The poem presents an unusual view of life. Proserpine, the goddess of death, is celebrated. She has destroyed previous gods and will, Julian alleges, destroy Christ as well. Destruction and cruelty receive praise and are welcomed. The repeated “but thou, Proserpina, [give] death” praises the goddess rather than laments her effects. The poet turns to her—“Goddess and maiden and queen, be near me now and befriend” (line 92)—because she brings death.
One might think that if Swinburne welcomed death, then he hated life, but this mistakes the precise nature of his pessimism. He does not say that because life is bad, one should welcome death as a release. Rather, it is the destructive power of death that is welcomed. Swinburne admires the “poisonous-finned, shark-toothed” sea creatures (line 53). Although “grief is a grievous thing” (line 33), and death brings this to an end, life in itself is not exclusively evil. It includes many sensual pleasures; these, even—or perhaps especially—when destructive, are the chief glories of life. Not even these pleasures can withstand death.
Given his praise for destruction, it is hardly surprising that Swinburne scorned Christianity. It teaches that the world is governed by love and that death is a prelude to resurrection. Nothing could be more alien to Swinburne than these tenets. He notes, “They are merciful, clothed with pity, the young compassionate gods./ But for me their new device is barren” (lines 16-17). To replace wrath with pity and compassion is no step forward.
To Swinburne, those sentiments express weakness. Christianity’s “ghastly glories” consist of the fact that its saints are martyrs. Jesus was executed as a criminal. The spread of the new religion thus represents the triumph of weakness. In speaking of “compassionate gods” and “gibbeted gods,” Swinburne uses the plural to denigrate Christianity further. Although it taught belief in one God, the poet holds this of no account and simply refers to the new gods.
The view of death presented in the poem provides an even more essential reason to reject the new religion. Life may not be entirely, or even preponderantly, bad, but eventually people tire of it. Death is a permanent sleep and releases men from care. Christianity defies this key to the world’s nature by teaching that death is not final. Fortunately, in Swinburne’s view, this doctrine will fall before life’s “mutable wings” (line 30).
To understand the poem, one must take account of the period when Swinburne wrote. Many of the Victorians questioned Christianity. Historical criticism of the Bible and the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), which challenged the account of creation in Genesis, led to furious battles about religion.
Another issue arose from this one: Without belief in Christianity, what was the basis of morality? Swinburne’s poem gives a decisive response to this question. The rules of morality inhibit pleasure; Christianity, by teaching compassion and self-sacrifice, has made the world grow gray. Had the times been less given to religious doubt, Swinburne’s praise of destruction might have been easily dismissed as an aberration. Given the actual situation, high-minded humanists such as John Morley anxiously distanced themselves from the poem’s message and condemned Swinburne.