John Everett Millais: Swallow, Swallow, 1864

Swallow, SwallowJohn Everett Millais1864 

John Everett Millais’s Swallow! Swallow! is a remarkable and beautiful painting, made during a fascinating transitional period in the artist’s career when he found himself poised between the formative experience of Pre-Raphaelitism and the new artistic principles associated with Aestheticism.

Millais had a particular feeling for literature, and the works of Shakespeare, Keats and Tennyson provided narratives for numerous paintings and drawings. In the mid-1850s he made a series of designs for the so-called Moxon Tennyson, an illustrated edition of Tennyson’s poetry to which various members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their associates contributed. This was a vital formative experience and one that taught him how to look for ways of expressing human predicaments in terms of mood, and to choose telling motifs which would indicate the state of mind of his protagonists. One of Millais’s greatest early paintings, and a work that represents the fulfilment of Pre-Raphaelitism in its primary phase, is Mariana (Makins collection, fig.1), of 1851. The subject, from Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, in its treatment of weary waiting on the part of one who is forced to be apart from her lover, anticipates the theme of Swallow! Swallow!.

Swallow! Swallow! takes its subject from Tennyson’s poem ‘The Princess’. Published in 1847, and containing memorable passages of lyric poetry gathered together into a medley, the verse tells the story of the betrothal of Princess Ida. Tennyson’s princess has modern ideas and sympathies, embracing causes such as the rights of women, universal education, and at the same time abjuring the institution of marriage. The opening of part IV of the poem describes a meeting between Ida and her suitor, along with his two companions. Set within the dialogue between them, which reveals the divergence of their views of how society should be ordered, are various poetic interpolations. One is the verse which opens with the line ‘Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean’. Then comes the inset poem that purports to be recalled from memory and is spoken in the first person by one of the male figures present, and which opening with the lines:

O Swallow, Swallow, flying, flying South,
Fly to her, and fall upon her gilded eaves,
And tell her, tell her, what I tell to thee.

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