Great sweet mother

Great sweet mother

In Brief

"Algy" is Algernon Charles Swinburne, the ostentatiously decadent late Victorian poet from Northumberland. When Mulligan calls the sea “a great sweet mother” in Telemachus he is quoting a phrase from Swinburne’s early poem The Triumph of Time, published in 1866, which treated death at sea as a consummation devoutly to be wished.

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The poem is a long (49 stanzas of ottava rima) lament for unrequited love. It returns again and again to the ocean as an image of the self-loss that the speaker desires, now that his hopes of romantic completion have been shipwrecked. Addressing the sea as mother and lover, killer and fulfiller, graveyard and paradise, he seeks a consummation somewhere between eroticism and mysticism:

I will go back to the great sweet mother,
Mother and lover of men, the sea. 
I will go down to her, I and none other, 
Close with her, kiss her and mix her with me; 
Cling to her, strive with her, hold her fast: 
O fair white mother, in days long past 
Born without sister, born without brother, 
Set free my soul as thy soul is free.
O fair green-girdled mother of mine, 
Sea, that art clothed with the sun and the rain, 
Thy sweet hard kisses are strong like wine, 
Thy large embraces are keen like pain. 
Save me and hide me with all thy waves, 
Find me one grave of thy thousand graves,
Those pure cold populous graves of thine
Wrought without hand in a world without stain. . . .   
Fair mother, fed with the lives of men,
Thou art subtle and cruel of heart, men say. 
Thou hast taken, and shalt not render again; 
Thou art full of thy dead, and cold as they. 
But death is the worst that comes of thee; 
Thou art fed with our dead, O mother, O sea, 
But when hast thou fed on our hearts? or when,
Having given us love, hast thou taken away? 
O tender-hearted, O perfect lover, 
Thy lips are bitter, and sweet thine heart. 
The hopes that hurt and the dreams that hover, 
Shall they not vanish away and apart? 
But thou, thou art sure, thou art older than earth; 
Thou art strong for death and fruitful of birth; 
Thy depths conceal and thy gulfs discover; 
From the first thou wert; in the end thou art. (sts. 34-35, 37-38)

With their pervasive pessimism, their extravagant longing for dissolution, their pagan ecstasies, their immersion in paradox, and their overtones of incest and necrophilia, these late Romantic stanzas speak to the avant-garde, anti-bourgeois sensibilities of men like Mulligan. Although Stephen is about as much a part of the bohemian scene as Mulligan, his hydrophobic thoughts about the sea tend more to hard-headed contemplation of rotting bodies than to dreams of watery ecstasy. But the strains of a comparable song by Shakespeare do occupy his thoughts.

Swinburne was a friend of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Christina Rossetti, and seen by many of his contemporaries as the late Victorian successor to Tennyson and Browning. Gifford observes that “In 1904 Swinburne was, in Yeats’ phrase, the ‘King of the Cats,’ the grand old man of the preceding century’s avant-garde.” Later in Telemachus, Mulligan recites lines from Swinburne's The Oblation, and Stephen thinks of "Algy" again in both Proteus and Scylla and Charybdis.

JH 2017
Photograph of a young Algernon Swinburne. Source:
2010 cut paper image by Vanessa Stone, illustrating the "great sweet mother" lines. Source: