C. Swinburne's "By the North Sea" describes and repetitively highlights various extremes in the landscape that is the poem's setting. He constructs an intense description of this barren site that mimics the downfall of the Christian church. This landscape bordered by the sea where "earth lies exhausted," is a bleak stretch of territory where the landscape is depicted in striking extremes. Swinburne's poetry ascends in many stanzas to a climax of dreary desolation. At the beginning of the poem, in stanza's 1 and 3, Swinburne draws on words such as "endless," "boundless," "flowerless," "fruitless," powerless," "herdless," "sheepless," "relentless," "sleepless," "restless," "songless," "breathless," and "deathless" to create an image of a place so empty that it is devoid of almost all life and even death.
Swinburne's portrayal of this isolated land is filled with contradictions, however, as in the first and second stanzas of the third section, where he reflects on this setting:
Miles, and miles, and miles of desolation!
Leagues on leagues on leagues without a change!
Sign or token of some eldest nation
Here would make the strange land not so strange.
Time-forgotten, yea since time's creation,
Seem these borders where the sea birds range.
Slowly, gladly, full of peace and wonder
Grows his heart who journeys here alone.
Earth and all its thoughts of earth sink under
Deep as deep in water sinks a stone.
Hardly knows it if the rollers thunder,
Hardly whence the lonely wind is blown.
1. How can a place as desolate and depressing as the one Swinburne describes create a sense of "peace and wonder?" How does the reader reconcile this contradiction?
2. In stanzas 1 and 7 of the seventh section of the poem, Swinburne refers to god as being the "lord of the day" and the "God of the day." Are these statements meant to suggest that the Christian god is only the god of the present moment and still might crumble like the cliffs of his landscape which fall into the sea?
3. Although Swinburne makes a transition to a more positive tone in the seventh section, he does this so late in the poem that the effect is almost lost. A marked difference between this section and the rest of the poem is the abundance Swinburne now describes with words such as "overflowing" and "overcrowded." He ends the poem with the idea of giving a song to the sea, which he gendered as female earlier in the poem. What is the reader to make of this reference in connection with the fact that the more positive end of the poem has somewhat of an ironic effect?
Last modified 11 November 2003