Algernon Charles Swinburne’s “Before a Crucifix” takes a secular approach to typology by using biblical images in the service of contemporary political goals. Rather than reaffirming faith after intense doubt, as in Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H., “Before a Crucifix” expresses serious religious doubts without any redemptive event arising from those doubts. The poem is deeply atheistic. It uses religious imagery to support the cause of the Italian “Risorgimento,” and to undermine the Roman Catholic Church. The crucifixion in the central image in the poem.

They have no tomb to dig, and hide;
     Earth is not theirs, that they should sleep.
On all these tombless crucified
     No lovers' eyes have time to weep.
So still, for all man's tears and creeds,
The sacred body hangs and bleeds.

Through the left hand a nail is driven,
     Faith, and another through the right,
Forged in the fires of hell and heaven,
     Fear that puts out the eye of light:
And the feet soiled and scarred and pale
Are pierced with falsehood for a nail.

And priests against the mouth divine
     Push their sponge full of poison yet
And bitter blood for myrrh and wine,
     And on the same reed is it set
Wherewith before they buffeted
The people's disanointed head.

In the above passage Swinburne equates the modern Roman Catholic Church with the Roman soldiers who humiliated and crucified Christ. Swinburne completes the other half of the metaphor in the following stanza where he explicitly equates the disenfranchised people of Italy with Christ. “People, the grey-grown speechless Christ!”

In the passage, the church uses “faith,” “fear,” and “falsehood” as the three nails crucify the people. Church doctrine is equated with a “poison,” like the vinegar that the soldiers gave Christ on the cross (John 19.29, Mark 15.36). The passage assigns the same cruelty to the Church’s exploitation as it does to the soldiers who mocked Christ by ironically giving him a “reed” before beating him (Matthew 27.29, Mark 15.19). These cruelties, and other details of the passion and crucifixion (the crown of thorns, the division of Christ’s clothes by lot, etc), are repeatedly associated with the Church throughout the poem.

Despite the injustice done to the people by the church, the poem indicates that their fate is unlike Christ’s. Unlike the resurrection and ascension to heaven that followed the crucifixion, “the sacred body [of the people] hangs and bleeds.” No supernatural entity will help the people of Italy. The poem uses scathing images of the crucifixion to attack the very institution represented by the crucifixion. This attack seems to discredit the Church and its to the extent that no religious redemption can possible offered by the end of the poem.

Discussion Questions

1. The above passage attacks the institution of the Catholic Church. In the final stanza Swinburne writes “ . . . if their God and thou be one . . . Hide thyself, strive not, be no more.” In other words, any god associated with the Catholic Church should be ashamed of himself. This is an attack on belief in Christ, rather than the Catholic institution. Judging from the text, is Swinburne more hostile towards the Church as an institution, or does he have equal resentment for the institution (its political practices) and its belief system (peoples’ belief in the resurrection, the Trinity, etc).

2. “Before a Crucifix” primarily operates through negation. The credibility of the Roman Catholic Church is undermined by its own system of symbols and types. Is the poem’s work entirely negative, or does Swinburne offer anything positive? The lines, “Bid thee rise up republican / and save thyself and all of us,” are apparently positive. Swinburne places a hoped-for Italian republican government in the place of the return of Christ. Having already undermined the Church, and the credibility of a god related to such a Church, is his continued use of Christian type to uphold republicanism effective?

3. In Victorian literature the poet or writer can often be seen in the position of a prophet. The subject of “Before a Crucifix” is religion, but it is a highly atheistic poem. Can Swinburne be seen in the type of author-as-prophet? If not, in what role does the text cast him?

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Last modified 11 April 2011