A. C. Swinburne's "Before a Crucifix" criticizes the failure of organized religion, Roman Catholicism in particular, to elevate the souls and socioeconomic standing of the working class. At one point, the poem's speaker asks Christ himself what he has accomplished on behalf of the masses:
Hast thou fed full men's starved-out souls?
Hast thou brought freedom upon earth?
Or are there less oppressions done
In this wild world under the sun?
Nay, if indeed thou be not dead,
Before thy terrene shrine be shaken,
Look down, turn usward, bow thine head;
O thou that wast of God forsaken,
Look on thine household here, and see
These that have not forsaken thee.
Instead of addressing the son of God as a beneficent observer of the world or idyllic figure, Swinburne's speaker boldly interrogates him and challenges him to focus on his Earthly subjects before he loses control of them. He develops a logical argument the way a debater or politician giving a speech would. He points out that God forsakes Christ and left him to hang upon the cross. The masses, by contrast, give him the respect and devotion he deserves. They consider heaven, his kingdom, to be "golden in their hands," and treat faith as a "fire upon their lips". This level of attention, the speaker argues, merits a favorable response on Christ's behalf.
While Swinburne directs the argument towards Christ in this section of the poem, he implicates the entire institution of religion in failing to ameliorate the oppression of the poor. The Roman Catholic Church of the time had played a role in dividing Italy. The monarchies of England manipulated the Anglican Church to accomplish their own personal goals. Preachers encouraged their congregations to accept their pain and hardships rather than working to better their situations. Swinburne believed that this type of religion had been poisoned and convoluted, and served those least in need of serving.
Remarkably, although Swinburne has a clearly negative view of organized religion in the poem, he hailed from a family of conservative High Church Anglicans. He was well-versed in Christian scripture, and used this knowledge to attack the church more effectively. Instead of limiting himself to logical arguments, Swinburne references Biblical figures and tales while twisting them to fit his message, in order to enhance the ethos of his works. In "Before a Crucifix" he references Lazarus, who rose from the dead, to persuade the republican masses to rise up. The credibility that these such references lend to Swinburne and his speaker allow him to make a more convincing and less irreverent argument less likely to be rejected by his audience.
1. Does Swinburne ultimately hold Christianity, its preachers, or its manipulators responsible for the negative impact of religion on the masses?
Through the left hand a nail is driven,
Faith, and another through the right,
Forged in the fires of hell and heaven,
Fear that puts out the eye of light:
And the feet soiled and scarred and pale
Are pierced with falsehood for a nail.
By stating this, is Swinburne simply calling faith, fear, and falsehood cornerstones of Christianity? Or by depicting them as nails, does he mean that they are newer aspects of religion that have been added by others while Christ watches powerlessly, just as he powerlessly endured the nails being hammered through him during his crucifixion?
3. Given that much of England's population at the time was devoutly religious, how did poems like "Hymn to Prosperine" and "Before a Crucifix" impact readers' perception of him, and of his poems on love and sin?