winburne's "Hymn to Proserpine" presents the transition from Roman paganism to Christianity. The poem takes the form of a dramatic monologue, with a conflicted speaker who writes of "Gods dethroned and deceased, cast forth, wiped out in a day" and the rise of new, "young compassionate Gods" who "are crowned in the city" (lines 13-16). The speaker fastens on several images and juxtaposes their Christian and pagan meanings. He says that "Sweet is the treading of wine, and the feet of the dove/But a goodlier gift is thine than foam of the grapes or love" (line 5). Here the image is that of wine as the blood of Christ and the dove perhaps refers to the Biblical story of Noah and the released dove which returned with an olive branch, signaling the proximity of land after the flood. Yet Swinburne's speaker uses the image of the dove a few lines down in a purely pagan manner when he says that nymphs have "breasts more soft than a dove's" (line 25). Similarly, he plays with language in the line "For the Gods we know not of, who give us our daily breath" (line 11). The pun references pagan Gods giving the "daily bread" of the Christian Lord's Prayer. The speaker's juxtaposition of paganism and Christianity reaches its peak towards the end of the poem, in his contrasting of Venus and the Virgin Mary.
Of the maiden thy mother men sing as a goddess with grace clad around;
Thou art throned where another was king; where another was queen she is crowned.
Yea, once we had sight of another: but now she is queen, say these.
Not as thine, not as thine was our mother, a blossom of flowering seas,
Clothed round with the world's desire as with raiment, and fair as the foam,
And fleeter than kindled fire, and a goddess, and mother of Rome.
For thine came pale and a maiden, and sister to sorrow; but ours,
Her deep hair heavily laden with odour and colour of flowers,
White rose of the rose-white water, a silver splendour, a flame,
Bent down unto us that besought her, and earth grew sweet with her name.
For thine came weeping, a slave among slaves, and rejected; but she
Came flushed from the full-flushed wave, and imperial, her foot on the sea.
And the wonderful waters knew her, the winds and the viewless ways,
And the roses grew rosier, and bluer the sea-blue stream of the bays.
The speaker compares "ours" to "thine," Venus to the Virgin Mary, beauty and splendor to sorrow and rejection. Yet most importantly the speaker fills the descriptions of Venus with imagery of nature, specifically flowers and water while the Virgin Mary belongs very much exclusively to the world of men, "a slave among slaves."
What is the effect of the speaker's juxtaposition of Venus and the Virgin Mary?
What does the sea represent in the poem? What is the significance of the lines referring to Venus "and imperial, her foot on the sea./And the wonderful waters knew her"?
What is the significance of Swinburne's use of the plural when referring to the "New Gods"?
Are there other juxtapositions of Christian and pagan imagery in the poem?
What is the significance of these juxtapositions in relation to Swinburne's notion of time?
Last modified 7 November 2006