reating grim visions of a dismal land, Swinburne interestingly genders a number of the natural forces that have taken over the task of presiding over the world in place of religion in "By the North Sea." The two primary gendered powers are the male 'death' and the female 'sea,' who are engaged in a greedy romance of desire, giving and consumption, in which death provides the sea with the dead people she hungers for. Although death appears to be waiting on his mistress the sea by catering to her needs, it is clear in the poem that he is ultimately the dominant one in their relationship, since it is he who has the ultimate power to kill her if he chooses: "If thou slay me, O death, and outlive me, / Yet thy love hath fulfilled me of thee" (lines 37-38). The female is portrayed as the selfish, voracious force leading the male to take people's lives to satisfy her insatiable yearning, even if it is he who is the stronger one.
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,
As a wolf's that the winter lays lash on,
Still calls and implores. [lines 41-48]
Death and the sea are not the only gendered forces in the poem: the sun and the wind are both male, and the earth is female. Swinburne uses words associated with love in his natural descriptions, as well as generally using enormously sensuous language: "heart" (line 89), "kisses" (90), and "And her lips breathe back to the breeze / The kiss that the wind's lips waft her" (lines 129-130).
What does Swinburne accomplish by gendering natural forces and giving them relationships with one another, essentially anthropomorphizing them? By ordering the forces in this way, is Swinburne making an analogy between the uncertainty, danger, power and chaos inherent in love as well as in the natural world (both in terms of nature and time)? Swinburne's early depiction of the female sea is largely negative; do any elements of his description of her provide a more positive view of femininity?
In the final section of the poem, the sea is humbled. She becomes the "sandal" (line 476) of the sun, who has assumed an almost divine importance and seems to be endowed with far more benevolent qualities than the previous rulers, death and the sea. As the "sandal," the sea has sunk to a physically low, degraded level, under the weight of a powerful but generous master who walks on her and probably keeps her ill inclinations in check. Yet here Swinburne also introduces an image of the sea as a lyre, played by the sun. Although the sea is in a subordinate position to the sun, nonetheless it is a harmonious and positive position. Furthermore, at the very end of the poem, Swinburne indicates that when people die their songs go to the sea (lines 523-4).
How does the sea suddenly become the recipient of the sun's care and the beautiful musical creations of the living world? Previously she was a vulture, consuming dead creatures. Does she deserve her new, elevated state, or does she in fact deserve punishment instead? Has she done anything to make herself worthy? Why does Swinburne create such a happy ending for an entity he formerly associated with such negative qualities?
On the other hand, initially the sea was both passive, by receiving the dead from her lord death, and also active in the way she devoured them. At the end, the sea is merely passive, both receiving songs and being played upon as a musical instrument by the powerful sun. Thus, is Swinburne ultimately conforming to the Victorian values regarding what makes a good woman? That is, is he conveying the belief that the sea is bad when she has active desires and yearnings and acts upon them, but she is good when she is merely a passive toy and the recipient of sweet things?
The rhythm and alliterations in the poem, particularly in the first section, immediately pull the reader in and provide strong momentum, driving the poem forward. Does the melodic effect achieved underscore the gloominess of the words, or does the sing-song quality of such verses counter the poem's bleakness?
Last modified 9 November 2003