n looking at the poetry of Charles Algernon Swinburne and Gerald Manley Hopkins, one soon realizes that spiritual themes pervade both poets' works, though these themes flow in decidedly different directions. Thus I found it fascinating to discover that in two of their works we can find both poets using the same device to depict their very different views on spirituality. In looking closely at these poems in particular, Hopkins' "Virgin Compared to the Air we Breathe" and Swinburne's "Evening on the Broads," we find that the two poems both use maternal attributes, but for very different ends. Of course the religious nature of Hopkins' "The Virgin Compared to the Air" we Breathe is explicit, even in the title, but in the case of Swinburne's "Evening on the Broads," a landscape poem, the spiritual meaning is left veiled as in his similar work, "By the North Sea." But in examining the very similar use of the maternal figurations of the air (in Hopkins) and the darkness of night (in Swinburne) we can explore the religious significance that gender contributes to each of these works. But underlying the strength of these devices are two very different conceptions of what it means to be female for these poets: the limited passivity of the Madonna in Hopkins' Christianity in opposition to the very powerful and fundamental depths of Swinburne's womanly darkness in "Evening on the Broads" (text).l
For Hopkins' work, the Virgin Mary sets the bench mark for womanly passivity, allowing him to present her allegorically as the "world-mothering air" (line 1). Throughout the poem, Hopkins draws out this image, ending with an entreaty that Mary become "my atmosphere, / my happier world" (lines 115-16). In effect the speaker does not endow the Virgin Mary with any identity whatsoever, desiring her to become quite literally his womb. It is interesting how effectively Hopkins uses the natural element of air, to convey this flaccid representation of Mary; she is less a complete woman than the spiritual personification of amniotic fluid.
From the very title itself we are presented the figure of a woman who is not active, but rather acted upon. She is compared to "the air we breathe" (my italics) and this relationship between woman and air is maintained through out the poem. We find the speaker describing the air in the following lines, but it also of course doubles as description of the virgin:
This needful, never spent,
And nursing element;
My more than meat and drink,
My meal at every wink;
This, air, which, by life's law,
My lung must draw and draw. [lines 9-14]
Just what are we to make of this representation of air? In these lines we find air as an ever supplied and nurturing force for the speaker, the food which is "more than meat and drink." It is of course in these basic terms a mother's milk, "nursing" the speaker and that element which the speaker must "draw and draw." Granted this leaves air vital, but it does not remove from its passivity. As presented here, air is merely of value when we partake of it; there is no value inherent to it. Or is there?
What is it that we can make of the first few lines of the poem which presents another aspect of air, "world mothering?" (line 1) or, as it proceeds to describe, its all-surrounding nature as atmosphere. The speaker, as he will continue to do throughout the poem, establishes air as "nestling" and describing that it even "goes home" between the spokes of a snow flake, one of nature's most minute structures. We find later on in the poem that the speaker returns to this enveloping description. But now air becomes valued for its absence of substance; it enables light to reach us from the sun in a pure form. It is something which "will not/ stain light" (line 80) — indeed "it does no prejudice" (line 83). to it.
With air presented in this way, what construction does this poem make of the Virgin? For it is from on this construction that the speaker sets out to create an allegory of the role of the most significant female figure in the Christian church. One of the few indications we have of the speakers' view of the significance of women comes in a very small, yet telling, description of her as "merely a woman" (line 25). Yet we may stop, and point out that this description is not in comparison to men but to the power of a pagan goddess. It is in the following lines where we find the fundamental vision of the Virgin:
Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess's
Was deem¸d, dreamed; who
This one work has to do —
Let all God's glory through,
God's glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so. [lines 25-33]
She is more powerful than any goddess because of a single action, bearing Christ. But in so doing she becomes a mere vessel through which God becomes man. It can be granted that the Speaker grants that she gives God human form, for "of her flesh he took flesh" (line 55), but this does not necessarily give her a human and active role as Christ's mother.
In accordance with the speaker's allegory, she is as the air, of herself nothing, and only of value as bearing Christ, giving him life. She "gave God's infinity/ dwindled to infancy" (line 18), but being like "the blue heaven" (line 84) she could "could transmit/ perfect, not alter" (lines 88-89) the divinity of Christ. The poem even goes so far as to remove from her the grace so steadfastly attributed to the Virgin, for she "mothers each new grace/ that does now reach our race" (lines 23-24). Meaning just as she as was a pure vessel for God's seed, so to be her grace an extension of him: "since God has let dispense/ her prayers his providence" (line 93-94). As we have seen by way of this allegory, the virgin as a so-called mother in this poem is a simple matter of light passing through air. Quite simply the virgin becomes God's handmaid, an objectified womb, and thus it is his grace which takes form by means of her humanity, just as Christ did.
