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The curious incident of the poet in the sea, at Étretat

A vintage postcard led us to a story about English eccentrics and French unflappability, at Étretat.

Fishing boats at Etretat - Match!
Fishing boats at Étretat – Match!

A less daffodilly direction

Algernon Charles Swinburne was a poet and quite possibly for his time, a genius. To the delight of biographers he was also a little unusual.

Algernon was born in 1837 to a time that excelled in conventionality.  The son of an Admiral and an educated lady, his family offered security, superiority and the potential for crushing respectability.

The Swinburne’s enjoyed friendships with literary successes of the day; aged just 12 Algernon was introduced to Wordsworth, but in spite of this and many other conservative literary influences, he would forge his own less daffodilly poetic direction.

Algernon Charles Swinburne photo
This is what a poet should look like; let us introduce Algernon Charles Swinburne.

Inner strength, infinite nervous energy and an enquiring mind rendered him interesting and as a young man he made great friends with those wild thinkers the Pre-Raphaelites.  Rossetti’s portrait of Algernon reveals a true fondness for his youthful subject but is regarded as excessively flattering, although all Rossetti did was see beyond the visible to a shining soul within. Edmund Gosse spoke for many when he said ‘his intelligence bewitched me from the first moment’. Odd little Algernon had charm.

Algernon Swinburne (1837-1909) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Algernon Charles Swinburne by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Escape by steam-packet, to Dieppe

By 1868 Algernon’s poems were praised and criticised in equal measure. Poems written in homage to Sappho of Lesbos challenged Victorian England but were undeniably beautiful.

Sensitive as only a poet can be, Algernon accepted an invitation to escape the rebukes and cloying adulation of England.  Late September found him on the steam-packet to Dieppe.

During those late 18th century years Normandy was, to a creative nugget of bohemian Brits, a place they could uncork their eccentricities away from the sour gaze of a chilly English society.  Algernon would be staying with the very uncorked George Powell.

George Powell
George Powell

After nearly a day of travelling he was snugly settled into George’s rented cottage in a slightly known fishing village called Étretat.  He described his temporary home ‘a wild little garden all uphill, and avenues of trees about. The sea is splendid, and the cliffs very like the Isle of Wight – two arches of rock each side of the bay”

It was during this visit that a couple of things would happen to Algernon that would change two lives; he would meet Guy de Maupassant and he would look death very squarely in the eye.

Let’s start with death.

A frail, complicated man, Algernon loved to be at the physical mercy of the elements, the sea at Étretat would have been irresistible. Sure enough one cool October morning around 10am Algernon dropped his clothes on the pebbly beach, strode confidently into the waves and began to swim.

A wonderful stone arch at the edge of the bay called to him and he initially enjoyed the struggle through salty hills to reach it.  Very quickly he realised swimming was unnecessary. The undercurrent of the tide was pulling him fast out to sea and he did not have the strength to resist.  He used his last few breaths to shout for help, then exhausted and surely about to drown, became quiet and listened to the dreadful silence around him.

Fishing boats on the beach at Etretat by Monet - La Porte d'Amont can be seen in the background.
Fishing boats on the beach at Etretat by Monet – La Porte d’Amont can be seen in the background.

Asked later if he thought back over the life he was about to lose this impractical poet revealed a pragmatic conversation with himself; he thought furiously about the unfinished ‘Songs before Sunrise’ but was pleased so much of it was written.  His friend, the brilliant Italian radical Mazzini, would be able to publish a few passages.

He then revelled in the thought that Shelley had been his exact age when he drowned – a poetic conceit as Algernon had reached that age more than a year before.  Then, giving one last thought to some unfinished verses in his coat pocket on the beach, he fainted.

Captain Vallin to the rescue

Fortunately for literature the alarm had been raised by M.Coquerel, lookout from the Semaphore at the bottom of the cliffs. Hearing Algernon he climbed Le Banc a Cuve and seeing his struggle for life raced along the beach to alert any fishermen he could find.  M.Coquerel managed to attract the attention of Captain Theodule Vallin just as Algernon became ominously quiet. Sailing against powerful seas Captain Vallin was a full mile North East of Étretat when he finally navigated alongside the floating body.

