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Why Algernon Charles Swinburne Loved Auvergne

Auvergne, Auvergne, O wild and woeful land,

⁠O glorious land and gracious, white as gleam

The stairs of heaven, black as a flameless brand,

⁠Strange even as life, and stranger than a dream.

-Algernon Charles Swinburne

In August 1869, the English poet Algernon Charles Swinburne — one of the leading figures of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood — visited Auvergne with his friend, the adventurer Sir Richard Burton. Among other places, they stopped at Vichy — known for for its natural spas — and Clermont-Ferrand. Captivated by Auvergne’s rustic beauty, Swinburne quickly fell in love. He was particularly struck by the the beauty of Clermont-Ferrand’s Gothic cathedral, which is comprised almost entirely from pierre de Volvic, a black — sometimes bluish — volcanic stone. Here’s an excerpt from one of his letters:

“I send you some flowers gathered yesterday on the top of a mountain 5,000 feet above the level of the sea—the Puy de Dôme, which Burton and I scaled and found ourselves at the summit wrapt in a rolling and rushing sea of mist—very favourable of course to the chance of a prospect. However we got it lower down on coming again into sunlight, thanks to his glasses for taking measurements and longitudes and other professional and scientific things. The view of the Auvergne country was splendid and singular- barren and broken land so laboriously cultivated that not an inch was left waste, and the whole stretch of it from left to right looked like a carpet of many colours—vineyard, cornfield, woods, etc. From that height the land which, as we passed through it in our drive upwards, to the foot of the mountain, we had found steep, hilly, and irregular, seemed a dead level of plain. The mountain is clothed with heather, but this that I send you is the only bit of white I found. Eastward from the highest peak of the range (where I gathered these, stretches a long series of volcanic hills, cones and craters alternating.

The Puy de Dôme in the nineteenth century

“One crater which we went to examine is now the image of a Roman amphitheatre, only wanting gladiators and lions. It has got itself covered with grass and worn into numberless round rocks from bottom to top of the sloping sides by the feet of the cattle who come there to browse : and these give it the exact look of a theatre with rising rows of seats. Burton, who has made a study of volcanoes in all parts of the world, tells me that this is in one thing about the most extraordinary of volcanic ranges—the highest peak (Puy de Dôme—”puy” is Auvergnat for height or peak) is not volcanic : the lava has not taken effect there, but baffled, has burst out again and again along the whole range of mountains extending east beneath it in a vast volcanic chain. The crater we examined is called from its look the Nid de Poule.

“Clermont-Ferrand, the neighbouring town where we have been for the last two days, is most beautifully planted among its mountains, and has a cathedral which is simply one of the finest I ever saw. The altar is of copper gilt, marvellously carved all over into figures and flowers; date thirteenth century, so you will know how exquisite and noble the style is. I am not sure that I ever saw such magnificent windows; the variety and harmony of colours is miraculous to our poor modern eyes. I have got for you others, three photographs-one larger and two less–of the front porch with its sculptures and spires. When we came in sight of it we both broke out in one cry of admiration: it is so rich and various, so simply noble and dignified, with all its wealth and exuberance of ornament.”

The Gothic cathedral of Clermont-Ferrand (Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption) in 1863.

Want to know what other historical and literary figures thought of Auvergne? Click “History and Literature” below for more.