And so removing any inherent qualities or activity from the virgin as a maternal figure, she becomes quite literally objectified purely as a womb for the speaker. In expanding his comparison of the virgin as womb, in the following passage, the speaker actually envisions her as the atmosphere surrounding the earth:
I say we are wound
With mercy round and round
As if with air; the same
Is Mary. . . .
She, wild web, wondrous robe,
Mantles the guilty globe,
Since God has let dispense
Her prayers his providence. [line 34-41]
In this allegory, Mary as an image of impregnated space (the womb), expands spatially from not merely the container of Christ but the container for the whole world. She becomes a global womb through whom God's "providence" is delivered. But in accordance with the allegory of the air, and here the atmosphere, she is merely a medium through which God's divinity passes. Acting as the atmosphere she "leaves his light/ sifted to suit our sight" (lines 112-113), and so giving Christ his human existence, refracting his divine nature into a form by which, as human beings, we would not be blinded.
It must be admitted that towards the end of the poem the speaker does give the virgin a more active persona, but never really leaves his air/virgin allegory. He decsbribes her as a maternal figure who "came to mould (Christ's) limbs like ours" (lines 104-5) as well as stating that "her hand leaves his light/ sifted to suit our sight" (lines 112-13). I would have to argue that following the consistent comparison of the virgin to the air, it is very difficult to really to attribute these actions to Hopkins' Madonna. For if we look closely, both of these actions are really poetic metaphors for the conception of God's divinity in human form: Mary's conception of Christ. And the so called molding involved is conception of course, especially Christ's conception, is something completely removed from a woman's influence; she cannot mold a baby but simply contain the forming child.
We have returned once again to the image of Mary as a pure, maternal vessel. And in looking at the final lines of the poem, this is the intention of the speaker, for it is his final request to become enwombed himself within the virgin, whom he calls "my atmosphere" (line 115):
Worldmothering air, air wild
Wound with thee, in thee isled,
Fold home, fast fold thy child." [lines 124-26]
In thus envisioning the Virgin as an atmosphere-like womb which surrounds him, the speaker communicating a view of Mary as merely the portal for Christ, a means to the end of God becoming flesh. In requesting that she become his atmosphere, there is a clear reduction of her from the New Testament's depiction of her a very real woman to merely a Divine object. As such she can serve the speaker the same way she served God, as a passive comfort, without human characteristics and lacking any power of her own.
Stylistically this poem approaches the religious subject matter in a very different and perhaps more simple way that we have seen in many of Hopkins' other works. Unlike the complicated rhyme and meter in Hopkins' works using sprung rhythm, this work uses simple three-foot couplets or feminine rhymes. This brings about a sing song feeling to the poem which reflects the lightness of the subject matter of the poem: a light celebration of the virgin, but of course not as a real maternal figure, a guide, or even having ownership over her decision to bear the Son of God. There is a lightness in the constant couplets, which carries to the poem a lack of complexity which characterizes most of Hopkins other works. The structure is far simpler than say his terrible sonnets, or even some his more joyful meditations on Christ, such as "The Windhover".
In light of Hopkins' simple rendering of the Virgin Mary it is very interesting to look at how Swinburne uses very similar gender-based imagery in his agnostic poetry for effects that conflict with Hopkins' aims. For example his interior monologue "Hymn to Proserpine" serves as an explicit exposition of the construction of Christianity. Here we see interestingly enough that the speaker views a goddess as "more than the Gods who number the days of our temporal breath" (line 103), and of course these Gods include Christ the, "pale Galilean" (line 35), who is the primary target of criticism in the poem. It can be said that Proserpine becomes the most powerful divinity for the Roman speaker because she represents the cycles of natural life (Eron, "Myth, Pattern, and Paradox in Swinburne's 'Hymn to Proserpine'"). This a very important theme throughout Swinburne's works becomes evident in his oft-used depiction of cyclical time.
