Child, you arise and smile to me
Out of the night, out of the sea,
The Nereid of a moment there . . .
O lost and wrecked, how long ago,
Out of the drowning past. — Arthur Symons, "Stella Maris"
Consider the seafs listless chime:
Time's self it is, made audible, —
The murmur of the earth's own shell.
Secret continuance sublime
Is the sea s end: our sight may pass
No furlong further. Since time was,
This sound hath told the lapse of time. — Dante Gabriel Rossetti, "The Sea-Limits"
eroism, endurance, or plain luck can help one survive the oceans of this world, but no one escapes the sea of time. Eventually, in the words of Pablo Neruda's "Soliloquy in the Waves," "el tiempo destruyo todos los labios/ con la paciencia/ de la sombra" (time wrecks all lips with the patience of darkness). For those who accept the Christian belief in an afterlife, earthly time appears a trial, a probationary period that readies one for a higher, fuller existence. According to this scheme of things, when one finds oneself at last submerged in the waves of time, one sinks, as Emily Dickinson put it, to mortality's "Ground Floor . . . Immortality" (no. 1,234). But those who abandon Christianity also necessarily abandon its conception of human time as an ante-room to eternity, and they therefore find themselves in a temporal landscape marked by discontinuity and lack of duration.1
Western thought has long employed water analogies to formulate conceptions of time. Either it is conceived as an ocean beneath whose waves one sinks, or else, in an important variant, it is seen as an onrushing river or current whose movement cannot be slowed. Using this second figure, Neruda thus writes of "el tiempo,/ el transcurrir temible" (time,/ that terrifying flow) and describes in "A Don Asterio Alarcon conometrista de Valparaiso" ("To Don Asterio Alarcon, Clocksmith of Valparaiso") how
detenido en el tiempo,
se suavizo como la nave pura
contra la eternidad de la corriente.
trapped in time,
proceeded smoothly, like a clean ship,
against the eternal current.]
In his essay "Crabbed Age and Youth" Robert Louis Stevenson similarly compares
the headlong course of our years to a swift torrent in which a man is carried away; now he is dashed against a boulder, now he grapples for a moment to a trailing spray; at the end, he is hurled out and overwhelmed in a dark and bottomless ocean.
In contrast to this ancient metaphor of time as a river, which was a particular favourite of English writers of the 1890s, there is another which conceives it as a devouring ocean. Swinburne, who creates an entire imaginative cosmos out of the notion of being wrecked in the sea of time, emphasizes again and again that all love, all life, all civilization sinks beneath these waters. As the "Hymn to Proserpine" explains to the old "Gods dethroned and deceased, cast forth, wiped out in a day" (1. 13) by the coming of Christianity, all things perish in the waters of this ocean:
All delicate days and pleasant, all spirits and sorrows are cast
Far out with the foam of the present that sweeps to the surf of the past:
Where beyond the extreme sea-wall, and between the remote sea-gates,
Waste water washes, and tall ships founder, and deep death waits. [ll. 47-50]
According to Swinburne, our situation as castaways in the sea of time defines our lives and loves, for like these old gods and their worshippers, we all find ourselves immersed in this ocean.
Many of the poet's presentations of man shipwrecked and cast away in the sea of time appear in the context of works that concern lost love. For him the fact that time destroys all love provides a central or paradigmatic situation that he expands to embrace all human life and activity. As he wrote with self-conscious cynicism to Joseph Knight about his own lyric "At Parting," he found his emphasis upon the brevity of love far more honest and accurate than the views of other contemporary poets.
