decorated initial 'I'

f we pay attention to the progression of Swinburne's "Hymn to Proserpine" (text) we note that the poem's structure undergoes some unexpected turns. Although the title of the poem causes us to anticipate a tribute to Persephone (perhaps much like hymns of Hesiod), Swinburne does not spend the majority of poem's physical space on invoking this goddess as a muse. Rather, the poem is largely taken over with the theme of Christianity's usurpation of the Greco-Roman gods of old and, of course, the speaker's insistence that Christianity and the Christian god will die out just like its predecessors. The poem does invoke the epithets of a number of gods and goddesses, but most of these are tributes to Venus and Apollo rather than to Persephone. Proserpina, or Persephone, shows up in two primary places: at the beginning and the end of the poem. Nevertheless, once we understand the function of Persephone as a metaphor within the poem, we can better understand the need for this thematic structure.

There are two main techniques we should note in the poem before we can take into account its thematic and structural dependence on the symbolic character of Persephone. First, we see that the individual lines in the poem depend heavily upon an obvious use of paradox. Within the first four lines of the poem, we see such conflicting descriptions as "the day or the morrow," "seasons that laugh or that weep," the deliverance of "joy and sorrow," and even a description of Persephone as both a "Goddess and maiden and queen." This last paradox is true to the mythology of Persephone, for indeed in the context of her primary myth, she plays the role of the maiden gathering flowers in the fields, the Goddess of the earth and the seasons (for she acts also as a doublet of her mother, Demeter), and the queen of the underworld. Thus Swinburne is quick to remind us of Persephone as a paradoxical figure in mythology; she is a liminal figure in the fact that she occupies both the world of the dead and the living, and, furthermore, she becomes the queen of the dead and also the goddess of rebirth.

These paradoxes also highlight another important characteristic of Persephone as the goddess of cycles. Although Swinburne uses a lot of language centered on the passage of time (for example when he describes the passing of the laurel tree and the death of a new generation of gods), he does not allow us to fall too easily into a typically Victorian insistence on transience. Lines 47-48 of the poem key us into Swinburne's view of time as something which passes swiftly but also which cycles and spirals through space: "All delicate days and pleasant, all spirits and sorrows are cast / Far out with the foam of the present that sweeps to the surf of the past." This somewhat complex and abstract image of time as the surf allows us to think of the past and present as forms which overlap or cycle into and out of one another like a wave crashing on the shore. Thus by placing the figure of Persephone at the beginning and the end of the poem, Swinburne is in some way structurally mimicking the patterns of the goddess herself who generates the cycles of the seasons by traversing both the worlds of the dead and the living. If we look at the very end of Swinburne's "Hymn to Proserpina," we, therefore, see how the Persephone becomes a symbol for the pattern of the poem, the natural cycles of life, and the historical transition from an ancient Rome to a Christian Rome:

Thou art more than the Gods who number the days of our temporal breath;
For these give labour and slumber; but thou, Proserpina, death.
Therefore now at thy feet I abide for a season in silence. I know
I shall die as my fathers died, and sleep as they sleep; even so.
For the glass of the years is brittle wherein we gaze for a span;
A little soul for a little bears up this corpse which is man.
So long I endure, no longer; and laugh not again, neither weep.
For there is no God found stronger than death; and death is a sleep. [lines 103-110]

The first difficulty which this passage presents is the interchange between "death" and "sleep." How can we account for the fact that in the poem death is, at times, equated with, and at times, contrasted with sleep? The final phrase of the poem "death is a sleep" can perhaps aid us in this question. How does Swinburne play on the phrase/word "a sleep," and how does this affect the significance of the poem?

There also seems to be a transition here in the function of the speaker who up until line 90 or so focuses more on the general topic of the gods but who centers the poem's ending more so in his own, personal life and death. How are we to take this transition, and what are we to make of the speaker's parallel to Demeter in line 105?

An interesting technical shift also happens between lines 105 and 106, for this is the first time in which we see an enjambment between two lines in the poem. Does this sudden technical switch in the line break pattern place an extra thematic emphasis upon these lines, and if so why are these lines so important within the context of the poem?

Finally, and most importantly, we have now noted Swinburne's stress on cyclical patterns within this poem. If the poem is a cycle in itself, and the metaphor of Persephone is meant to invoke this cycle, then is the speaker on some level suggesting that not only will the Christian gods die in their own time but that the ancient gods of Greece and Rome will likewise return?


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Last modified 3 November 2003