George had been standing anxiously on the beach as he lost sight of Algernon.  Concern became horror as shouts that a man was drowning could only be about his friend.  Gathering Algernon’s clothes he rushed uselessly across the shingle towards some boats setting off to the rescue.

Life, and vivacity return for Algernon

The figure hauled from the waves beyond Étretat’s Porte dAmont revealed itself as odd as anything left in fishermen’s nets. While Algernon’s slight figure could be confused for that of an idle child, his head was striking.  A prominent overbite and small cleft chin were overshadowed by a huge forehead topped with vast amounts of ginger hair he preferred untamed.

Not unwelcome coarse hands lifted this apparition onto the Marie-Marthe, dried him off as best they could, lent him some clothes and wrapped him in a sail. His normal vivacity was quickly restored and for the rest of the journey he joyously quoted, in quite good French, Victor Hugo to his new protectors.

Algernon by William Bell Scott
Algernon by William Bell Scott

An introduction

News quickly arrived at Étretat that Captain Vallin and the Marie-Martha had saved Algernon and would be dropping him off at nearby Yport.  One of the young men who had rushed for the boats was tall, fair and beautifully spoken.  He calmed George who explained a literary genius had so nearly been lost at sea.  The young man was also a writer and George invited him to lunch the next day before taking a carriage and galloping the 12km to Yport.

Fearless, the Englishman abroad

In Yport, to the intense surprise of the local Normans, George and Algernon did not turn their backs on the treacherous sea but instead found a pleasant little inn overlooking its waves and enjoyed some lunch. They dismissed the carriage preferring to wait until Captain Vallon had finished his businesses in the town and then hitched a lift back on the Marie-Marthe to Étretat.

Algernon wrote to his mother “Luckily I was all right but very tired, and the result was that I made immense friends with all the fishermen and sailors about – who are quite the nicest people I ever knew.”

The next day Guy de Maupassant, aristocratic son, fledgling author, joined them for lunch. It would be a brief if memorable meeting of literary minds.

Return of the fishing boats at Etretat, by Giovanni Boldini

Meeting Maupassant

If, like Guy de Maupassant, we were helpful at the scene of a marine rescue and then charmed a lunch invitation from a friend of the un-drowned, would we be as unruffled as Maupassant when our hosts proved as unusual as Algernon Swinburne and George Powell? Possibly not.

The cottage name may have given Guy a moment to ponder, but at first he did not notice it.  George had renamed the cottage Chaumière Dolmancé after a character in De Sade’s La Philosophie dans le Boudoir.

Guy did notice the smell.  In his honour a special meal was being prepared and it smelt terrible.  Later he would claim the meat was monkey, but at the time his hosts would not admit what it was, while giggling to themselves like naughty children.

Quite possibly the meat was nothing remarkable the boiled beef of an English nursery, food truly terrible to an aristocratic Frenchman.  But calling it monkey makes for a better tale and Guy was good at those.  A rumour of two Englishmen living entirely on monkey meat spread around Étretat.

Guy de Maupassant, now who wouldn't invite that 'tash for a spot of lunch!
Guy de Maupassant, now who wouldn’t invite that ‘tash for a spot of lunch!

Curiouser and curiouser

Inside the cottage supernatural images revealed George’s love of the macabre. Guy later remembered ‘one watercolour depicted a pink seashell carrying afloat a human skull upon an endless sea, beneath a moon of human form’. You get the idea.

During lunch Nip, a large chimp, tried to put Guy’s head in his glass and was generally treated like an indulged, intimate friend.  Contrasting with this mayhem, conversation was intelligent and fascinating. George discussed the translation of some Icelandic folk tales and Algernon’s literary insights were inspiring.

Less tasteful was a photo album the eccentrics decided to share with their strapping young guest.  The pornographic pics of excited soldiers were less Guy’s taste than they had hoped.  George consoled himself by sucking on the fingers of a severed, mummified hand. It was all becoming getting rather strange.

