Denunciation of Faith: Charles A. Swinburne’s
“A Forsaken Garden”
English 541: Beth Sutton-Ramspeck
Swinburne parodies the Bible in a significant number of works, including the church’s portrayal of the Whore of Babylon in “Before a Crucifix,” and “Locust” (Louis 113-114). However, in my interpretation of “A Forsaken Garden,” Swinburne not only parodies the Christian religion, he is making a humanist statement concerning the creation of life, existence, and the after life. He portrays creation as a mechanical function of nature rather than a spiritual function of God as well as renounces the existence of a spiritual after life. In Swinburne’s garden, God only exists as the entity of Time. Nonetheless, in this sense, the purpose of Time is not to create, but simply to provide a canvas for the progression of nature. His words serve as a message of his revulsion to religious dogma and his acceptance of science, nature and mind.
Other critics have noted the influence of religion on Swinburne’s poetry. Although he does not delve into the scientific realm of Swinburne’s work, Francis O’Gorman discusses the poet’s anti-biblical stance in “A Forsaken Garden.” O’Gorman argues that the subtle allusiveness of the poem reflects a sense of irony, and in some cases parody, of Christian religion and Biblical truths, further noting that Swinburne consciously replaces a Christian moral with a secular version. For instance, the title, “A Forsaken Garden” secularizes the biblical Garden of Eden (348-349). David G. Riede also reflects on Swinburne’s role as an iconoclast, noting the poet’s “rebellion against the prevailing ideology of his time and place” (“Swinburne” 23). It is Swinburne’s very rejection of dogmatic doctrine and his embracing of the divine power of imagination that aided in the strength of his poetic authority (“Swinburne” 23-24).
Swinburne focuses the crux of “A Forsaken Garden” on the concept of time and its role in universal creation, existence, and destruction. Whereas I will argue that the progression of time in this poem is a powerful entity unto itself, other interpretations depict the garden as a place where time does not exist. For instance, critic Pauline Fletcher argues that the garden is a “garden of death” that hangs in the balance between life and eternity. In her thoughts, Swinburne represents life by the land and eternity by the sea (Fletcher, 337). Similarly, Michael Joyner argues that although Swinburne is known to depict humanness through the image of the ravaging power of sequential time and death, “A Forsaken Garden” represents an attempt to create a garden where time does not exist. The speaker hopes, but fails, to create a place within time that is free from the march of time and decay. Past, present and future are condensed in the “static” present time of the garden (Joyner 100-102).
The sense of time is so relevant in “A Forsaken Garden,” that Swinburne bookends the poem with the virtual beginning and ending of time. In line one, the speaker begins by describing the location of the garden “[i]n a coign of the cliff between lowland and highland….” The unique word “coign” implies a double meaning as it is not only a corner or plateau; the OED defines the word as “an original angular elevation of land around which continental growth takes place.” With this in mind, the always-present sea existed before land and the human reality of time began with the emergence of the earth. In the final stanza, Swinburne ends earthly time as the water once again engulfs the land and the world returns to a timeless eternal state. It is only with the cessation of mortal time that the decaying destruction of life-- death itself-- will end (line 80).
Swinburne also emphasizes the concept of time in the structure of the poem. The cadence and the rhyme scheme ABABCDCD are steady; he does not vary from these patterns. This constancy represents a progressive, steady march. Mortal time does not break, hesitate, or stop, just as the steady rhyme scheme does not stop or change; both are constant and progressive.
The poet furthers the personification of Time as God by ending
each stanza with a three-syllable line. Each ending refers to either physical time such as
“Night and day” (line 16) and “All year long” (32), or the cessation of mortal
time, “Now lies dead” (8) and “We shall sleep” (64).
