The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 437 words.)