Jack’s Naughty Bits

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Jack's Naughty Bits
Seeing as how all the other major magazines are doing it, I thought it only appropriate that Nerve also make April “Naughty Swinburne Month.” Yes, for the month of April in Naughty Bits, you get a dose of the bad boy of late nineteenth-century British poetry, Algernon Charles Swinburne. Why April? Four reasons, actually: Swinburne was born April 5, 1837; he died April 10, 1909; April is National Poetry Month (for those of us anglophones on this side of the Atlantic); and, finally, as T.S. Eliot famously stated, April is the cruelest month, and Swinburne liked it cruel.


I was joking, of course, about other mags taking note of dear old Swinburne. Though his poetry was quite popular in the first half of this century, his star has been fading in recent decades, and it’s doubtful that most of you have even heard of him. It’s a situation made to be remedied. Swinburne was a pure Naughty Bit poet: both a highbrow aesthetic success and an inveterate perv who didn’t back down from writing about sex. (And, as we’ll see in the following installment, he’s also the foremost poet of the hickey!) His collected verse, Poems and Ballads, was retracted by its first publisher when people started taking note of how much sexual content it contained. For not only did Swinburne like it cruel, he swung both ways, and insisted that both bisexuality and sado-masochism be prominent themes in the book, despite his publisher’s squeamishness. Happily for us, he quickly found another publisher (who realized that the book was selling well as much because of the sex as despite it), and was able to leave his manuscript intact.


The first poem I want to feature is a masterwork of masochistic literature: “Dolores: Notre Dame des Sept Douleurs” (Our Lady of the Seven Pains). It’s long, so I won’t reprint it in its entirety, but will instead highlight two of its better sections. Swinburne pulls no punches in his account of biting, binding and branding, and the result is one of the sexier (and more rhythmic) odes to the darker side of sex ever written. Two lines (apart from the sections below) stand out for me as marvels of force and economy: “We have all done amiss, choosing rather / Such loves as the wise gods disdain” and, yet more powerfully, “We shall see whether hell be not heaven.” A summation of the masochist’s philosophy if there ever was one.


From “Dolores: Notre Dame des Sept Douleurs” by A.C. Swinburne

By the hunger of change and emotion

     By the thirst of unbearable things,

By despair, the twin-born of devotion,

     By the pleasure that winces and stings,

The delight that consumes the desire,

     The desire that outruns the delight,

By the cruelty deaf as a fire,

     And blind as the night,

By the ravenous teeth that have smitten

     Through kisses that blossom and bud,

By the lips intertwisted and bitten

     Till the foam has a savour of blood,

By the pulse as it rises and falters,

     By the hands as they slacken and strain,

I adjure thee, respond from thine altars,

     Our Lady of Pain.

Wilt thou smile as a woman disdaining

     The light fire in the veins of a boy?

But he comes to thee sad, without feigning,

     Who has wearied of sorrow and joy;

Less careful of labour and glory

     Than the elders whose hair had uncurled;

And young, but with fancies as hoary

     And grey as the world.

I have passed from the outermost portal

     To the shrine where a sin is a prayer;

What care though the service be mortal?

     O our Lady of Torture what care?

All thine the wine that I pour is,

     The last of the chalice we drain,

O fierce and luxurious Dolores,

     Our Lady of Pain.

All thine the new wine of desire,

     The fruit of four lips as they clung

Till the hair and the eyelids took fire,

     The foam of the serpentine tongue,

The froth of the serpents of pleasure,

     More salt than the foam of the sea,

Now felt as a flame, now at leisure

     As wine shed for me.

Ah thy people, thy children, thy chosen,

     Marked cross from the womb and perverse!

They have found out the secret to cozen

     The gods that constrain us and curse;

They alone, they are wise, and none other;

     Give me place, even me, in their train,

O my sister, my spouse, and my mother,

     Our Lady of Pain.

[. . . .]

And pale from the past we draw nigh thee,

    And satiate with comfortless hours;

And we know thee, how all men belie thee,

     And we gather the fruit of thy flowers;

The passion that slays and recovers,

     The pangs and the kisses that rain

On the lips and the limbs of thy lovers

     Our Lady of Pain.

The desire of thy furious embraces

     Is more than the wisdom of years,

On the blossom though blood lies in traces,

     Though the foliage be sodden with tears.

For the lords in whose keeping the door is

     That opens on all who draw breath

Gave the cypress to love, my Dolores,

     The myrtle to death.

And they laughed, changing hands in the measure,

     And they mixed and made peace after strife;

Pain melted in tears, and was pleasure;

     Death tingled with blood, and was life.

Like lovers they melted and tingled,

     In the dusk of thine innermost fane;

In the darkness they murmured and mingled

     Our Lady of Pain.

In a twilight where virtues are vices,

     In thy chapels, unknown of the sun,

To a tune that enthralls and entices,

     They were wed, and the twain were as one.

For the tune from thine altar hath sounded

     Since God bade the world’s work begin,

And the fume of thine incense abounded,
To sweeten the sin.

Love listens, and paler than ashes,

     Through his curls as the crown on them slips,

Lifts languid wet eyelids and lashes,

     And laughs with insatiable lips.

Thou shalt hush him with heavy caresses,

     With music that scares the profane;

Thou shalt darken his eyes with thy tresses,
Our Lady of Pain.

Though shalt blind his bright eye though he wrestle,

     Thou shalt chain his light limbs though he strive;

In his lips all thy serpents shall nestle,

     In thy hands all thy cruelties thrive.

In the daytime thy voice shall go through him,

     In his dreams he shall feel thee and ache;

Thou shalt kindle by night and subdue him

     Asleep and awake.

Thou shalt touch and make redder his roses

     With juice not of fruit nor of bud;

When the sense in the spirit reposes,

     Thou shalt quicken the soul through the blood.

Thine, thine the one grace we implore is,

     Who would live and not languish or feign,

O sleepless and deadly Dolores,

     Our Lady of Pain.

last week next week

Jack Murnighan‘s stories appeared in the Best American Erotica editions of 1999, 2000 and 2001. His weekly column for Nerve, Jack’s Naughty Bits, was collected and released as two books. He was the editor-in-chief of Nerve from 1999 to 2001, before retiring to write full time and take seriously the quest for love.

Introduction ©2000 Jack Murnighan and, Inc.