The Poem

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“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 himself, the new religion has no appeal. It cannot destroy the pleasures of life or offer anything as good as they are. Although life has pleasures, however, everything is changeable, and death brings a welcome relief. Death ends all, and Julian rejects reincarnation and resurrection: “For no man under the sky lives twice, outliving his day” (line 31).

The poem shifts around line 40 to a sharp assault on Christianity. Julian mocks the worship of Jesus, who was beaten and crucified. To the Romans, the gods were beings of superhuman strength. Worshiping a being whom humans could injure and kill made no sense to the devotees of ancient paganism.

Julian declares that Christianity will eventually be overthrown; nothing can withstand the power of fate, which changes everything. A long comparison between fate, “impelled of invisible tides (line 54), and the sea concludes with the prophecy that the new religion will perish: “Ye shall sleep as a slain man sleeps, and the world shall forget you for kings” (line 70). Julian turns to a comparison between Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Proserpine, very much to the advantage of the latter. He concludes with the declaration that Proserpine is greater than all other gods, because she brings death.

Forms and Devices

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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...

(This entire section contains 475 words.)

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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 “ghastly,” and “gibbeted” is hardly the first adjective that comes to mind for “gods.” The unexpected adjectives add to the alliteration in highlighting the line.

Swinburne uses alliteration several times. In speaking of the sea, he says: “Waste water washes, and tall ships founder, and deep death waits” (line 50). Several lines later, one finds “And bitter as blood is the spray” (line 60). These phrases accent the importance of the sea, a key theme. In some of his poems, Swinburne overuses alliteration (the device is basic to the frequent parodies of his verse). In “Hymn to Proserpine,” he keeps it under control.

Reference to the sea brings out another basic technique of the poem—symbolism. Much of the work presents the sea as a symbol of change; Swinburne makes it clear that he does not mean the literal sea. He speaks of it as “impelled of invisible tides” (line 52). He draws out the symbol in detail: The spray is “bitter as blood” (line 60); its crests are “fangs that devour” (line 60); it is “shark-toothed and serpentine curled” (line 53).

Swinburne’s depiction of the sea displays another characteristic touch. The symbol has metaphors and similes included within it. It is not the crests of the real sea that he calls “fangs”; it is the “crests” of his symbol that are characterized by a further literary figure. The “foam of the present that sweeps to the surf of the past” (line 48) and the “whitening wind of the future” (line 54) are other metaphors lodged within the symbol.