In "At the North Sea" Swinburne meticulously describes a landscape so desolate it almost surpasses human perceptibility. This godforsaken wasteland lives under the mastery of two deathless lords, Death itself and the sea. The poem elaborates on the barren setting and dark nature of its two rulers for several stanzas, until section VI when the cause of such devastation reveals itself.

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?"


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,
Filled and thrilled with its perpetual story:
    Here, where earth is dense with dead men's bones.

The poem suggests that Time triumphs God, causing the downfall of Christianity and consequently humankind and the earth itself. Although this event seems apocalyptic, the subsequent section offers hope by means of faith in the sun, whom he deems a god in its own right.

Our father and lord that we follow,
    For deathless and ageless is he;
And his robe is the whole sky's hollow,
            His sandal the sea.

Time, haggard and changeful and hoary,
    Is master and God of the land:
But the air is fulfilled of the glory
    That is shed from our lord's right hand.
O father of all of us ever,
    All glory be only to thee             490
From heaven, that is void of thee never,
            And earth, and the sea.

The sun symbolizes the hope provided by religion and also the inevitability of change. As the chief source of light and necessity for life, the sun serves as a sufficient symbol for hope, solace, and inspiration. However, the sun gives way via dawn and sunset to night and day — an inevitable, regular change between opposites. Symbolically, the change between night and day parallels the regular, yet sometimes radical changes caused by Time. Hope lies in the fact that even during the darkest nights, day will be certain to follow.

Discussion Questions

1. What words and phrases does Swinburne use that describe the sun similarly to the Christian God? What purpose does he seek to achieve?

2. How does the role of time and change relate to the themes in Carlyle's "Signs of the Times?"

3. In what sense can the sun be viewed as a universal god, nonspecific to any religious sect? What does the poem say about the relationship between gods and religion? Do gods justify the religion or does religion justify the gods?

4. Swinburne had an irrepressible hostility towards Christianity. For what reason would the death of Christianity in "The North Sea" cause the fall of humankind, especially given the spiritual nature of the ending?

Last modified 11 April 2009