lgernon C. Swinburne's poetry, like that of many other Pre-Raphaelites, uses elaborate biblical allusions. However, Swinburne, more than any other poet of his time, twists and denies the traditional meanings and implications associated with these symbols. In "The Savior of Society," Swinburne, in the tight space of a sonnet, uses several biblical phrases ("Son of Man," "virgin mother," "angels," "annunciation," and many others), and he shifts them away from their traditional religious meanings by his phrasing and framing.
In the first four lines of the poem, Swinburne directly address the "Son of Man" and then proceeds to tell a revamped tale of the annunciation. Viewed by its traditional religious meanings, Swinburne espouses an utterly blasphemous account in which the virgin mother is essentially deceived, insane, or worse. The last four lines bring this notion into clarity:
A raven-feathered raven-throated dove
Croaked salutation to the mother of love
Whose misconception was immaculate,
And when her time was come she misconceived.
The dove was not a true dove; it had the feathers and throat of a raven. Her conception was not "immaculate;" her "misconception" was. When "her time was come," she did not conceive, but "misconceived." Altogether, Swinburne leads the reader to feel that nothing good can come from such a situation.
However, Swinburne does not wish to imply only an attack on Christianity. By the title, "The Saviour of Society," Swinburne clearly also means to address and condemn Napoleon III, who (as the note on the Victorian Web states) was referred to as "The Saviour of Society" in France. With this title, Jesus, supposed savior of mankind, and Napoleon, supposed savior of society, have been conflated, and Swinburne, in this poem, clearly denies any belief in either's ability for saving anything.
1. Swinburne often wrote unusually long lyric poems. What changes here when he uses the sonnet form? What does it imply for this poem to be in a set of sonnets?
2. The title gives an extremely important insight into the context of the poem. Without the title, how would one read this poem? Is there any insight into the political side of the poem without the title?
3. There is a shift in the rhyme scheme between lines 8 and 9 (abbaabba before, cdeedc after). Is there a shift of meaning or tone at this same point?
4. Swinburne and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were both irreligious poets fond of using biblical allusion. How does this poem compare to Rossetti's poem, "The Blessed Damozel"?
5. In the first six lines of the poem, Swinburne uses grammatical touches to indicate a second person approach ("O Son of man," "thy," "didst," "madest...thee," "thine," "thy"). After the first six lines, however, none of these grammatical constructions enter the poem again. How might this change a reader's focus while reading the poem?
Last modified 30 October 2006