I pique myself on its moral tone; in an age when all other Iyrists[sic], from Tennyson to Rossetti, go in (metrically) for constancy and eternity of attachment and reunion in future lives, etc., etc., I limit love, honestly and candidly, to 24 hours; and quite enough too in all conscience. [8 July 1875]
Swinburne takes essentially the same view in his early "Felise," whose epigraph, appropriately, is "Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?" This dramatic monologue presents essentially the opposite situation to that found in "The Triumph of Time," which had appeared earlier in the same volume, the 1866 Poems and Ballads. In "Felise" the man abandons the woman, and, rather than remain silent, as does the speaker in "The Triumph of Time," he explains to her that it is in the nature of things that time wrecks all love and that, once over, such love is drowned forever:
No diver brings up love again
Dropped once, my beautiful Felise,
In such cold seas.
Gone deeper than all plummets sound,
Where in the dim green dayless day
The life of such dead things lies bound
As the sea feeds on, wreck and stray
Can I forget? yea, that can I,
And that can all men; so will you. [ll. 73-82]
Such cynicism is poetically uncharacteristic of Swinburne, no matter how much he displays it in his letters, since his usual practice is to speak from the point of view of the suffering lover — which is to say from within the painful experience of being shipwrecked and cast away.
"The Triumph of Time," one of his finest early poems, opens with the figure of shipwreck, for now, as he is about to part from his unnamed beloved, he realizes that he exists, and will exist henceforth, in the condition of the shipwrecked mariner:
Before our lives divide for ever,
While time is with us and hands are free,
(Time, swift to fasten and swift to sever
Hand from hand, as we stand by the sea)
I will say no word that a man might say
Whose whole life's love goes down in a day. [ll. 1-6]
Therefore, all that follows in the poem must be taken as an interior monologue, for the poet has chosen to keep silent and suppress his complaint to the lost beloved. After emphasizing the fact of his loss with a claim that the two of them together could have been as gods and could have made themselves one with the elements, the speaker turns from such broken dreams to confront a desertlike landscape bordering upon the waste ocean. This landscape, we soon realize, serves as the equivalent of the speaker's state of mind and spirit, for both are "sick of the run and the rain" (l. 60), bleak and burnt. Here, confronting the "sweet sea, mother of loves and hours" (l. 62), the saddened lover recognizes that
The loves and hours of the life of a man,
They are swift and sad, being born of the sea.
Hours that rejoice and regret for a span,
Born with a man's breath, mortal as he;
Loves that are lost ere they come to birth,
Weeds of the wave, without fruit upon earth. [ll. 73-78]
He then declares that, although he has lost that which he most desires, he will save what he can — and then he immediately realizes how little human beings can preserve at all:
It is not much that a man can save
On the sands of life, in the straits of time,
Who swims in sight of the great third wave
That never a swimmer shall cross or climb.
Some waif washed up with the strays and the spars
That ebb-tide shows to the shore and the stars;
Weed from the water, grass from a grave,
A broken blossom, a ruined rhyme. [ll. 81-88]
Man, himself a castaway in the sea of time, can only preserve stray waifs and sea drift, one form of which is poetry.
