Algernon C. Swinburne's satirical poem "The Savior of Society" from Dirae can be read as a criticism of both Catholicism and of politics. The first several lines introduce the "Son of man" in a virtuous light, encouraging the reader to assume the poem as sympathetic to the Savior.

That broughtest healing on thy leathern wings
To priests, and under them didst gather kings,
And madest friends to thee of all man's foes; [lines 2-4]

This description, which appears consistent with the Catholic perception of Christ, continues with a retelling of His miraculous birth. Swinburne then switches the subject of the poem from the false-Christ to His mother Mary, whom he describes as the Mother of God whom Catholicism deifies and is criticized for doing so.

Before thine incarnation, the tale goes,
Thy virgin mother, pure of sensual stings,
Communed by night with angels of chaste things,
And, full of grace, untimely felt the throes
Of motherhood upon her, and believed
The obscure annunciation made when late
A raven-feathered raven-throated dove
Croaked salutation to the mother of love [lines 5-12]

However, the tone of the poem takes a dramatic turn in the last couple lines as Swinburne describes the birth of the Savior as a misconception, a badly planned occurrence or a mistake by definition.

Whose misconception was immaculate,
And when her time was come she misconceived. [lines 13-14]

Questions

1. Given the fact that Napoleon III was referred to as "the Savior of society" by Swinburne and Italian unification advocates, this poem is clearly making a political statement. Would it be accurate to view the poem as vocalizing the loss of faith Italian sympathizers felt with Napoleon III? What references in the poem indicate Napoleon other than the title?

2. The annunciation in the poem describes "a raven-feathered raven-throated dove/Croaked salutation to the mother of love." Why does Swinburne substitute a raven for a white dove that appears in the Biblical annunciation?

3. The first line introduces someone whom the reader at first assumes is Christ and then realizes must be Napolean III with the statement "O Son of man, but of what man who knows?" Would Swinburne intend it to be read as a reference to the immaculate conception, the idea that Mary conceived without a human man's touch, or to de-glorify the title and Catholic ideology attributed to Jesus?


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Last modified 5 November 2004