Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 534 words.)