Whelps and dams

Whelps and dams

In Brief

In the tower Stephen has listened to Mulligan warbling phrases from two vapidly rhapsodic early poems by "Algy": "great sweet mother" and "Ask nothing more of me, sweet." In the library he takes his own, less "sweet" crack at the famous English poet. Recalling words from a recently published sonnet—"Whelps and dams of murderous foes whom none / But we had spared..."—he refers with withering irony to "the concentration camp sung by Mr Swinburne." His contempt for the poem's defense of British atrocities in South Africa reflects opinions expressed publicly in England and America as well as Ireland.

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Swinburne wrote his poem in response to the death of a fellow Northumberland native, Lieutenant Colonel George Elliott Benson. Benson led a "flying column" of 2,000 British troops that had been clearing Boer settlements during the day and effectively attacking Boer commandos at night. On 30 October 1901 General Botha's forces surrounded the unit's rear guard of 200 men while it was marching back to base and annihilated it. Colonel Benson died of his wounds the next morning. On November 9, the Saturday Review published Swinburne's sonnet "On the Death of Colonel Benson," later included in Swinburne's final volume of poetry, A Channel Passage and Other Poems (1904):
Northumberland, so proud and sad to-day,
Weep and rejoice, our mother, whom no son
More glorious than this dead and deathless one
Brought ever fame whereon no time shall prey.
Nor heed we more than he what liars dare say
Of mercy's holiest duties left undone
Toward whelps and dams of murderous foes, whom none
Save we had spared or feared to starve and slay.
Alone as Milton and as Wordsworth found
And hailed their England, when from all around
Howled all the recreant hate of envious knaves,
Sublime she stands: while, stifled in the sound,
Each lie that falls from German boors and slaves
Falls but as filth dropt in the wandering waves.

Swinburne's jingoistic hatred for people defending their homeland is fairly standard fare in times of war, but his dehumanizing characterization of Boer women and children as "Whelps and dams" sets a high bar of moral hideousness that he quickly tops by congratulating the British for confining these mongrels in camps where starvation and disease could kill them, rather than simply butchering them as a less advanced people would have done.

Thornton notes that the November 16 issue of the Saturday Review, the next week, featured letters by Duncan C. McVarish and Stephen Gwynn deploring Swinburne's justification of the camps, along with a reply by the poet. Gifford elaborates: "Swinburne's poem was regarded as a whitewash of the concentration camps . . . One letterwriter called him 'unthinking' and 'excessive'; the other remarked: 'It is not necessary to call the women and children 'whelps and dams'." Swinburne "replied by citing a series of atrocity stories about the Boers, whom he described as 'virtual slave drivers'."

JH 2021
Edition of Swinburne's last volume of verse. Source: www.scribd.com.
Burning of Commandant Fourie's Farmstead, Perzikfontein, in the Orange Free State, a 1900 sketch by British war artist Richard Caton Woodville. Source: Stephen Mitford Goodson, The Genocide of the Boers.