winburne's "By the North Sea" describes, in part, the constant flux of the human world. The land, which "with dead men's bones is rotten" (Line 395), and where the God of Time rules reminds the reader of the ephemeral nature of human life. In contrast to the human condition Swinburne presents in his poem, the setting — a desolate seashore — remains unending and unchanging. Swinburne immediately evokes this sense of eternity in his landscape. He characterizes the land as "Waste endless and boundless and flowerless" (Line 5), the wind as "relentless and sleepless" (Line 19), and the birds in it as "restless and songless" (Line 20). Swinburne's repetitive combination of these adjectives ending in "less" emphasize precisely what the landscape lacks: borders, fluctuation, and life itself.
The sea emerges within the poem as another unending entity. This sea functions as an immense and ever destructive force of "numberless waters" (Line 97), with waves "as ranks enrolled" (Line 139). Here, the sea's eternal condition is that of hunger for the death of men:
And year upon year dawns living,
And age upon age drops dead:
And his [Death's] hand is not weary of giving,
And the thirst of her heart is not fed. [Lines 41-44]
Swinburne thus personifies the sea as not only unending but also never satisfied, making the sea another part of unchanging landscape.
The end of the poem strikes quite a different note from its beginning in its emphasis on the sun, which functions as a representation of the "powers of poetry and imagination" (Landow). The eternal aspects of the landscape, however, still exist in this part of the poem, though they have diminished prominence. The poem in fact ends with the sentence: "My dreams to the wind everliving,/ My song to the sea." In continually looking to these unchanging natural forces, Swinburne succeeds in representing the brevity of human life as an eternal condition.
1. Many of Swinburne's poems are highly erotic or concern sexuality on some level. How does his description of the sea's passion in Stanza 6 of Section I, or the interaction between the sea, sun, and wind in Stanzas 1 and 2 of Section II compare to the sensuality of his other poems?
2. In "By the North Sea" Swinburne explicitly configures the sea as a mother figure (Line 274), as he also does in "The Triumph of Time." Is the function of the sea in these two poems similar? What does it mean for Swinburne to look to the sea as mother?
3. In a number of his other poems, Swinburne plays with religious conventions or language. This poem features a possible play on the Lord's Prayer — "his power is to her, and his glory" — (Line 31) and on the Nicene Creed (Landow). Do these playful allusions serve a larger purpose in the poem? Or, are they simply a demonstration of Swinburne's knowledge?
4. We noted in last class Swinburne's tendency to work with a repeated series of images. This poem features the repeated figures of, among others, the wind, sea, birds, and death. How do these entities interact? Can they be considered characters in the poem?
Last modified 5 November 2004