Oscar Wilde, later hearing about the set up at Chaumière Dolmancé expressed the educated view that Algernon loved to shock but was “a braggart in matters of vice, who had done everything he could to convince his fellow citizens of his homosexuality and bestiality without being in the slightest degree a homosexual or a bestializer.” George we are not so sure about.  We do know that they were both drinking a lot, and that Guy agreed to another visit.

Fisherman's Cottage at Varengeville - Claude Monet
Fisherman’s Cottage at Varengeville – Claude Monet

No more Nip

Guy arrived a few days later to scenes of horror as a young servant, fed up with the manners of the chimp, had hung it in the garden and there Nip swayed.  Drunk and incensed George had shot at the servant who fled.  Lunch passed peacefully enough but, nearly knocked out by strong liquor Guy felt uncomfortable and ended his visit abruptly. A third visit was even shorter.  Eyeing the name of the cottage and the wild eyes of his host, Guy made his excuses. He did not return.

A heroes welcome

Algernon holidayed with George again the following year.  Arriving at the town he was recognised and “rather astounded at finding myself rushed at, seized by the arms and legs, hoisted and cheered, and carried all down the street with shouts of welcome, by the fisher folk and sailors who knew me again at once”. Powell said to him, “Why, don’t you know you’re their hero?” an honour he did not feel worthy of, for simply not quite drowning.

A hero? Moi? (Vanity Fair 1874)
A hero? Moi? (Vanity Fair 1874)

An unusual souvenir

The following year France was at war with Prussia.  Guy returned to find the cottage closed, the English eccentrics had moved on to a safer haven. He looked without any great regret at Nip’s tomb in the garden and bought a souvenir, the flayed hand.  Some years afterwards he would write one his most famous short stories about his encounter Algernon and George; ‘The Englishmen of Étretat’.

Guy always remained loyal to the brilliance of his hosts describing Algernon as ‘an exalted and furious lyricist…he pursues the subtlest of ideas, dreams and chimeras, offering insights that while occasionally exaggerated are as often wonderful and ingeniously grandiose.” Praise indeed. He never met them again.

Changed by the Étretat sea

Algernon completed his ‘Songs before Sunrise’, its epilogue strongly influenced by his experiences in the sea that chilly October day. ‘Ex Voto’ was written in Étretat and includes the chilling line  “When thy salt lips well nigh, Sucked in my mouths last sigh, Grudged I so much to die, This death as others?”. He remains one of England’s greatest poets.

Years later, his old friend long dead, Algernon looked back at those remarkable months at Étretat and wrote ‘Past Days’.  He never mentioned the monkey.

Coastal View, Willem Anthonie van Deventer


Past days

Dead and gone, the days we had together, 
Shadow-stricken all the lights that shone 
Round them, flown as flies the blown foam’s feather, 
Dead and gone. 

Where we went, we twain, in time foregone, 
Forth by land and sea, and cared not whether, 
If I go again, I go alone. 

Bound am I with time as with a tether; 
Thee perchance death leads enfranchised on, 
Far from deathlike life and changeful weather, 
Dead and gone. 


Above the sea and sea-washed town we dwelt, 
We twain together, two brief summers, free 
From heed of hours as light as clouds that melt 
Above the sea. 

Free from all heed of aught at all were we, 
Save chance of change that clouds or sunbeams dealt 
And gleam of heaven to windward or to lee. 

The Norman downs with bright grey waves for belt 
Were more for us than inland ways might be; 
A clearer sense of nearer heaven was felt 
Above the sea. 


Cliffs and downs and headlands which the forward-hasting 
Flight of dawn and eve empurples and embrowns, 
Wings of wild sea-winds and stormy seasons wasting 
Cliffs and downs, 

These, or ever man was, were: the same sky frowns, 
Laughs, and lightens, as before his soul, forecasting 
Times to be, conceived such hopes as time discrowns. 

These we loved of old: but now for me the blasting 
Breath of death makes dull the bright small seaward towns, 
Clothes with human change these all but everlasting 
Cliffs and downs.

Algernon Charles Swinburne

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