Sunday, May 17, 2020

Abreast and Ahead

In Sark
by Algernon Charles Swinburne

Abreast and ahead of the sea is a crag's front cloven asunder
With strong sea-breach and with wasting of winds whence terror is shed
As a shadow of death from the wings of the darkness on waters that thunder
Abreast and ahead.

At its edge is a sepulchre hollowed and hewn for a lone man's bed,
Propped open with rock and agape on the sky and the sea thereunder,
But roofed and walled in well from the wrath of them slept its dead.

Here might not a man drink rapture of rest, or delight above wonder,
Beholding, a soul disembodied, the days and the nights that fled,
With splendour and sound of the tempest around and above him and under,
Abreast and ahead?

Sark is one of the Channel Islands, which are the last remnants of the Duchy of Normandy. To be exact, it is a royal fief in the Bailiwick of Guernsey, which is ruled by the Duke of Normandy, who is,of course, at present Queen Elizabeth II, often toasted as La Reine, notre Duc. The Channel Islands are not, however, constituents of the United Kingdom, but associated Crown dependencies that have their own independent laws and governments -- in the case of Sark, called the Chief Pleas. The basic form of their laws is still feudal Norman law, although over the decades the specifically feudal or manorial characteristics have in many cases become purely ceremonial and nominal.

Sark itself is a small island of about 500-600 people, very rocky, consisting of Greater Sark and Little Sark, connected by an isthmus; it is riddled through with hollow sea-caves. It mostly governs itself and the nearby island of Brecqhou, but is subordinate to Guernsey in matters like criminal law, and is currently most famous for its complete ban on cars and its status as a Dark Sky Island, with a minimum of nighttime light pollution. Swinburne's visit to Guernsey and Sark was due to his enthusiasm for Victor Hugo, who was in exile in the Bailiwick of Guernsey for about fifteen years, which I'll discuss briefly in a future post on a poem by Swinburne about Guernsey.

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