Swinburne's substitution of a cyclical temporality for traditional ideas of linear time becomes evident in his choice of Proserpine as the hegemonic divinity, for she is the mythical initiator of the cycle of seasons. The Goddess of Spring becomes here the ruler of death, a rather strange correlation that will appear later in "Evening on the Broads," and it plays an important part in Swinburne's portrayal of Death. In contrast to Proserpine's power, we find Swinburne's speaker undermining the Virgin's stature in this poem, rendering her "pale" and "a sister to sorrow" in comparison to the glories of Venus for whose name alone "the earth grew sweet." Swinburne's speaker's portrayal of the Virgin as "a maiden" who "came weeping, a slave among slaves, and rejected" gives Mary more independence and action than did Hopkins' speaker, who intended to celebrate her. In seeing Swinburne compare her to a goddess "who came flushed from the full-flushed wave and imperial," I can't help but be reminded of how Hopkins' speaker renders Mary as a mere vessel for man, just as she was for Christ. Yet she holds the potential to be a very powerful figure within the Christian hierarchy as the mother of Christ. But in opposition to the goddesses of Swinburne's speaker's pagan society, Hopkins' virgin is devoid of any ownership of her divinity, nor does she possess any deserving virtues; rather all of her grace is radiance from God.
This poem's explicit exploration of the inevitable collapse of religion illuminates some of Swinburne's similar but more subtle religious criticism in his landscape poetry, such as "By the North Sea" and "Evening on the Broads." In these poems Swinburne has abandoned the overt use of traditional divinities found in "Hymn to Proserpine," and yet he continues to use gender to strengthen the themes of his work. In particular it is in "Evening of the Broads" where we find that he relies on a maternal projection similar to the device in Hopkins' "Virgin Compared" to illuminate his vision of death and eternity. In light of Hopkins' simplified and objectified version of his maternal Virgin, it is interesting to see how the speaker undermines Hopkins' own Christianity with the very same device: projecting maternal attributes onto an element of nature.
In this deliciously ambiguous poem, we find the speaker describing a scene at sunset, with the poem encapsulating the time it takes for the sun to completely to disappear into the sea. The speaker is standing, facing the sunset, on a stretch of land in between two bodies of water. With twilight growing stronger the focus of the speaker's thoughts comes to fall upon the ensuing night. This darkness, "the-broad-winged-night," becomes a maternal, embracing figure, much like Hopkins' virgin. But this work is far from as simple as Hopkins', and its very ambiguity serves to supplement its complicated theme. It is filled with contrasts, open-ended metaphors and in terms of spatiality and temporality, much like in Swinburne's "By the North Sea" and "The Triumph of Time," the reader is quite literally led out to sea. Swinburne's speaker guides us from a specific setting in the opening lines as the sun begins to set to an almost cosmically exploded vision of the death of the sunset in to the "breathless" darkness.
Though the poem often gets wrapped up in Swinburne's typical ebb and flow of extended metaphors, as Sara Eron pointed out in "The Circular Landscape: Confronting Paradox and Imagery in Swinburne's 'Evening on the Broads,'" the speaker consistently returns to — and strengthens — his vision of oncoming darkness. In a sense we have returned to the primordial and agnostic sentiments of Swinburne's speaker in "Hymn to Proserpine," who attributes similar unfathomable depths to the sea, which is yet another representation of the mysterious, yet overwhelming time:
Will ye bridle the deep sea with reins, will ye chasten the high sea with robs?
Will ye take her to chain with chains, who is older than all ye Gods?
All ye as a wind shall go by, as a fire shall ye pass and by past;
Ye are Gods, and behold, ye shall die, and the waves be upon you at last.
In the darkness of time, in the deeps of the years, in the changes of things,
Ye shall sleep as a slain man sleeps and the world shall forget you for kings. [lines 65-70]
Here in these lines we see the explicit use of darkness to represent the mysteries of eternity, as well as the cyclical "changes of things" in nature. For just as the speakers' pagan, and perhaps more sophisticated, beliefs are dying so too will now-victorious Christianity. It is in this poem, "Evening on the Broads", where we find the demise of Christianity specifically within the grand conceit of the sun succumbing to darkness. This of course goes against the very aims of Hopkins as a religious poet, but what is interesting to see is how Swinburne's speaker uses gender as very powerful tool to undermine the Christianity of Hopkins and to depict darkness as the natural victor over the day.
