In “By the North Sea“ (1880), A.C. Swinburne describes the desolate English coastline and characterizes the sea as being a destructive, but timeless, force:
Low and loud and long, a voice for ever,
Sounds the wind's clear story like a song. 440
Tomb from tomb the waves devouring sever,
Dust from dust as years relapse along;
Graves where men made sure to rest, and never
Lie dismantled by the seasons' wrong.
Now displaced, devoured and desecrated,
Now by Time's hands darkly disinterred,
These poor dead that sleeping here awaited
Long the archangel's re-creating word,
Closed about with roofs and walls high-gated
Till the blast of judgment should be heard, 450
Naked, shamed, cast out of consecration,
Corpse and coffin, yea the very graves,
Scoffed at, scattered, shaken from their station,
Spurned and scourged of wind and sea like slaves,
Desolate beyond man's desolation,
Shrink and sink into the waste of waves.
Swinburne repeatedly refers to the “graves“ and the “corpse and coffin“ that lie resting in the sea, the remains of the many seafarers and beachgoers whose lives the sea has claimed over the years. He also emphasizes the timelessness of this scene, suggesting that the waves, describing the “dust from dust of years relapse along“ among the graves in the sea. The connection of death to the sea also suggest that death itself is timeless, a constant in the world just like the crashing waves of the North Sea. All of these descriptions combine to create a desolate setting, lacking humans and other living things and instead dominated by the dead.
In Dickens’s Great Expectations, Pip grows up along the coast in England as well, and the setting does not provide him with much comfort either:
Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip. [Ch. 1]
Pip describes the sea as a “distant savage lair,“ and his description of the setting of his childhood is introduced to the reader along with the images of tombstones in a graveyard. These details all emphasize the isolation and solitude of the area and reflect Pip’s inner feelings about his life at that time, as well. It is noticeable that Pip is eager to leave his desolate childhood home behind, connecting it with his loneliness and inferiority.
Both authors utilize the same setting in their pieces, and both connect certain feelings to the setting as well. The narrator of “By the North Sea“ and Pip both see the seaside as a desolate, deserted place connected with the memories of the dead. Yet perhaps this characterization of the scene comes from the particular mindsets and memories of the narrator and Pip. Pip sees his childhood home as isolated, and he feels trapped there with Mr. and Mrs. Joe in his working class lifestyle. Had a person experienced happiness along the coast, his or her description of the scene could differ drastically. The way they see the world around them provides the reader with a clear look into the characters’ feelings and emotions, and thus both pieces use their descriptions of the settings to provide information on Pip or the narrator, emphasizing the shared theme of loneliness in the two pieces.
Perhaps the focus on death in relation to the sea comes from the relative frequency of shipwrecks during the era, and the danger associated with the sea. Two years before Swinburne’s poem, there were two major shipwrecks off the coasts of England. Two ships collided off the coast of Kent (where Pip was said to have lived), killing 600 people, and 378 more people were killed when a training ship sank in the English Channel(“List of Maritime Disasters“). Dickens himself had written an article on the dangers of the coast in 1851 in “Household Words,“ calling the graveyard of a seaside town where he visited a place “for abundant and overwhelming evidences of the dangerous life of sea-faring men“ (Scarborough Maritime Heritage Centre). This could likely be a contributing factor to the morbid descriptions of the sea in Swinburne’s poetry and Dickens’s focus on the isolation of a seaside village.
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. The Victorian Web. Ed. George P. Landow. Web. 2 May 2010.
"List of Maritime Disasters." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 10 May 2010.
Scarboroughs Maritime Heritage Centre. “Charles Dickens's account of Filey and Scarborough graveyards.“ Web. 10 May 2010.
Swinburne, Algernon Charles. “By the North Sea.“ The Victorian Web. Ed. George P. Landow. Web. 10 May 2010.
Last modified 11 May 2010