In "Evening on the Broads", Swinburne describes a landscape at sunset, as the sun hangs on the horizon "as in heavy suspense". Employing similes, he describes these moments using nature as longing and waiting: night as the bird "whose winglets are callow yet, but soon with their plumes will she cover her brood from afar" with a thick darkness. At the start of the poem, the sunset heralds the coming of night with a trembling passion filled with awe: the night brings with it newness and unending rest.
Loftier, aloft of the lights of the sunset stricken and dwindled,
Gather the signs of the love at the heart of the night new-made.
New-made night, new-born of the sunset, immeasurable, endless,
Opens the secret of love hid from of old in her heart,
In the deep sweet heart full-charged with faultless love of the friendless
Spirits of men that are eased when the wheels of the sun depart.
The poem uses the image of this sunset to comment on the religious implications of life and death. In the moments between life and death, the believer confidently awaits the coming of new life and "strains" eagerly to receive, in gladness, the "endless" night. Swinburne comments on the message of Christianity which claims to offer the believer, at the close of his life, eternal joy and delight in heaven.
Faintly the heartbeats shorten and pause of the light in the westward
Heaven, as eastward quicken the paces of star upon star
Hurried and eager of life as a child that strains to the breast-ward
Eagerly, yearning forth of the deeps where the ways of them are,
Glad of the glory of the gift of their life and the wealth of its wonder,
Fain of the night and the sea and the sweet wan face of the earth.
Over them air grows deeper, intense with delight in them: under
Things are thrilled in their sleep as with sense of a sure new birth.
However, as the poem continues, the reader loses any sense of hope in such a happy ending. The sea is unable to respond to the giving sun or stars with light or love, but can only answer the wind with destructive waves. She is likened to a confused soul, who is "heavy-laden with trouble that will not depart". Increasing in hopelessness, Swinburne describes the wind as a malevolent conqueror who rules over all the waters and wastes, "yet the hunger is eased not that aches in his heart, nor the goal overtaken that his wide wings yearn for and labour as hearts that yearn after death". As the night finally arrives, we see that it holds nothing but the deathless, unsleeping wind.
This bleak picture represents Swinburne's rejection of religion. He argues that much like the darkness at the closing of a day, death will conquer life, leaving nothing in its wake.
1. Swinburne uses several terms to talk about life and rebirth. For example:
Still is the sunset adrift as a spirit in doubt that dissembles
Still with itself, being sick of division and dimmed by dismay —
Nay, not so; but with love and delight beyond passion it trembles,
Fearful and fain of the night, lovely with love of the day:
Fain and fearful of rest that is like unto death, and begotten
Out of the womb of the tomb, born of the seed of the grave:
Lovely with shadows of loves that are only not wholly forgotten,
Only not wholly suppressed by the dark as a wreck by the wave.
Would his readers recognize these terms as specific to Christianity? Does he intentionally use these words to guide readers in understanding his criticism?
2. Midway through "Evening on the Broads", Swinburne writes ten lines referencing Perdita, a character from Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale. Here in Shakespeare's vision,
a flower of her kin forsaken,
Lay in her golden raiment alone on the wild wave's edge,
Surely by no shore else, but here on the bank stormshaken,
Perdita, bright as a dew-drop engilt of the sun on the sedge.
Here on a shore unbeheld of his eyes in a dream he beheld her
Outcast, fair as a fain~, the child of a far-off king:
And over the babe-flower gently the head of a pastoral elder
Bowed, compassionate, hoar as the hawthorn blossom in spring,
And kind as harvest in autumn: a shelter of shade on the lonely
Shelterless unknown shore scourged of implacable waves. [Online text (outside VW)]
Why does he refer to this scene from the play? Also, why does he place this passage in between descriptions of the hopeless, helpless sea and the insatiable, malevolent wind?
3. In "The Triumph of Time" Swinburne writes of lost love. Is his rejection of religion and the afterlife as seen in this poem reflected in how the protagonist of "The Triumph of Time" mourns for his dead love?
I wish we were dead together to-day,
Lost sight of, hidden away out of sight,
Clasped and clothed in the cloven clay,
Out of the world's way, out of the light,
Out of the ages of worldly weather,
Forgotten of all men altogether,
As the world's first dead, taken wholly away,
Made one with death, filled full of the night.
How we should slumber, how we should sleep,
Far in the dark with the dreams and the dews!
And dreaming, grow to each other, and weep,
Laugh low, live softly, murmur and muse;
Yea, and it may be, struck through by the dream,
Feel the dust quicken and quiver, and seem
Alive as of old to the lips, and leap
Spirit to spirit as lovers use.
Last modified 8 April 2009