In "The Triumph of Time," all of which, we recall, takes place in an unspoken instant of recognition, Swinburne finds a function for poetry and can thus respond affirmatively to the question Gerard Manley Hopkins asks in a very different context — "is the shipwreck then a harvest . . . ?" (The Wreck of the Deutschland, st. 31). Poetry allows Swinburne to transform the sorrows and ravages of time into beauty, and furthermore, it captures — in fact, rescues certain significant moments from the devouring ocean. For Swinburne as for Rossetti, poetry can enrich these instants of illumination, making them true centres for our lives. Unlike Rossetti, who most characteristically relies upon concentrated forms, such as the sonnet, to create and preserve such significant moments, Swinburne chooses far more diffuse forms that permit him to return to his central poetic idea from different points of the compass. As Jerome J. McGann has pointed out:
His method of thought turns all sequential processes of beginnings, middles, and ends into self-contained circles. This is why he characteristically talks about the "life" of Tristram and Iseult in spatial rather than temporal terms: their essential life never changes, never needs to be sought for and found. . . Stylistically, the result is that his poetry tends not to move in a direction, like a path, but to accumulate additions, like coral. . . . His propensity is toward forms which do not so much move forward as they spin off from a center, accumulating all the while what can be a bewildering variety of figures and images which are constantly interacting with each other.2
Whereas Tennyson and Browning write a cumulative poetry that builds to moments of illumination, Swinburne's characteristic poetic form derives from the fact that his poetic ideas develop from a centre or germ, move out from his centre, but are inevitably drawn back to it; and then the process repeats itself over and over, each tracing of the mental path depositing additional layers of meaning and emotion upon the central idea. In "The Triumph of Time," for instance, the speaker begins by silently telling his beloved (whom he addresses only within the confines of his own mind) that he will not say anything that a man might say on such an occasion of irrevocable loss, but he immediately finds himself forced to think about what they have lost. This dream of what might have been soon brings him back to the fact of loss, he pulls himself up short, and then the process, which dramatizes the obsessive power of his longing, begins again. Such a means of poetic organization simultaneously locks the speaker within the moment of suffering but also allows him to expand it until it encompasses all life and all time. Swinburne's characteristic poetic organization, in other words, is obviously related intimately to his conceptions of time and human life, for although it is ill suited for conveying Tennysonian forms of experience, it permits him to endow certain carefully chosen situations with a central importance and thus turn them into representative moments.
For Swinburne such moments, as we have already seen, often take the form of moments of loss. "The Triumph of Time" dramatizes the mind of one who experiences the loss of his beloved, and "Hymn to Proserpine" (text) presents the experience of a Roman of the fourth century A.D. who is losing his gods, the old pagan deities, now that Christianity has become the official religion of the state. After asserting that all gods, men, and things disappear within the sea of time, Swinburne's speaker tells the old Roman deities
Ye are Gods, and behold, ye shall die, and the waves be upon you at last.
In the darkness of time, in the deeps of the years, in the changes of things,
Ye shall sleep as a slain man sleeps, and the world shall forget you for kings. [11. 68-70]
Swinburne thus dramatizes the thoughts and emotions of a person experiencing the shipwreck of an entire culture and its beliefs. Like Browning and Tennyson, he employs dramatic monologues in which historically reconstructed characters serve as Emersonian representative men. Tennyson's Tithonus and Ulysses, however, are, strictly speaking, not historical embodiments of different periods of human culture. Instead, they serve as mythic dramatizations of possible answers to problems troubling Tennyson. Tithonus, the mythic figure who has gained immortality without retaining his youth and vitality, responds, like Swift's Struldbrugs, to the question, what if human beings lived for ever? Ulysses, on the other hand, responds to the question, how should human beings confront death?
Unlike Tennyson, Browning and Swinburne employ, not new versions of well-known mythic figures, but imagined characters who represent a certain historical situation. Browning's Cleon, Karshish, and the bishop ordering his tomb at St Praxed's each captures what he considers the essential ideas and attitudes of a particular lost age, though of course each is also immediately relevant to the poet's readers because he can tell them something of importance about themselves as well. For example, Cleon's intellectual pride, like the bishop's materialism, helps Browning's reader understand both an earlier age's spiritual problems and his own.
In "Hymn to Proserpine" Swinburne also concerns himself to embody specific historical conditions within a fictional character who thus becomes a representative man. Furthermore, again like Browning, he chooses a figure living in an age itransition from one religion to another. However, when Browning looks at men of late antiquity to learn what they can tell his contemporaries about the needs and difficulties of the human spirit, he conducts his investigations from the vantage-point of a Victorian Protestant. He wishes to demonstrate, for example, what the experience of life in these earlier times can tell his audience of man's essential, defining need for religious faith. Moreover, Browning looks at the transition from the pagan to the Christian world as an essentially good thing, while Swinburne, who had little sympathy with Christianity, does not. As one might expect, "Hymn to Proserpine" and similar poems identify with the position of the imagined historical character far more than do Browning's analogous works. Whereas Browning's "Cleon" takes the form of high intellectual satire, as do many of his other poems such as "Caliban Upon Setebos" and "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St Praxed's," Swinburne's poem both makes us understand the pagan's point of view and also suggests that it is one suitable for the nineteenth century. In particular, 'Hymn to Proserpine," which questioned contemporary beliefs in both Christianity and progress, makes us realize that change is not always progress.3 Christianity came as a form of barbarism to the refined pagans of the fourth century, and the passion with which Swinburne invests his speaker's objections against the new religion makes them seem credible. The poet enforces his historical pessimism by having this representative of a dying age turn prophet and warn that the Christian gods, too, will in their turn find themselves submerged beneath the waves of time.
