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The Poet Swinburne in Bonchurch

Updated: Aug 4, 2022

This is the second text exploring the lives of famous writers who had strong links with Bonchurch. The first celebrated the life of Charles Dickens and this one focuses on Victorian poet Algernon Swinburne (1837- 1909)

This text is in 2 parts

PART 1. The early life of Algernon when he lived at East Dene

PART 2. His later life and controversial burial at Bonchurch New Church Graveyard.

Both texts explore plays by Bonchurch Theatre Company that were written by local writer John Goodwin.

This text is in the form of a play script interspersed with prose information.


The actors are ready. The crowd who have a small but important part in the play are

concentrating. By their feet is a huge circle of blue cloth. The actor playing Father

steps forward and says

CHARLES ‘My son Algernon is sickly and may not live long. We had better baptise

him without delay. There’s only one way to test him, truly test him to see

if he will grow up to be a man.

The crowd lift up the edges of the cloth and shake them about as if they are violent

waves of the sea. Charles places baby Algernon in the centre of the blue cloth and

steps away. Baby Algernon is buffeted about in the waves made by the actors but

survives the ordeal.

CHARLES Praise be to God. He has truly spoken. His mighty word is a lesson to us

all. I will ensure that a new church shall rise in Bonchurch that all men

shall see.

Time passes. Algernon’s Mother Jane is giving him one of her sessions of home schooling . Algernon is twelve years old.

JANE Algernon...Algernon. Today’s lesson is a play reading by Mr Shakespeare

(Algernon's Mother)

ALGY What is it called Mother ?

JANE Romeo and Juliet.

ALGY ‘Romeo and Juliet ?’

JANE They are two young people deeply in love. But their families

are sworn enemies so it is an impossible love.

ALGY Why is it impossible ?

JANE Because they’ll never be able to marry . In this scene Romeo has come to

Juliet’s house late at night. This is what he says ‘What light through

yonder window breaks ? It is the east and Juliet is the sun.

ALGY That’s beautiful.

JANE Yes. Romeo is saying that Juliet is the brightest shining thing in the

skies. Even brighter than the sun.

ALGY How can she be so bright ?

JANE Because he loves her so much and in his imagination she is so special.

ALGY I love Mary Gordon more than anything.

JANE Don’t let your Father hear you say that Algernon.

ALGY Why can’t I speak out loud what is true ?

Algernon’s father Charles is an admiral. He is a master of all things maritime but a poor novice when it comes ito problematic Algernon.

CHARLES Thankyou for coming doctor. Algernon is very excitable. It is very

worrying for him and for our family. He draws down his hands and

shakes his arms and is so agitated.

DOCTOR Can you show me what you mean ?

CHARLES Like this

DOCTOR I see. How often does this occur ?

CHARLES Most days and its increasing in severity.

DOCTOR How old did you say he is ?

CHARLES He’ll be twelve in a few weeks time.

Algernon is brought into the room

DOCTOR Hello Algernon

The doctor holds out his hand. Algernon shies away.

Don’t be worried boy. I’m not going to hurt you. I’m just going to check

your pulse. Can you hold out your arm for me ?

Algernon freezes. The doctor moves towards him. Algernon cries out in anguish..

Easy now.

If Algernon was alive today doctors would place him on the autistic spectrum

Algy and Mary Gordon his cousin ride out on hobby horses as if on real horseback

ALGY Riding out

MARY Riding out on our own

ALGY No adults to get in the way.

MARY Free as the wind.

ALGY Free as air.

MARY Faster than fairies

ALGY Faster than wizards.

MARY Up on the downs

ALGY Up on the downs.

MARY What will we do when we’re older ?

ALGY Promise me we’ll still ride out together

MARY I promise.

ALGY Cross your heart and hope to die.

MARY I cross my heart

Algernon’s struggle with his Father’s dominance continues particularly when he is swept away by the heroic Charge of The Light Brigade in the Crimea War.

ALGY I tell you Father I mean to join the army.

CHARLES That is quite out of the question. I will hear no more.

ALGY I’ll show you how tough I am. I’m going to climb Culver Cliff.

And you won’t stop me

Sea sounds. Charles speaks Algernon’s self doubts. The crowd block his way with

their bodies to reinforce the doubts.

CHARLES It’s so steep.

ALGY One small step to begin

CHARLES The rock will crumble beneath your weight

ALGY I know I can do it

CHARLES Your body will fall and crash into the sea.

ALGY Reach up to grip the foothold

CHARLES Your head swirls

ALGY I’m off the ground

CHARLES Give up while you can.

ALGY Just keep going

CHARLES You’re stuck. Scared stiff

ALGY I’ve made it to the top. I will be renowned. I will break free

of my Father’s shackles and be my own person.

Charles has booked a place for his son at Oxford University without his knowledge

CHARLES Algernon you’d better prepare yourself for admission into

Oxford University


Rather than encouraging his fledging poems the University consider them a distraction to serious study.

TEACHER Commoner Swinburne is not able to take any particular line

of thought in his studies. He will achieve little unless he can

be hindered from writing poetry.

Mary Charlotte Julia Gordon

Algernon seeks refuge in the arms of his dearest.

MARY Algernon began to write furiously without rest. He poured

all his heart and mind into it.

ALGY Oh Mary I’ve had such a good time in London with Rossetti

and William Morris

MARY I went to Scotland

ALGY One of my poems is to be published

MARY I met someone there.

ALGY Who did you meet?