Swinburne's depiction of darkness is introduced in the first lines of the poems as "the semblance of death" descending from the sky as the sun "hangs as in heavy suspense." Thus from the beginning the night is imbued with the weight of the appearance of death. This plays very much into Swinburne's attempts throughout his works to bring a new definition to death, specifically as the sleep which we saw in "Hymn to Proserpine." It appears that the speaker is predicting that with this tying of death to the darkness, a reader would expect a somber portrayal of the descent of the sun into the sea. But the speaker effectively removes any gloominess from the inevitability of the darkness overcoming the light by portraying the on coming night as a maternal figure, which is seen for the first time in the following passage:
As a bird unfledged is the broad-winged night, whose winglets are callow
Yet, but soon with their plumes will she cover her brood from afar,
Cover the brood of her worlds that cumber the skies with their blossom
Thick as the darkness of leaf-shadowed spring is encumbered with flowers.
World upon world is enwound in the bountiful girth of her bosom,
Warm and lustrous with life lovely to look on as ours.
In this description we find a very sharp contrast to the typical description of death and darkness. As opposed to the "sterile waves and wastes of the land," the dark descending is described as almost adornments of a warm and mothering night.
We see here that the darkness becomes "bountiful," and is tied to a flowering spring, which brings into play again the image of Proserpine, the goddess of spring time. Though perhaps paradoxical to evoke spring in describing "the semblance of death," it allows the speaker to envision darkness and death in an alternative fashion to the traditional connotations it carries. For here there is no coldness to night; rather she becomes a life-giving force, "warm and lustrous", despite being described only a few lines earlier as "bearing the semblance of death." The speaker seems to be intending to undermine any desolate conceptions of death by portraying this darkness as possessing itself a "lovely" life, comparable to our own.
Much like Hopkins' description of the Virgin as Air, this speaker depicts the darkness as a mothering figure that envelopes the landscape, becoming like a womb. But the maternal descriptions here are far more active than those found in "The Virgin Compared." The speaker here speaks of the darkness as a mother bird, nurturing and protecting fledglings, not simply acting as a passive womb through which divinity is passed. Rather here, the mothering darkness actively shelters her "glories beloved . . . deep in the depth of her breast sheltered as doves in a nest." Thus the night becomes an unfathomable depth by way of these maternal depictions.
It becomes evident that the speaker is relying on the Victorian perception of the woman figure as possessing a depth of spirituality and reflection which was something thought exclusive to her sex, much like we have seen in Tennyson's embowered Lady of Shallot and many of Dante Gabriel Rosetti's portrayals of women in House of Life (see Ruth Tilley's "When Rossetti's Fair Lady Speaks"). Here it is vital to the speakers' conception of oncoming night as a metaphor for timeless eternity and death that there is an incorporation of immeasurable depth to his personified night. Unlike the simplicity of Hopkins' description of the Virgin as air, we find Swinburne speaker describe "new made night" as "immeasurable, endless" and perhaps most importantly of all, as opening "the secret of love hid from of old in her heart,/ in the deep sweet hear full-charged with faultless love of the friendless." Night is thus an inconceivably mysterious occurrence but bears a warmth which one would not expect to find attributed to such an ambiguity. She hides a "faultless love of the friendless" which strangely enough is very similar to the perfect love of the God in "The Virgin Compared," which took the form of light shining from the sun. It is interesting to note the binary created here between the sources of this love. Whereas the traditional Hopkins depicts it as paternally derived, Swinburne uses the power of maternal characteristics to formulate his vision of darkness. His speaker speaks of darkness not as the source of destruction and despair, rather as impregnated with expectation.
There are repeated suggestions throughout this poem of new birth, but it is always associated with the darkness, as opposed to the light so commonly associated with the renewal of Christianity. The "things" of the earth "are thrilled in their sleep with the sense of a sure new birth" as the darkness approaches, writes Swinburne .Thus the ripeness and life-giving attribution of the maternal darkness is found in stark opposition to the setting sun in the following passage:
Loftier, aloft of the lights of the sunset stricken and dwindled,
Gather the signs of the love at the heart of the night new-made
As we can see, the wavering sun contrasts the sureness and the inevitability of this darkness. Here in this poem, it is not the sun that is associated with spring and rebirth but rather the darkness with its timelessness and death. In looking back at "A Hymn to Proserpine," we see that this relationship connects with that poem's correlation between cycles and time. In that poem the pagan beliefs of the speaker will die, and so too will Christianity, but time will continue as will death, and life will continue to renew itself.
