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, and fed on the fullness of death.” While Christ may have won humankind’s heart for a time, the insistent theme of death undermines this triumph. Christianity depends on a belief in resurrection, but Swinburne insists that “no man under the sky lives twice, outliving his day.” If death must come to all, Christ’s promise will prove impossible: “Yet thy kingdom shall pass, Galilean, thy dead shall go down to thee dead.”
Thus, Swinburne posits a time when people will be freed from Christianity: “I kneel not, neither adore you, but standing, look to the end.” Yet in order to describe this future state, he must return to images of the past by resurrecting Proserpine as a corresponding figure to Mary: “Of the maiden thy mother men sing as a goddess with grace clad around;/ Thou art throned where another was king; where another was queen she is crowned.” Proserpine’s allure derives from extreme female sensuality, “Clothed round with the world’s desire as with raiment.” Paradoxically, given that he has just rejected eternal life, Swinburne posits the reward of those faithful to the old gods as an eternity with Proserpine “In the night where thine eyes are as moons are in heaven.” The paradox is resolved, however, when it is revealed that this night is death, the oblivion, or sleep, that will obliterate strife.