Using a different poetic strategy in "By the North Sea," Swinburne argues that time has already wrecked Christianity as it had long ago destroyed the worship of Venus and Proserpine. Whereas "Hymn to Proserpine" employs a fictional pagan speaker from a vanished age to communicate the experience of crisis and loss, "By the North Sea" takes the form of a meditation upon a land- and seascape. Swinburne, who is the laureate of the bleak, barren places of the earth, takes Dunwich on the Suffolk coast as an emblem of the way time has already destroyed the faith that had centuries before driven out the pagan gods. In a letter he wrote on 10 January 1876 to his friend Edwin Harrison, he emphasized that this part of the coast had struck him as unique and
quite new to me except that I read of it in the Odyssey as the shore of Hades. Do you know it? It is unlike any other known to me. Fancy a cathedral city, which had its Bishop and members and six great Churches, one a minster, and an immense monastery and hospital for lepers — and now the sea has slowly swallowed all but two shells of ruined masonry, and just twenty cottages, inn and school included. This is Dunwich — literally built on the sand — on and behind a high crumbling sea-bank, looking out to a sea where the nearest land is Denmark. Great fresh-water lakes sweep away inland from the very verge of the sea, parted from them only by pebble-banks and ridge of shingle - a sea without rocks or cliff, but the worst in England for shipwrecks.
As one can gather from his description of Dunwich, Swinburne found his imagination compelled by the fact of this once important religious centre being swallowed by the sea.
When he came to transform his experience of this wasteland into a poem, he described in detail a desolate, fruitless, exhausted place that has two deathless lords, "Death's self, and the sea" (pt 1, st. 3). 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," even "forlorn of shadows," and entirely without spirits of any sort "Ghostless, all its gulfs and creeks and reaches,/ Sky, and shore, and cloud, and waste, and sea" (pt 3, st. 15). After a characteristically elaborate parody of the Nicene Creed, whose description of the Saviour Swinburne applies to time, he depicts vanished religion.
Church and hospice wrought in faultless fashion,
Hall and chancel bounteous and sublime,
Wide and sweet and glorious as compassion,
Filled and thrilled with force of choral chime;
Filled with spirit of prayer and thrilled with passion,
Hailed a God more merciful than Time.
Ah, less mighty, less than Time prevailing,
Shrunk, expelled, make nothing at his nod,
Less than clouds across the 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. [pt 6, sts 8-10]
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" (st. 11) now lie "displaced, devoured and desecrated" (st. 12), and the bodies of men who thought they would awaken only to the "archangel's re-creating word" and "blast of judgment" now "sink into the waste of waves" (st. 12):
Tombs, with bare white piteous bones protruded,
Shroudless, down the loose collapsing banks,
Crumble, from their constant place detruded,
That the sea devours and gives not thanks.
Graves where hope and prayer and sorrow brooded
Gape and slide and perish, ranks on ranks.
Rows on rows and line by line they crumble....
Earth, and man, and all their gods wax humble
Here, where Time brings pasture to the sea. [st. 14-15]
The sixth section of the poem, which builds to this grotesque parody of the Last Judgment, thus reveals that time and death conquer all. Man, his graves and his gods sink beneath the literal ocean and beneath the waves of time.
