In "Before a Crucifix," Swinburne attacks Christianity. He sees religion as responsible for many of the societal problems of his day — in particular, the divide between the rich and the poor. Standing before a worn and rotten crucifix, the speaker addresses Jesus:

With iron for thy linen bands
     And unclean cloths for winding-sheet
They bind the people's nail-pierced hands,
     They hide the people's nail-pierced feet;
And what man or what angel known
Shall roll back the sepulchral stone?

But these have not the rich man's grave
     To sleep in when their pain is done.
These were not fit for God to save.
     As naked hell-fire is the sun
In their eyes living, and when dead
These have not where to lay their head.

They have no tomb to dig, and hide;
     Earth is not theirs, that they should sleep.
On all these tombless crucified
     No lovers' eyes have time to weep.
So still, for all man's tears and creeds,
The sacred body hangs and bleeds.

The speaker argues that religion offers the common man little. Christianity hinges on the notion that God rewards those who live without sin in the afterlife. However, the speaker reasons that since the poor lack the "rich man's grave", they face nothing but "naked hell-fire" in both life and death. By characterizing the people's hands and feet as nail-pierced, the speaker likens the common man to Jesus. However, he also suggests that the powerful have used religion as a tool to suppress the masses. The Lord's name, he asserts, has become a "fetter on men's necks". This hypocrisy is the basis for his final plea:

Come down, be done with, cease, give o'er;
Hide thyself, strive not, be no more.

Discussion Questions

1. The speaker's condemnation of Christianity begins with a series of questions:

The nineteenth wave of the ages rolls
     Now deathward since thy death and birth.
Hast thou fed full men's starved-out souls?
     Hast thou brought freedom upon earth?
Or are there less oppressions done
In this wild world under the sun?

What is the purpose of these questions? Are they rhetorical? If so, what do they accomplish that a simple statement would not?

2. In The Gay Science, Frederich Nietzsche famously asserts, "God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him." Does "Before a Crucifix" support this claim? Consider the following passage:

The soldiers and the high priests part
     Thy vesture: all thy days are priced,
And all the nights that eat thine heart.

3. Karl Marx, who described religion as the "opiate of the masses", inspired radical social change through his work (Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right). Like Marx, Swinburne portrays Christianity as oppressive:

And with hard overlaboured knees
     Kneeling, these slaves of men should beat
Bosoms too lean to suckle sons
And fruitless as their orisons?

What sort of social change, if any, does Swinburne propose in "Before a Crucifix"? How does this social change differ from that proposed by Marx? How does it differ from that proposed by Carlyle in "Sign of the Times"?

4. Joseph Altholz writes, "The scientific challenges laid bare certain weaknesses of the Victorian religious revival, and the victory of science was largely due to elements within the religious position. The most important such factor was the latent conflict between the sensitivity of conscience stimulated by the religious revival and the crude and harsh statement of the dogmas to which such sensitive consciences were expected to give their allegiance." ("The Warfare of Conscience with Theology" [1976])

At several points in "Before a Crucifix", Swinburne alludes to prayers (e.g. "And longing till thy kingdom come!"). What do these allusions suggest about the role of prayer in society? Are they the a "crude and harsh statement" of dogma? Or does te poem itself take the form of a prayer?

Last modified 6 Aptil 2009