fter reading this "By the North Sea," I found myself returning again to many of the ideas we had already discussed concerning Swinburne, specifically religion and the inadequacy of language. In reading the poem, I found myself becoming wrapped up in Swinburne's vivid imagery, extended metaphors and rhythms. But then I would get to the end of a section and find that what the speaker was describing previously has been canceled out, and he goes on again to another descriptive scene, usually involving the female sea, but granting her new characteristics.
For example in the first section, we find Swinburne describing a wasteland which lies at the mercy of the sea. The sea is described as ruling with death, both of them as lords over the land. But as the section continues the sea becomes engendered as a woman who in "the pride of (death's) power she rejoices" (line 33). She is described in terms of passion, anger and hunger, which is fed by death and destruction: "a rage in her huger that roars/ as a wolf's that the winter lays lash on." This imagery is very much like what we found in "A Hymn for Proserpine" and "A Evening on the Broads" where Swinburne uses the sea as a very powerful metaphor for the nature of the world.
Yet after these powerful and desolate descriptions of this powerful Sea, sister of death, we find the speaker's reaction to death and the sea softens progressively until the end of the section ends with a description of a far more peaceful nature:
And gentler the wind from the dreary
Sea-banks by the waves overlapped,
Being weary, speaks peace to the weary
From slopes that tide-stream hath sapped
And sweeter than all that we call so
The seal of their slumber shall be
Till the graves that embosom them also
Be sapped of the sea. [lines 113-120]
Though the meter (what would it be?) is exactly the same as throughout the rest of the poem, with a rolling rhythm mimicking the waves, the softer sounding "m' sounds of "slumber" and "embosom" seem to slow down these final lines. The sea seems to be removed from our previous image it as death's hungry partner in power.
In describing death as a sleep "sweeter than all that we call so" is the speaker implying that our socitiel conceptions of death, and of nature too as he described it earlier, wrong? Or is he pointing to our language and its inability to fully conceptualize what death is? Is this pointing to Swinburne's poetry itself, where he has developed an angry and swallowing image of death and the sea and then comes to describe it in more peaceful terms, as if his own use of language is unable to fully conceptualize what death is?
I was confused throughout the poem as to what to make of the speaker's view of religion? Is he dismissing Christianity in this first section when he speaks "of the splendour of judgment, the sword and the rod" and says "the doom here of death is more tender and gentler the god." And I would really appreciate some help in understanding the final section of the poem, has the speaker found solace in spirituality, has an omnipotent God been found personified in the Sun? Can we say the speaker has found solace in this projection?
Last modified 10 November 2003