decorated initial 'S' urrounded by the huddled suffering masses, Swinburne stands tall amongst the crowd. He exudes air of excessive confidence and understanding of theological matters. With arms crossed and his face twisted in contemplation, Swinburne skeptically piers up at the decaying wooden cross. What does he know that the others do not?

"Before a Crucifix" paints a vivid mental image of Swinburne and his religiosity, as well as his struggle with tradition and modernity. As a sort of word painting, the poem describes easily imaginable visual setting: the poet standing in front of the rotting crucifix that once held up the body of Christ. Although this crucifix does not exist, Swinburne places himself in this fictional landscape to further his argument on Christian dogmatisms. He makes himself an eyewitness to the loss of identity and happiness brought about by mass religion. What is more, Swinburne speaks in the first person, which points to a more traditional poetical structure. This device prevents the reader from thinking for him/herself; the reader cannot escape Swinburne's point of view. Nevertheless, the content of "Before a Crucifix" mirrors contemporary issues of faith and religion relevant to the Victorian time period.

The religious orthodoxy of Swinburne's upbringing reveals itself in "Before A Crucifix." Swinburne conveys his point through the juxtaposition of Biblical imagery and his own contrary analysis of these images. For instance, Swinburne compares the rapidly decomposing crucifix to the similarly dying souls of the Christian masses worshiping the dying symbol of their Lord:

It creaks and rocks to left and right
Consumed of rottenness and rust,
Worm-eaten of the worms of night,
Dead as their spirits who put trust,
Round its base muttering as they sit,
In the time-cankered name of it.

Swinburne seems tired and disillusioned with organized religion and its oppression of the human spirit. Before a Crucifix does not offer any solution to the problems existing within a faith burdened by guilt, but leaves the reader with a sense of uncertainty.

Discussion Questions

1. How does Swinburne's brand of religion compare to that of the PRB, such as Hunt and Rossetti?

2. Is Swinburne's poem blasphemous?

3. Does Swinburne intend to persuade the audience, or simply give them something to think about?

4. How does Swinburne justify his argument?

Related Materials


Victorian Web Main Overview A. C. Swinburne Aesthetes & Decadents Leading Questions

Last modified 13 November 2006