Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
With “Hymn to Proserpine,” Swinburne gives positive expression to his rebellion against conventional Christianity. The dual subtitles, After the proclamation in Rome of the Christian faith and Vicisti, Galilaee, define the historical setting. The poem represents a monologue spoken by a pagan resisting the triumph of Christ. In his despair, he calls on the goddess of the underworld,“Goddess and maiden and queen, be near me now and befriend.”
The antique gods that Swinburne would resurrect have dual attributes: “Yea, is not even Apollo, with hair and harpstring of gold,/ A bitter god to follow, a beautiful god to behold?” The combination of beauty with suffering coincides with Swinburne’s recurring desire for punishment, but his protagonist desires neither pleasure nor pain but the sleep also associated with Proserpine. He is weary of the conflict that he sees around him because “Time and the gods are at strife.” This last statement can also summarize Swinburne’s feelings about his own century, a time when human progress, particularly in science, was questioning traditional religious views. Swinburne’s response, conveyed through his Roman protagonist, combines a rejection of Christianity with an energetic vindication of his personal faith.
Regarding Christianity, his tone is adversarial: “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown gray from thy breath;/ We have drunken of things Lethean,...
(The entire section is 448 words.)
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