Swinburne’s “The Triumph of Time,” it becomes apparent that these epiphanies were only made possible through the pains of love that Judith experienced.

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