The desolate coastline of “By the North Sea” places the poem in a seemingly timeless location that nevertheless suffers from continual decline. We can situate the poem specifically in Dunwich, a once-thriving port town on the eastern coast of England. Since its heyday in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Dunwich has progressively lost much of its former coast, as well as its older buildings and churches, to erosion. By the time Swinburne was writing, the village’s former glory would have been visible only in ruins.
As Professor Landow mentioned in class, Swinburne returns again and again to the image of the seacoast or island, especially in his later poetry. Part of this may have to do with the landscape of his own experience: as a child, Swinburne spent much of his time at his family’s home on the Isle of Wight, not far from the coasts of the North Sea. But the significance of the seacoast extends beyond the private meanings that we might attribute to his biography.
1. Why might Swinburne fixate on the seacoast? What role does this image serve in his poetry? In particular, how does Swinburne set it up?
Let’s take a look at the way Swinburne presents the coast in the first section of the poem. Here, the wasteland is “endless and boundless and flowerless”: that is, barren and infinite. More explicitly, we could say that this sense of infinity takes the landscape out of strictly empirical notions of time and space.
In the third stanza, the repetition of words with a “ —less” suffix takes on an added sense of lack. The pastures “are herdless and sheepless”; the wind “relentless and sleepless”; the birds “restless and songless.” The idea of eternal lack reaches its culmination in the “two lords that are deathless: / Death’s self, and the sea.”
This endless lack posited early on allows the first section to progress to the idea of endless desire. Swinburne presents this desire as a kind of reciprocal play of appetites between the two “lords” of the landscape: in stanza 6, death’s hand “is not weary of giving,” and the “thirst” of the sea’s “heart is not fed.”
In the first section, then, we arrive at one of the most essential, paradoxical conditions of this landscape: endless attempts to fulfill a never satiated desire. Or, alternatively: continual movement in a static state.
2. What makes the seacoast particularly appropriate for discussing this kind of state?
The line of between land and sea constitutes what we might call a “liminal” space: one that straddles two other states, but remains ambiguous, indeterminate. The word “liminal” itself comes from the Latin for “threshold.”
The movement of the tides, and the general difficulty of stabilizing the actual border between what we call land and sea, illustrates this sense of liminality in a geographic context.
3. What metaphors does Swinburne use to emphasize the condition of the border?
Swinburne describes the borderline state of the seacoast as a state of perpetual warfare between the more concrete states of earth and water. In section 2, stanza 4: “The waves are as ranks enrolled . . . . The warfare endureth for ever.”
In less combative modes, the elements of the landscape simply take on each other’s properties, almost as a chemical mixture. In section 3, stanza 3, the “marsh-mosses” are “sea-colored,” and the land is “sea-saturate as with wine.” The sky, too, contributes to the sense of confusion between land, sea, and air: in stanza 6, the landscape fluctuates between “wind, and light, and wind, and cloud, and wind.”
Section 3 also introduces another, mythical, location, as a way of pointing up the borderline qualities of the coast: Hades, and the river Styx. In stanza 9:
Where the border-line was crossed, that sundering,
Death from life, keeps weariness from rest,
None can tell, who fares here forward wandering.
The rest of the section extends the discussion of this mythical borderland between life and death, which Odysseus visited in order to hear the prophesies of Tiresias. It also introduces the ghost of Odysseus’s mother, Anticlea, who died out of grief for his absence. With her comes the redeeming idea of “Love more strong than death or all things fated” (stanza 12).
Swinburne’s borderland, however, lacks even this pagan infusion of vitality. In stanza 15:
All too sweet such men’s Hellenic speech is,
All too fain they lived of light to see,
Once to see the darkness of these beaches,
Once to sing this Hades found of me
Ghostless all its gulfs and creeks and reaches,
Sky, and shore, and cloud, and waste, and sea.
In section 4, the metaphors from the poem’s initial sections return: the idea of endless battle, of besiegement (stanza 5), and of ever-unsated appetite (stanza 5). Here, the poet adds another element to the interplay of land, sea, and death.
4. What is this element? What does it change?
From stanza 6 onward, the wind becomes a complementary figure, mediating between land and sea. Like the other elements, the wind participates in an infinite cycle of seeking. But it also brings a distinctly life-giving force to the suspended state of the coast. (See stanza 8, and the idea of renewal in stanza 9).
In section 5, we return to the sea itself. Here, its emotional cycles and voracious appetite take on an explicitly human cast (see stanzas 1, 3). We might think of this short section as a transition between the one that precedes it, which introduces the promise of life, and the one that follows, which returns to the idea of death. That section opens:
Death and change, and darkness everlasting,
Deaf that hears not what the daystar saith,
Blind past all remembrance and forecasting,
Dead, past memory that it once drew breath;
These, above the washing tides and wasting,
Reign, and rule, this land of utter death.”
6. What do you notice about the language in this section? What traditions does Swinburne draw on or subvert?
The language in section 6 echoes explicitly, and perverts, the language of the Bible: “knowledge is forbidden” (Genesis); “self-begottenÉborn, not made” (the immaculate conception); “incarnate Miscreation”; “Darkness born of darkness, one and three” (the trinity).
In fact, stanzas 8, 9, and 10 trace the rise and fall of a religion that “Hailed a God more merciful than Time.”
7. What does the speaker posit in the place of this religion?
Here, the God of Time proves more powerful than religions constructed by man, echoing themes that we’ve seen in other Victorian poets, especially Tennyson and Browning.
This god is destructive (stanza 12), but his power is awesome (stanza 15).
After this rejection of man-made religion, the poem closes on what might seem like a surprisingly hopeful note. The cycle of the elements has not been broken; satisfaction remains constantly deferred, death the only guarantee. But the process of the poem itself — the working through of the idea of the border state, with all that it demands and denies — has enabled an acceptance of this state and a thanksgiving for the creation that it enables.
Note also that the work the poet does, although circular, maintains a very disciplined structure. The poem consists of 7 sections; each of these consists of 15, 4, or 7 stanzas (and the 3 sections that don’t have 15 stanzas add up, together, to a total of 15).