In "By the North Sea," A. C. Swinburne portrays a bleak, desolate world. He uses the first five parts of the poem to poetically give a visual description of a landscape that appears barren and dreary and also, without hope.

A land that is lonelier than ruin
    A sea that is stranger than death
Far fields that a rose never blew in,
    Wan waste where the winds lack breath;
Waste endless and boundless and flowerless
    But of marsh-blossoms fruitless as free
Where earth lies exhausted, as powerless
            To strive with the sea. [lines 1-8]

The sixth section of the poem, instead of merely describing the destruction, explains why the landscape has lost all of its vitality and has been replaced with ruins and a sense of ghostliness. Swinburne claims that the worship of God and Christianity has died over the course of time, which has also led to the death of the land and its people (Landow):

Ah, less mighty, less than Time prevailing,
    Shrunk, expelled, made nothing at his nod,
Less than clouds across tho sea-line sailing,
    Lies he, stricken by his master's rod.              Where is man? "the cloister murmurs wailing;
    Back the mute shrine thunders — "Where is God?"

Here is all the end of all his glory --
    Dust, and grass, and barren silent stones.
Dead, like him, one hollow tower and hoary
    Naked in the sea-wind stands and moans,
Filled and thrilled with its perpetual story:
    Here, where earth is dense with dead men's bones.
[lines 427-438]

Swinburne, however, does not bring the poem to a close with the feeling of gloom and bleakness that permeates most of "By the North Sea." Rather, he seems to accept time and its effects despite its potentially destructive nature. He acknowledges that time rules above all else, and he uses the sun as the ultimate measure of time. Thus, Swinburne concludes that the sun is the "father and saviour and spirit."


1. Why do you think Swinburne decided to end the poem in a positive light though the majority of the poem conveyed a deep sense of bleakness? Does this method seem convincing to you?

2. Why does Swinburne choose to describe a seaside landscape as opposed to another location? Do you think a seaside landscape serves as the most appropriate location for what he attempts to convey?

3. Swinburne tends to use repetition of words throughout "By the North Sea." For example, he begins six out of the eight lines of the sixth stanza with the same word, "and":

And year upon year dawns living,
    And age upon age drops dead:
And his hand is not weary of giving,
    And the thirst of her heart is not fed
And the hunger that moans in her passion,
    And the rage in her hunger that roars,

However, Swinburne does not use the same number of lines in each stanza nor does he have the same number of stanzas in the different sections of the poem. Why does he use repetition while appearing to lack consistency?

Related Materials

Victorian Web Main Overview A. C. Swinburne Aesthetes & Decadents Leading Questions

Last modified 5 November 2004