n Algernon Charles Swinburne's poem "Before a Crucifix," the speaker addresses an old, weathered crucifix to which the poor offer up their prayers and sorrows. The use of satire and parody in Swinburne's poem strongly reflects his condemnation of the Catholic church. Swinburne emphasizes the political implications of religion, arguing that the corrupt and oppressive Church subjugates the poor. Swinburne is strongly opposed to the ideas of kinship and privilege and advocates a "republican" freedom. The preeminence of Christ and His Church become the speaker's target in his conversation with the crucifix. The speaker accuses Christ of wanting to be worshipped as the savior of mankind when his passion and death have not brought salvation to the suffering masses. From the speaker's perspective, Christ's good intentions are in actuality cruelties, because his suffering and captivity set the example that justifies and perpetuates the oppression of the poor. They see their daily suffering reflected in images of a bleeding, crying Christ and accept their lot rather than challenge it. High on his cross, Christ has crowned himself the king of suffering. The Speaker argues that if he really intended to free the poor, he would come down from his cross and cast aside his crown of thorns:
"O son of man, beneath man's feet
Cast down, O common face of man
Whereon all blows and buffets meet,
O royal, O republican
Face of the people bruised and dumb
And longing till thy kingdom come! . . .
The soldiers and the high priests part
Thy vesture: all thy days are priced,
And all the nights that eat thine heart.
And that one seamless coat of Christ,
The freedom of the natural soul,
They cast their lots for to keep whole.
No fragment of it save the name
They leave thee for a crown of scorns
Wherewith to mock thy naked shame
And forehead bitten through with thorns
And, marked with sanguine sweat and tears,
The sweat of eighteen hundred years.
And we seek yet if God or man
Can loosen thee as Lazarus,
Bid thee rise up republican
And save thyself and all of us;
But no disciple's tongue can say
When thou shalt take our sins away.
Why does the speaker refer to the image he is addressing as being "beneath man's feet" when it is clearly raised up on a crucifix? In the speaker's address, what does his juxtaposition of "royal" and "republican" imply?
The speaker emphasizes that Christ's stately divinity in the minds of men will soon pass. In what ways does this poem recall the attitudes expressed in "Hymn to Prosperine"?
Kingship is a recurrent image in this poem. How does Swinburne consider Christ in relation to the monarchy? What is the effect of the pun, "crown of scorns"? The speaker emphasizes that the Christ which he is addressing is dumb, deaf and blind in a frozen state of continual suffering. According to the speaker, what is Christ's greatest fault?
What is the tone of this poem? Is there more to it than blatant sarcasm? Is the sarcasm directed more at Christ or the Church's misuse of Christ's life, death and message?
Last modified 10 November 2003