In "Evening on the Broads" it is the night that is personified, as opposed to the sun, and it is the darkness, as a woman, who is victorious. In looking back to Hopkins' "The Virgin Compared to the Air we Breathe," we are reminded of how the sun represented God, and it is very possible to carry on this correlation in this poem. Here we find Swinburne's speaker describing the death of Christianity to the hands of time, much as he predicted in the "A Hymn to Proserpine." In this sense, the maternal life-giving portrayal of the darkness of time in "Evening on the Broads" is a necessary binary to counteract the traditional paternal power vested in the Christian God. As we see the in the following passage, Swinburne's speaker lays a Christian foundation to his portrayal to the sun:
Still is the sunset adrift as a spirit in doubt that dissembles
Still with itself, being sick of division and dimmed by dismay
Nay, not so; but with love and delight beyond passion it trembles,
Fearful and fain of the night, lovely with love of the day:
Fain and fearful of rest that is like unto death, and begotten
Out of the womb of the tomb, born of the seed of the grave:
Lovely with shadows of loves that are only not wholly forgotten,
Only not wholly suppressed by the dark as a wreck by the wave.
Perhaps the sun is "fearful and fain of the night" because of its love of the day and night's likeness to death. But the sun is compared "to a spirit in doubt that dissembles still with itself." This faltering image of the sun brings us back to "A Hymn for Proserpine," which cast the truth and lasting nature of Christianity into doubt. The sun's sinking here becomes very much like Swinburne's portrayal of the Roman Christians who abandoned their Gods for Christ. This sunset adrift brings to bear the idea of the evasive purpose religion serves man. Swinburne in his poetry points out the fact that faith in divine power allows the faithful to hide from fears of eternity and death, where they will be overwhelmed by all powerful time ("Time and Religion in Swinburne's 'Hymn to Proserpine'"). References to the Christian resurrection appear in the passage above, in which the Christian version of death is presented as "the rest that is like unto death" but is viewed as not really death, but as a waiting for the second coming. For just as Christ himself was risen "out of the womb of the tomb," God's covenant of redemption promises Christians that they will be "born of the seed of the grave." What we find here in the poem is a scene very much like as Swinburne predicted in "A Hymn to Proserpine." The Christian faith, based on an ultimate redemption from death, incorporated in its "love of the day," will ultimately meet its own death at the hands of the deathless time.
Swinburne manages, though, to prevent this depiction of the death of the sun from being overwhelmingly daunting particularly by his use of maternal projection. It is his skillful use of this device that gives the reader in this first section a sense that the darkness is not desolation but that the depths of the "world is enwound in the bountiful girth of her bosom."
It must be mentioned that the poem does employ the cyclical structure so typical of Swinburne. As Landow points out in Images of Crisis,
Swinburne's characteristic poetic form derives from the fact that his poetic ideas develop from a centre or germ, move out from his centre, but are inevitably drawn back to it; and then the process repeats itself over and over, each tracing of the mental path depositing additional layers of meaning and emotion upon the central idea.
Thus the when the speaker describes the heart of the darkness to be "bitter and shallow" in response to light and that "she feed on her dead," I feel this must be taken as part of the multi-faceted and complicated way in which Swinburne intends to describe timelessness in many of his poems.
Eternity, Swinburne seems to point out, is not an easy matter to understand, and it would not be truthful for him to describe it simply as a loving mother. Thus he must turn this image on its head, and describe a maternal figure which "seems dead and not living, or confused as a soul heavy-laden with trouble" or even carnivorous. This though, adds another dimension to Swinburne's binary opposition to the patriarchal depiction of Hopkins Sun/God. Swinburne's motherly timelessness cannot be described as the simple and purely good light of God which Hopkins implies in his poem. Here it is vital to see how the exact same method Hopkins used in "The Virgin Compared" to promote a passive Virgin, Swinburne uses to undermine Christianity itself. But this can be traced back to Hopkins' denying his Maternal Virgin an autonomous identity beyond a personified womb.
Hopkins' uses the female figure as simplified object, denying her autonomy or even free will. He even seems to deny her basic humanity which he points to as her primary source of value in transferring this to God's son. Swinburne, on the other hand, comes to rely on an opposing vision of the maternal figure for his portrayal of darkness to counter the paternal God of Christianity. Tied inherently into his description in the Victorian idea of female figures as very spiritual, not the shallow figure of Hopkins' virgin. In looking at how these two poems represent the virgin figure one can see how the gender roles within the Christianity of Hopkins' is in need of serious reassessment. In contrast, Swinburne seems to be interested less in realistic attributes of a gender and more in creating a binary opposition to counter the paternal light of religion with his own maternal and dark vision of all powerful eternity.
Landow, George P. Images of Crisis: Literary Iconology, 1750 to the Present. Boston and London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982, pp. 92-103 [electronic text].
Last modified 16 December 2003