Even line 56, “Or the wave,” is a reflection of time since the reference to
water itself indicates a timely constant. The fact that these elements of time are presented in
threes implies that time is an entity in itself, a motivating force in life, as
the number three is indicative of not only perfection, but also the Christian
Even the title “A Forsaken Garden” contains Biblical references in the
forms of Eve in the Garden of Eden as the biblical beginning of
human time, Jesus’ time of agony in the
Swinburne embodies the constancy of time in his portrayal of the sea, and emphasizes its God-like personification as he describes the eternal existence of the waters. Swinburne makes the clear point that the sea always was, always is, and always will be, in the same way that the Biblical God always was, always is, and always will be. By using the term “coign,” the poet implies that the land on which the speaker stands was formed after the sea (1). Thus, the sea always was. In the same respect, in mortal death, the sea endures. Once the garden is dead and the “seed plots are dry” (26), the nightingale is gone, the roses are gone, but the “sea-bird’s song” (30) remains. Time progressively and indiscriminately moves forward, allowing the natural death and destruction of every living thing. The only life that remains is the sea. The sea always is. Finally, when mortal time ends and the mountain crumbles, the sea will overtake the mortal world: “Till terrace and meadow the deep gulfs drink,/ Till the strength of the waves of the high tides humble…” (74-75). When the earth is gone, the sea will remain. The sea always will be. As a representation of the entity of Time, the sea is the past, present and future.
In a similar manner in stanzas five and six, Swinburne notes that a hundred years ago the imagined lovers were looking into the same sea the speaker is viewing. The male lover draws on the difference between the temporary and the permanent as he says, “‘look forth from the flowers to the sea; / For the foam-flowers endure when the rose-blossoms wither’” (42-43). Earthly life (earthly time) will die just like the rose, but the foamy sea waves endure. The sea even mocks the brevity of life and love in lines fifty-one and fifty-two, as Swinburne plays with the traditional interpretation of the red rose as the symbol of eternal love. The line “Love deep as the sea” (51), with its reference to the always-present sea, indicates a love that is eternal; however, that human concept of eternity is mocked as the “rose [the symbol of eternal love] must wither” (51). Swinburne enhances the irony as he emphasizes that only the eternal sea can possess the eternal rose: “As the rose-red seaweed that mocks the rose” (52). No matter how alive one is, no matter how passionately and deeply in love they may be, death still comes.
Time allows the sea its victory. As mortal existence ends, the sea will remain, “Till a last wind’s breath upon all these blowing/ Roll the sea” (71-72). With the progression of time, the sea will reclaim the land, thereby ending mortal existence (73-80). The process of life and death will not end until humankind ends. As time stretches over the centuries, the universe will devolve. In Swinburne’s world, creation will not end by the hand of the Christian God, but by a natural cycle. In a sense, time will turn on itself, thereby ending creation, “Stretched out on the spoils that his own hand spread” (78); the “spoils” referring to a destroyed earth and life. Time is a greedy entity as it continually claims its spoils from the living. Human time exists only when humanity exists; therefore, when time ultimately destroys humanity, it will find itself slain upon its own sacrificial altar: “As a god self-slain on his own strange altar, / Death lies dead” (79-80). Reide effectively explains Swinburne’s position: “The purpose of all myths of salvation is to slay death, but Swinburne demonstrates that natural law does this, that no myth is necessary” (Swinburne 167). As Victorians struggled with the theory of evolution and the beginnings of the earth, it is apt that Swinburne rejects the Biblical story of creation and apocalypse with his portrayal of life as springing from and returning to the sea.
Swinburne was an iconoclast who
was anxious to promote scientific doctrine. While a student at
As his religious faith declined,
the rapid advances in late nineteenth-century science inspired Swinburne.
In a June 1, 1887, letter to his youngest sister, poet excitedly wrote, “. . .
