Swinburne artfully creates a mood of barrenness and desolation in his poem, "By the North Sea." He devotes an overwhelming majority of the text to describing the sea's insatiable yearning for death and carefully depicting an anguish-laden land as the setting of the poem. At first glance, the poem appears nothing more than a commentary on death, focusing on images of sheer nothingness and lack of life,

A land that is lonelier than ruin
    A sea that is stranger than death
Far fields that a rose never blew in,
    Wan waste where the winds lack breath;
Waste endless and boundless and flowerless
    But of marsh-blossoms fruitless as free
Where earth lies exhausted, as powerless
            To strive with the sea.

However, as the poem continues it becomes difficult to ignore the subtle allusions employed by Swinburne, all referencing aspects of Christianity. Starting in part III, words and phrases such as "creation," "crosses," "wine," "as one man's face is,/ Pale and troubled," and "tombs of men that sinned/ Once" undoubtedly inundate the stanzas in which they are found with a connotation of Christianity. Although Swinburne does not, at this point in the poem, use these terms to discuss directly or critique Christian belief, he does so to prepare for a later argument about the ultimate downfall of Christianity.

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, made nothing at his nod,
Less than clouds across tho sea-line sailing,
    Lies he, stricken by his master's rod.             430
Where is man? "the cloister murmurs wailing;
    Back the mute shrine thunders — "Where is God?"

The discussion of Christianity becomes more direct in this excerpt, apparent in the use of terms such as "God" and "church." Swinburne infers that the passing of time caused the ruination of Christianity. He calls Time a mightier force than God himself, and uses the death of Jesus to mirror the death of the faith and therefore the death of all people and nature. Although themes of death and emptiness pervade a majority of the text, both function on a larger level to symbolize the destruction of humankind as an effect of the downfall of Christianity.


1.How does the manner in which Swinburne comments on the passage of time as a contributing factor in the ruination of Christianity compare to Carlyle's beliefs on the passage of time as observed in "Signs of the Times?" Would Carlyle agree with Swinburne's statement about time's role in the downfall of Christianity?

2. In his early life, Swinburne was a follower of the Church of England. However, many note his constant use of biblical allusions despite his frequent attacks of the Roman Catholic Church. Was it common for worshipers of the Church of England to share such utter contempt for the Roman Catholic Church? How was "By the North Sea" received by Christians?

3. Swinburne makes use of alliteration and repeats certain words and phrases throughout the poem. How does this affect the speed at which the text is read? How does it contribute to the poem's rhythm?

4. The tone of the poem changes drastically from the beginning to the end. Does Swinburne's choice to end the poem on a somewhat hopeful note symbolize hope for humankind despite the ruination of Christianity? What other themes could such flagrant change in tone symbolize?

Last modified 12 April 2009