decorated initial 'S'winburne's speaker makes a rather scathing criticism of Catholicism in his "Before a Crucifix." He begins by describing a crucifix worn by the weather and worshipped by the impoverished working class. This crucifix then becomes a symbol for the Catholic Church as a whole, and the speaker seems to hold little back in his attack. His series of stanzas beginning with "It is for this..." (19-36) suggest that the Catholic faith does not deserve the worship of its followers as it oppresses rather than uplifts: he says "It was for this, that slaves should be,/Thy word was passed to set men free?" (35-6). The speaker continues on to say that Catholicism has not achieved its goals of "freedom upon Earth" (40), and focuses his attack on the Catholic Church as an institution rather than the specific beliefs of the religion. He speaks to Christ and commands him to see the way in which the Church has manipulated his teachings, saying "Thy faith is fire upon their lips/ Thy kingdom golden in their hands" (49-50). The focus centers upon religious hierarchy, and the fact that the controlling members of the Catholic Church take advantage of its most devout followers, namely the poor and downtrodden. The speaker makes his critique of the Catholic church quite clear, constituting it among the "Christian creeds that spit on Christ" (154), and the poem gains intensity as it reaches its conclusion.

Swinburne's poem makes not only important religious points but also political ones, since in the end it urges people to escape the confines of the church's power. The poet takes care to depict a scene which emphasizes the worship and plight of the impoverished, as opposed to society at large. Everett explains that although Swinburne belonged to a High Church Anglican aristocratic family, "he delighted in opposing organized religion and savagely attacked the Roman Catholic Church for its political role in a divided Italy" (Everett). This gives the poem an added impact, in that the poem does not only make a statement on religious belief, but political as well.

Questions

1. Does evidence in the poem suggest that the speaker's point of view does not coincide with Swinburne's? What suggests that the opinions espoused are Swinburne's own? In what way does this differ from some of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's poetry?

2. Breanna Byecroft suggests that "the speaker accuses Christ of wanting to be worshipped as the savior of mankind." Does the speaker seem to accuse Christ himself, or the Catholic Church? Which does he find to be at fault? Does Christ still retain the status of savior?

3. The speaker continuously describes the crucifix, and therefore Christ, as rotting and worm eaten. What does this suggest about both Catholicism and its followers?

4. Robert Buchanan sharply criticizes Swinburne in his essay "The Fleshy School of Poetry", saying that Swinburne fills his poetry with "hysteric tone and overloaded style." Does this poem support Buchanan's opinion?


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Last modified 2 November 2004