MARY Colonel Disney Leith. We are to be married in the spring


‘Before our lives divide forever

While time is with us and hands are free

Hand from hand, as we stand by the sea

I will say no word that a man might say

Whose life’s love goes down in a day’

PART 2 His later life and controversial burial at Bonchurch New Church Graveyard

MARY We both left the Island. Algy went to London and lived life

to the full with his Bohemian friends. His poetry and life

style earned him much fame or should I say infamy.

ALGY I will write what I wish and what I need to express. I will

not be censored. It is a question of artistic freedom that will

not be confined like an animal in a cage not daring to speak

or think.

MARY I lived a quiet life with my husband in Scotland. Years

passed until one day I took the long journey south to see

a dear old friend. I found the street and the house and was

soon admitted.

Mary Disney Leith nee Gordon. Swinburne in later years.

ALGY Do I know you ?

MARY Hello Algy

ALGY Mary !

MARY Yes its me.

ALGY Dear Mary

MARY I wanted to come and see you after all these years

ALGY And here you are.

MARY I heard you’ve not been well.

ALGY I am quite recovered.

MARY So you’re happy at last

ALGY I’m not sure any of us can always be happy.

MARY You have become famous. I live such a quiet life. Tedious really

ALGY I am sorry to hear that Mary.

MARY It is the truth.

ALGY Do you still remember our riding out together on the downs ?

MARY I’ll never forget them

ALGY That was when I was most happy.

MARY Me too.

ALGY Do you remember the vow we made ?

MARY I cross my heart…

ALGY ...and hope to die..

MARY That I Mary Gordon…

ALGY That I Algernon Swinburne…

MARY ...will always ride out together…

ALGY ...what ever happens…

MARY We were so young

It is silent in the room.

ALGY Mary...I always…

MARY I know

ALGY I mean…

MARY Somethings are best left unsaid….Shall we walk out into town ?

ALGY Now ?

MARY Just a little stroll...dear old friends together...what could be more natural ?

Mary leaves. Algy speaks directly to the audience.

ALGY My mind or late takes me back to the Isle of Wight. I’m

standing in a Bonchurch garden watching the

waves lap on the shore

In a coign of the cliff between lowland and highland

At the sea-down’s edge between windward and lee

Walled round with rocks as in inland island

The ghost of a garden fronts the sea

The steep square slope of the blossomless bed

Where the weeds that grew green from the graves of its roses

Now lie dead.

MARY Algernon died peacefully on 9th April 1909.

Lie still dear love and rest in a better place. The trials and

torments of life cannot touch you now. I know it was your

desire to be buried in Bonchurch but in no circumstances

did you want a Christian burial. I am determined to honour

your wish. In your own words

‘My friends will gather round the grave in silence and

scatter the flowers over the coffin.’

REV ANDREWS Almighty God in heaven give me your guidance. I have

pondered long and hard without an answer. The eyes of the

whole nation are on me to see which side I take. Either I s

side with Algernon or his family and their wishes for a

Christian burial. Christian or Heathen ?

MARY Non Christian

ANDREWS The beliefs of God.

MARY Algernon’s dying wish.

ANDREWS Prayers and Psalms

MARY Flowers and silence.

The audience are taken up to the churchyard and gather round the site of the grave.

VILLAGER 1 So many people.

VILLAGE 2 Never seen it so busy.

VILLAGER 1 Usually deserted

VILLAGER 2 Nosy holiday makers

VILLAGERS 1 His London friends


VILLAGERS 1 National Press.

REPORTER Exhausted tourists sit on tombstones. Yellow spring primroses are

trampled underfoot. Professional photographers train their cameras

on the grave. Everyone waits in anticipation. The arrival of the

cortege is delayed. Some gather by the station expecting the

London train to arrive carrying the coffin.

The cortege arrives at the graveyard led by Rev Andrews.

REV ANDREWS We brought nothing into this world and it is certain that we carry

nothing out. The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away. Blessed

be the name of the Lord.

VILLAGER 1 Thought there wasn’t going to be no burial service

VILLAGER 2 Sounds like there’s one going to happen anyway

REPORTER Amazement and anger was on the face of his London friends

FRIEND This is a disgrace. What about the dead man’s wishes ? Why don’t

you respect those? Just give us silence and flowers.

That’s all we ask for.



SOLO Monologues for Drama Hodder and Stoughton

Co Written with Bill Taylor 1985 2nd Edition 1996

SOLO 2 Further Monologues for Drama Hodder and Stoughton

Co Written with Bill Taylor 1990 2nd Edition 1996

SOLO 3 Monologues for Drama and English Hodder and Stoughton

Co Written with Bill Taylor 1996

TELLING TALES Starting Points for Social Education Edward Arnold

Co Written with Bill Taylor 1988

MEMORIES OF NORWELL Newark District Council 1985

SENT AWAY Nelson English Readers Library 1991

CHILDHOOD FRIENDS Nelson English Readers Library 1993

ROBIN HOOD Nelson English Readers Library 1995

Various youth fiction for Hodder Live Wire for struggling readers











2 Short Stories for GARY LINEKER’S FOOTBALL STORIES Macmillan 1997

PETER PAN (retold) WH SMITH 2001

NICE ONE SAM Oxford University Press 20O2

Reprinted as FOOTBALL MAD 2014 OUP

Isle of Wight walking and cycling books for Offcliffe Publications Co written with Ian Williams and Linda Goodwin





BONCHURCH FROM A TO Z , 1992 Bonchurch Trading Company

Hardback Illustrated Children’s Fiction for Lion Hudson all with overseas editions





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