hough a considerable amount of Algernon C. Swinburne's poetry displays a predisposition towards nihilism, the poem "On the Russian Persecution of the Jews," as well as other invective sonnets, also shows strong beliefs towards helping certain groups of people. In this case, Swinburne takes on the pogroms, extremely destructive riots targeted at Jews and their property, which were occurring in Russia all throughout Swinburne's lifetime (as well as afterwards). Swinburne, so skilled in using a contorted typological symbolism, makes an unusual overture to the Jews by means of this poem. While many of the religious Pre-Raphaelites seem to regard Jewish culture and ideas as little more than precursors to Christianity, Swinburne at least makes the overture of recognizing an unquestionable political reality occurring during his own lifetime.
In regards to his method, Swinburne once more, by his title, implies a social or political motive, and yet draws heavily upon biblical references as a vehicle for his message. He uses the form of the Petrachan sonnet and maintains a consistent second person approach throughout the poem. Essentially, the poem consists of two addresses to Jesus, which are divided by the volta between the 8th and 9th lines. In the first, Swinburne claims to the "Son of Man" that his Russian "Brute worshipers" are the "Most murderous even of all that call thee God, / Most treacherous even that ever called thee Lord." After which, Swinburne proceeds to address Jesus once again and then goes for the big finish:
Face loved of little children long ago,
Head hated of the priests and rulers then,
If thou see this, or hear these hounds of thine,
Run ravening as the Gadarean swine,
Say, was not this thy Passion, to foreknow
In death's worst hour the works of Christian men?
Swinburne asks the question: would Christ on the cross, with knowledge of the sins of humanity, suffer most knowing the sins of his supposed followers? Especially sins enacted upon the group of people to which he himself, as a man on the earth, belonged? With this utterly rhetorical question, to say anything more seems unnecessary.
1. How does the ending's reliance on a biblical allusion from the New Testament interact with the poem's subject matter?
2. Though this poem is in second person, addressing a specific historical and religious figure, Swinburne clearly has an audience in mind. For whom is this poem written?
3. Another sonnet by Swinburne, "The Saviour of Society," also begins with the address, "Son of Man." How do these poems differ in their use of this particular allusion?
4. To what extent does this poem rely on its title for context?
5. Why is the tyrant "trembling"?
Last modified 5 November 2006