Swinburne, however, does not end the poem on this bleak note. In the final section, which is composed of seven stanzas, he turns away from "the shadow of this death,/ This place of the sepulchres" (st. 4) to sing a paean to the sun, which for Swinburne represents the powers of poetry and imagination. Finally, accepting time, rejoicing in its changes, the poet closes by rendering thanks for his songs and dreams. Unfortunately, clear and untroubled as the note that Swinburne here sounds is, it cannot dispel the-gloom that he has laboured so well to create, and raising his eyes to the sun therefore seems perfunctory and even evasive. Because he has devoted so much energy and so many lines to his personifications of death and time, which became the deities of this wasteland, his introduction of the sun strikes the reader as too abrupt, for either the sun has not room in this pantheon or else, if it does, it should have appeared earlier. One anthology of Swinburne's verse prints "By the North Sea" and omits the closing section, and while such a procedure distorts what the poet actually wrote, it does make the point that the poem builds towards the close of section six, after which the closing few stanzas seem forced and out of place.
Unlike "The Dry Salvages" from T. S. Eliot's The Four Quertets, which also presents a vision of humanity shipwrecked in a sea of time, Swinburne's "By the North Sea" does not, finally, have a way to insert a divinity into an apparently godless universe. Eliot, of course, also emphasizes time the destroyer, the wrecker:
We cannot think of time that is oceanless
Or of an ocean not littered with wastage
Or of a future that is not liable
Like the past, to have no destination. . . .
There is no end of it, the voiceless wailing,
No end to the withering of withered flowers
To the movement of pain that is painless and motionless,
To the drift of the sea and the drifting wreckage.4
Eliot, however, from the beginning of the second section of "The Dry Salvages" has mentioned that cryptic "calamitous annunciation" even as he describes his scenes of men shipwrecked in the sea of time. Eventually, we come to perceive that this annunciation is The Annunciation, and that it refers to Christ's appearance in human history; for like Browning, Tennyson, and Hopkins, Eliot finds all human history ordered by the Incarnation. Christ's appearance in human flesh, His earthly career, and His death serve as centres to human time — those true, authentic significant moments upon which Rossetti and Joyce patterned their more limited human ones. [Eliot, who shares much with Arnold, Clough, Browning, Tennyson, and Swinburne, is at his most Victorian in this religious solution to the problems of human existence, time, and history by reference to the Incarnation. For the theological bases of such attempts, see my Victorian Types, Victorian Shadows, pp. 46-50, 187-8, 192-4. See also J. H. Buckley, "The Eternal Now". The Triumph of Time pp. 137-53, and Carol T. Christ, The Finer Optic: The Aesthetic of Particularity in Victorian Poetry (1975) New Haven: 105-49.]
From a poetic point of view, "The Dry Salvages" succeeds better than does "By the North Sea" in introducing a deity who can save man from perishing in the waters of time. First of all, this discovery of an immanent God enters the poem, although in cryptic form, not long after the opening, and it does not, therefore, seem a somewhat desperate afterthought. Second, difficult as is the manner of Eliot's presentation, it still refers to those basic tenets of Christianity which make it serve as a cultural code. Even though many in Eliot's audience may not accept Christianity, they can both understand something of its basic notions and recognize that it forms a sincere, serious faith. Swinburne's sun god, in contrast, is too private, too undeveloped, too arbitary to bear the weight placed upon him in "By the North Sea," however much he may successfully do so in other poems. Of course, one wonders, finally, how much of Eliot's relative success in this matter derives from his willing obscurity? Would a clearer statement of Christian belief have fallen so flat that, like Swinburne, his attempt to introduce a deity into the intellectual landscape dominated by the ocean of time would have immediately revealed its desperation? Indeed, if one does not grant Eliot his High Church Anglicanism, does not his poem, like Swinburne's, succeed largely as a vision of man shipwrecked and cast away in the sea of time?
Last modified 14 July 2007