Written in June 1882 shortly after a wave of anti-Semitic pogroms ravaged Russia, Algernon C. Swinburne's poem, "On the Russian Persecution of the Jews," uses his signature imagery as a rallying call.
O son of man, by lying tongues adored,
By slaughterous hands of slaves with feet red-shod
In carnage deep as ever Christian trod
Profaned with prayer and sacrifice abhorred
And incense from the trembling tyrant's horde,
Brute worshippers of wielders of the rod,
Most murderous even of all that call thee God,
Most treacherous even that ever called thee Lord; —
Face loved of little children long ago,
Head hated of the priests and rulers then,
If thou see this, or hear these hounds of thine
Run ravening as the Gadarean swine,
Say, was not this thy Passion to foreknow
In death's worst hour the works of Christian men?
Incited by (false) accounts that Jews, already a marginalized community, were responsible for the assassination of the tsar, Alexander II, Russian mobs brutally murdered a significant portion of the Jewish population in a series of pogroms. Following these outbreaks of violence, Alexander III passed several laws that further restricted Jewish lives. Rather than describing the horrific aftermath of the slaughter with graphic depictions of "carnage deep," Swinburne's rather static version underlines the senselessness of the violence by portraying the murders as mere "slaves." He uses resonant imagery to illustrate the killers, "Profaned with prayer and sacrifice abhorred/ And incense from the trembling tyrant's horde" but refrains from describing the violence itself. Perhaps he chooses this view in order to draw a parallel to Victorian society. By referring to the killers as "Christian men," Swinburne implies this murderous potential lies in all and that thoughtlessly following rulers can result in unnecessary violence.
Rather than drawing artistic inspiration from myths or medieval times as other Victorian poets such as both he and Tennyson sometimes did, Swinburne here wrote on a contemporary issue. Why?
At this time, English Jews were claiming their right to full citizenship. Was Swinburne commenting on this contemporary political issue? Can this be seen in the poem?
Unlike most of his poems, "On the Russian Persecution of the Jews" is quite short. Is this significant?
In such poems as "Before a Crucifix" (text), Swinburne writes on the corrupt nature of the Christianity. Who are the "wielders of the rod" in this poem? Is it explicitly explained?
Last modified 30 October 2006