there has been nothing since the days of Sir Isaac Newton like the advance of
science in this half-century. . .”(
In the poem, Swinburne continues his denunciation of Biblical teaching with his denial of a continuing soul or an afterlife. The speaker implies that life is cyclical and is only recreated in new living beings on earth. The living speaker stands in the garden reflecting upon the living things (people, plants, and birds) that came before. The prior life is gone completely, as the life and the soul have returned to the ground and ceased to exist (55). Life is only continued with the natural creation of new generations; and, like the lovers, these generations will also die as stated in lines sixty-three and sixty-four: “When as they are free now of weeping and laughter / We shall sleep” (emphasis added). The poem provides no indication that the souls of the dead will live on. Using the imagery of “thorns” (20), “rocks” (22), “dry” (26), and “wither” (51), death is portrayed as bleak and permanent. Not even a ghost exists in the garden, though one would think the desolate place would invite the spirits of the past. The speaker proclaims “So long have the grey bare walks lain guestless, / Through branches and briars if a man make way, / He shall find no life but the sea-wind’s, restless / Night and day” (13-16 emphasis added). While the Bible claims that the graves will give up their dead to Heaven in the end days, this speaker blatantly states that, “From the graves they have made they shall rise up never” (67). Reide expounds upon this absence of afterlife in “A Forsaken Garden,” indicating that the cliffs, representing life and earth, are headed not for eternal life, but for non-existence (Swinburne 144). Swinburne portrays life and death as mechanical processes of time rather than the spiritual processes of God.
Swinburne also mocks the
biblical garden with his dead garden theme. The Garden of Eden initially
represented the newness and freshness of life and an eternity of happiness.
It was only with the ill decision of Eve that death came to garden.
In his garden, Swinburne represents only the barrenness of death and
decay. Death is of such prominence that one could
The speaker shows a world where humans are simply a component of nature. The natural world, as opposed to the spiritual world, prevails. All of nature has the same origin, the sea, as well as the same destiny, death. We are all just part of a natural cycle. In line twenty-five, the dry, dead, lifeless garden plots are compared to the dry, lifeless heart of a dead man. Both return to dust. The speaker phrases the reference to death in the words, “All are at one now, roses and lovers” (57). Even our very souls die as shown in lines fifty-four and fifty-five: “What love was ever as deep as a grave? / They are loveless now as the grass above them / Or the wave.” The deep and abiding love we may feel in our soul can neither avoid the grave nor survive it. In his interpretation, Reide notes, “The only immortality we achieve is the eternality of the elements to which we return” (Swinburne 167).
The poem portrays life as ultimately insignificant and brief, and the speaker shows (though weakly) that the reality of living occurs only in the present. Life in the past is forgotten, “Not a breath of the time that has been hovers” (59), and the life of the future does not yet exist: “Not a breath shall there sweeten the seasons hereafter” (61). The beauty of the rose, the joy in the laughter, the life in the weeping occur only today (62-64).
The poet expands the human metaphor with wind representing the existence of life. The speaker repeatedly refers to the wind as “breath” such as a “blossom of scentless breath” (34) and “Till a last wind’s breath” (71). “Breath” is indicative of life. Until earthly time ends, no matter how bleak and dead the world becomes, the natural cycle of life will continue. The wind, or the potential for life, will not end until “Death [itself] lies dead” (80). Life will endure “Till a last wind’s breath upon all these blowing / Roll the sea” (71-72). In other words, Time will progress and the life cycle will continue until existence, as we know it, ends.
Ultimately, “A Forsaken Garden” is Swinburne’s message of his religious and scientific beliefs, representing the shift from spiritual law to natural law evidenced in the references to time, creation, and demise as embodied in the concept of time and the ever-present sea. Not only could Swinburne have embraced the scientific concept of natural evolution of life from the sea, he was in his own life, deeply enamored by the ocean. For Swinburne, the sea seemed to hold a special secret or a certain power. For instance, in a letter to his eldest sister, he recounts a sea swim on a cold day:
I ran like a boy, tore off my
clothes, and hurled myself into the water.
And it was but for a few minutes—but I was in Heaven!
The whole sea was literally golden as well as green—it was liquid and living
sunlight in which one lived and moved and had one’s being (
Swinburne held a certain passion for the mysteries of the sea that he projected onto this poetic work, thereby lending a compelling voice to “A Forsaken Garden.” The depth of the ocean is an unexplored world that, for an imaginative intellect, could hold the only true answers to human existence. A natural wisdom exists in an earthly entity that always was, always is, and always will be.
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