In "By the North Sea" (1880), Swinburne argues that time has wrecked Christianity as it had long ago destroyed the worship of Venus and Proserpine. Whereas "Hymn to Proserpine" employs the dramatic monologue, "By the North Sea," like other major works of his mid and late career, takes the form of a meditation on land- and seascape. In this poem as in "Evening on the Broads" (1880; text) and "A Nympholept" (1894), the poet describes a spiritual bleakness worthy of Wallace Stevens in terms of a bleak external world. Swinburne, the laureate of the bleak, barren places of the earth, takes the ruins of Dunwich on the Suffolk coast, which had been a center of religion during the Middle Ages, as an emblem of the way time has already destroyed the faith that had centuries before driven out the pagan gods.

When he came to transform his experiences of this wasteland into a poem, he described in detail a desolate, fruitless, exhausted place ruled by death and the sea. In attempting to find language adequate to convey the strange, inhuman bleakness of Dunwich, he tentatively describes it in terms of the underworld that Odysseus encountered but then decides that this landscape is even bleaker and cannot be humanized by such cultural allusions. This is a landscape "dispeopled of visions" and entirely without spirits of any sort — "Ghostless, all its gulfs and creeks and reaches,/Sky, and shore, and cloud, and waste, and sea." After a characteristically elaborate parody of the Nicene Creed, whose description of the Saviour Swinburne applies to time, he depicts a landscape of ruin populated only by the remains of ecclesiastical structures dedicated to a now-vanished "God more merciful than Time."

"Where is man" the cloister murmers 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.

In the succeeding stanzas Swinburne presents a vision of horror, for turning from the desecrated, destroyed buildings that once were built to the everlasting glory of an everlasting Christian God, he draws our attention to the graves that have been uncovered and swallowed by the sea’s encroachment upon the land. "Graves where men made sure to rest" now lie "displaced, devoured and desecrated," and the last remains of men who thought they would awaken only to the "blast of judgment" now "sink into the waves" as time feeds "earth, and man, and all their gods" to the sea.

Swinburne, however, does not end the poem on this grotesque parodic inversion of the Last Judgment. In the final section, which is composed of seven stanzas, he turns away from "the shadow of this death,/ This place of the sepulchres" to sing a paean to the sun, which for Swinburne represents the powers of poetry and imagination. Finally, accepting time, even rejoicing in its changes, the poet closes by rendering thanks for his songs and dreams. Unfortunately, clear and untroubled as is the note Swinburne here sounds, it cannot dispel the gloom that he has labored so well to create, and raising his eyes to the sun therefore seems perfunctory and even evasive.


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Last modified 29 November 2004