A.C. Swinburne's "Before a Crucifix" conveys a scathing criticism of Christian institutions; Swinburne derogatorily refers to the "God of theirs" (making clear that he does not share this God) as "piteous," while issuing a direct challenge to Christ, demanding whether he "Hast...fed full men's starved-out souls?/[or]...brought freedom upon earth?"

Several literary devices have a part in accentuating the heavy tone and politically charged message in the poem. Swinburne's use of enjambement, alliteration and rhyme in the first two stanzas are a few of them:

Here, down between the dusty trees,
At this lank edge of haggard wood,
Women with labour-loosened knees,
With gaunt backs bowed by servitude,
Stop, shift their loads, and pray, and fare (5)
Forth with souls easier for the prayer.

The suns have branded black, the rains
Striped grey this piteous God of theirs;
The face is full of prayers and pains,
To which they bring their pains and prayers; (10)
Lean limbs that shew the labouring bones,
And ghastly mouth that gapes and groans.

The first two stanzas are slightly different from the following stanzas in that they are almost completely composed of images. Swinburne depicts scenes of fatigue and pain: dusty trees, haggard wood, gaunt backs, even ghastly mouth that gapes and groans. From the start, Swinburne anchors the audience in images of negativity before proceeding to his criticism in a tone of anger and conviction.

Readers can find this conviction through the rhythm of the poem. In the stanzas above, there is a regular rhythm with two exceptions. Whereas almost all the lines are end-stopped, in line 5, Swinburne uses enjambement to force the reader to read the line faster, as well as making use of half rhymes and internal rhymes between fare, easier and prayer to achieve the same effect. Another instance of Swinburne manipulating the pace at which the poem is read are the perfect rhymes between "bones" and "groans" at the ends of lines 11 and 12 -- the only place where a perfect rhyme takes place in back-to-back lines.

The alliteration marked in red has the same effect of not only keeping the rhythm, but in some places as a way of emphasizing certain images like the "labour-loosened knees" and bowed backs of the women. In lines 9 and 10, the alliteration also serves the purpose of associating "pains and prayers" with one another, and it appears that Swinburne wants to get this point across by repeating the phrase in an alternative order. The joint effect of these literary devices appears to create a steady and quick rhythm as a means to convey the conviction in the speaker's voice.

Questions

1. As Byecroft points out, there are elements of satire and parody in "Before a Crucifix." Is Swinburne's choice to have each stanza be 6 lines long, a manifestation of the number 666, just another way for him to show his disdain for religion?

2.

The suns have branded black, the rains
Striped grey this piteous God of theirs.

The crucifix that Swinburne depicts here has been "branded black" and "striped grey" by the sun and the rain, ruined by the natural world. What is the message that Swinburne is trying to send with this image?


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Last modified 9 April 2010