Raised in a family of devout High Church Anglicans, Algernon Charles Swinburne possessed an advanced religious education and extensive knowledge of scripture characteristic of the avid Bible reader in nineteenth-century England. Despite his upbringing, however, the author possessed a deep-rooted opposition to organized religion and viciously attacked the Roman Catholic Church. In “Before a Crucifix” (1871), Swinburne employs religious imagery and types to attack Christianity, ultimately aiming to deinstitutionalize the Church. In a direct address to Christ (“I too, that have nor tongue nor knee/ For prayer, I have a word to thee”), Swinburne accuses the Savior and, by extension, the Church that champions His word, of failing to bring any degree of salvation or freedom to His followers:

The nineteenth wave of the ages rolls
     Now deathward since thy death and birth.
Hast thou fed full men's starved-out souls?
     Hast thou brought freedom upon earth?
Or are there less oppressions done
In this wild world under the sun?

By accentuating those “oppressions,” which have ceaselessly plagued the earth in the nineteen centuries following Christ’s life and death, Swinburne slowly delegitimizes the powers of faith and persistent prayer, tearing at the foundations of the Roman Catholic Church. The priests and prelates, he insists, tyrannically exploit Christ’s suffering for their personal enrichment, dictating that all men must suffer as Christ suffered to achieve salvation. In the style of a contemporary political activist, Swinburne then addresses his readers, bidding them rise up against the hypocrisy and tyranny of the Church: “Bid thee rise up republican/ And save thyself and all of us.” Rather than placing faith in Christ and the Church, Swinburne advocates for faith rationally rooted in man and democracy. Continuing to worship a God who has consistently neglected His followers’ suffering begets the irrationality of worshipping a “Christless cross,” an image he paints toward the close of “Before a Crucifix.”

And mouldering now and hoar with moss
     Between us and the sunlight swings
The phantom of a Christless cross
     Shadowing the sheltered heads of kings
And making with its moving shade
The souls of harmless men afraid.

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 equates a faith in God to the worship of a weathered cross "consumed of rottenness and rust" — inherently nonsensical and fruitless. The religious pray regularly to the cross in the hopes of being uplifted by Christ, the Savior; the empty cross that "creaks and rocks to left and right" indicates God’s absence and, thus, suggests that the wishes of the poor and oppressed masses will remain unanswered. The aged wooden crucifix mocks its endless stream of worshippers, those men and women eternally destined to suffer in the name of an alleged savior. These individuals figuratively crucify themselves by continuing to place their faith in the Roman Catholic Church and must, advises Swinburne, heed his advice and boycott organized religion in favor of an independent movement pioneered by men, for men.

Discussion Questions

1. Swinburne uses biblical imagery familiar to his audience to illustrate certain themes of “Before a Crucifix.” In the following passage, the author refers to Christ’s resurrection of Lazarus as an event comparable to the rising up of the people against the Church.

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.

What does Swinburne mean by “loosen thee as Lazarus”? If he simply means raise from the dead (or free from the Church’s enslavement), then why would he insinuate that God could be responsible for this raising? Isn’t one of Swinburne’s main arguments that God and the Church are false entities and the people must establish institutions independent of both?

2. At various points in the poem, Swinburne directly addresses Christ. In the final stanza, he wills Christ to “come down” from the cross and “be no more”:

Nay, if their God and thou be one,
     If thou and this thing be the same,
Thou shouldst not look upon the sun;
     The sun grows haggard at thy name.
Come down, be done with, cease, give o'er;
Hide thyself, strive not, be no more.

Does Swinburne distinguish between Christ and the Roman Catholic Church? Does he denounce both Christ and the Church or only the latter? If he only denounces the Church, do you think Swinburne would agree that one can garner valuable spiritual and moral values from Christ and his crucifixion?

3. From what we know of Swinburne, can we deduce why he fostered such an anti-religious attitude despite being raised in a very religious household? Did any author(s) inspire him to shirk religion? Who?

4. In “Hymn to Proserpine,” Swinburne refers to the usurpation of Greco-Roman Gods and continues to develop the idea that all Gods and religions will inevitably die out in a cyclical process — the advent of “New Gods” will stem from the decline of present Gods.

O Gods dethroned and deceased, cast forth, wiped out in a day
From your wrath is the world released, redeemed from your chains, men say.
New Gods are crowned in the city; their flowers have broken your rods;
They are merciful, clothed with pity, the young compassionate Gods.

How does this description of religious transition complement Swinburne’s “Before a Crucifix”? Would man’s boycott of Christianity be just another example of a religious transition — the fall of one religion to make way for another — or would it ultimately lead to the breakdown of all organized religion?

Last modified 11 April 2011