In his poem “Before a Crucifix,” A. C. Swinburne directs his thoughts on religion and the church to an old cross which comes to stand for Christ himself. In this address, Swinburne expresses his feeling that Christianity has done relatively little for the masses and instead serves as a tool for those in power. Swinburne, who does not shy away from making this decisive claim, even uses a reversal of well known Biblical passages to highlight the discrepancy between Christian faith and goodness and the church itself. Addressing Christ on the crucifix, he says:

God of this grievous people, wrought
     After the likeness of their race,
By faces like thine own besought,
     Thine own blind helpless eyeless face,
I too, that have nor tongue nor knee
For prayer, I have a word to thee.

Swinburne describes Christ as “wrought after the likeness of their race,” meaning contextually that Christ in his life suffered as many of his worshippers do. However, the line seems to play with the Genesis 5:10 passage which states that “In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him.” Genesis clearly defines man as being made in God’s likeness, but Swinburne’s poetry casts Christ as being made to fit man’s cast. This wording seems to allude to the man-made nature of religion; it suggests that the “grievous people” were in need of and “besought” some figure like them, a person similarly suffering who, in suffering, served some higher purpose and therefore was uplifted. In religion, then, suffering becomes equated with holiness and goodness:

Thy faith is fire upon their lips,
     Thy kingdom golden in their hands;
They scourge us with thy words for whips,
     They brand us with thy words for brands;
The thirst that made thy dry throat shrink
To their moist mouths commends the drink.

Swinburne characterizes religion as almost an instrument of torture, where Christ’s words are used as “whips” and “brands.” The suffering Christ has undergone (his “thirst”) becomes desirable simply because Christ himself has undergone it; furthermore, the final line characterizes the ambiguous pronoun “they” as “moist,” or un-Christlike, unsuffering. Swinburne sees that those in power in the Church, who wear golden crowns rather than Christ’s crown of thorns, use faith and religion to wound the already suffering masses rather than help them. 1 Peter 1:7 says “That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ . . . ” Again, a sort of reversal of classical biblical imagery arises; faith as fire in this passage seems to counter the traditional hellish depiction of fire as a trial or enemy of faith. Religion, then, becomes a test of faith rather than a vehicle by which to arrive at a firmer faith. Swinburne continues in this vein.

They have no tomb to dig, and hide;
     Earth is not theirs, that they should sleep.
On all these tombless crucified
     No lovers' eyes have time to weep.
So still, for all man's tears and creeds,
The sacred body hangs and bleeds.

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.

Again Swinburne reverses classic biblical passages to mark the discrepancy between faith in God and religion: Matthew 5:5 says “Blessed are the meek. for they shall inherit the earth” while Swinburne says that, in actuality, “Earth is not theirs.” Man’s “tears and creeds” have been to no avail, for mankind still suffers and has not been lifted up to the Heavens, and the reason for this appears to be the church’s method of glorifying suffering in the common man. Faith becomes a tool, the nail keeping the poor masses suspended from the cross. Religion, then, “forged in the fires of hell and heaven,” becomes both the way in which to achieve spirituality as well as barrier to it.

Discussion Questions

1. Why does Swinburne repeatedly reverse biblical passages? Does he seek to discredit the Bible, the clergy or faith in general? By addressing this poem to Christ, does the poem seek to take issue with Christianity as a whole, or specific aspects of the way it operates?

2. The poem places the poor masses in the position of Christ. This contrasts greatly with other figurations of Christ that we have seen (for example, Pompilia as Christ or Tennyson as a Christ-like figure). What are the implications of this type?

3. The poem seems to suggest that Swinburne views religion and the clergy as using faith as a tool against the people to constrain their spirituality and add to their suffering. Does he offer an alternate way to enlightenment or any sort of solution? Is this poem advocating for reform within the church or something more radical like atheism?

Last modified 11 April 2011