The Poem

“Hymn to Proserpine” is a dramatic monologue of 110 lines, not divided into stanzas. The mythological Proserpine, the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, became queen of the underworld; Algernon Charles Swinburne invokes her in the title and throughout the poem as the goddess of death.

The poem is supposed to be spoken by the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate (331-363 c.e.), who opposed Christianity and supported the traditional Roman pantheon. The poem has as an epigraph the Latin phrase Vicisti, Galilaee (thou hast conquered, Galilean), supposed to be Julian’s dying words. The Galilean is Jesus Christ, and Julian meant that Christianity had triumphed. Although the hymn is ascribed to Julian, it presents Swinburne’s own views rather than a historical reconstruction of Julian’s doctrines.

Most people fear death, but the Julian of the poem does not. He states that death is greater than “the seasons that laugh or weep” (line 3). Life has its joys and sorrows but is ended by death. Yet this view of the world, Julian claims, has come under challenge. A new religion denying that life is cruel appears to have triumphed; Julian means Christianity, which under his ancestor Constantine had become the state religion of the Roman Empire. Julian looks with dismay at the strife caused by religious conflict, and he calls for an end to it: “I say to you all, be at peace” (line 21).

As for...

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Forms and Devices

The reader of “Hymn to Proserpine” will immediately be struck by Swinburne’s unusually strong rhythms. This is characteristic of his poetry: “Hymn to Proserpine,” like most of his verse, was written to be declaimed dramatically, not read silently.

In the line “Thou has conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown gray, from thy breath” (line 35), the stresses on the first syllable of “conquered,” the third syllable of “Galilean,” “gray,” and “breath” have the effect of a continued drumbeat. Again, in “For these give labour and slumber; but thou, Proserpina, death” (line 104), the accents on “thou” and “death” jump at the reader. By his use of this device, Swinburne turns the poem into rhetoric: Although no audience is indicated, one can imagine Julian delivering it as a speech. Twentieth century poets such as T. S. Eliot turned away from this declamatory style, instead seeking to reproduce the sound of natural conversation. In spite of its artificial character, Swinburne’s tone achieves great force.

The poem uses another technique characteristic of Swinburne—alliteration. When one encounters the line, “O ghastly glories of saints, dead limbs of gibbeted gods!” (line 44), the repeated g sounds capture one’s attention. Swinburne grabs the reader by the lapels to put forward his view of Christianity. This line also uses contrast effectively: “glories” are usually the opposite of...

(The entire section is 475 words.)