At the end of class last time, I found myself wondering about our distinction between Swinburne's two types of poetry. We placed his work into the categories of either Personal, or Political. We should think, briefly, about the implications of such a supposed binary. Stylistically, Swinburne's political poems are anything but more abstract through their heavy leaning towards word play and fractured image. His personal poems are characterized by these same things, in addition to a type of repetition that leads to the sense of lasting fleetingness of life, love, and beauty that is his "argument." This is even the thrust of some of his political poems. But what his personal poems don't have, is a nod towards anything grounded concretely in reality; Swinburne's political poems refer to concrete events of his day, using knowledge of current events as a sort of stage for his elaborate turns of phrase. His arguments, his pointing the finger at current politicians, unapologetically.
I think that all poems are political, in what they add, and sometimes more importantly, in what they leave out. Many of the other poets grappled with the current issues of the day, art in a climate of spiritual and experiential restraint, the middle class woman and her possible place as bards in society, class structures, etc. Many of the other poets included real people doing real things in their poems — and this has been the basis of much of our criticisms — this is the political.
I would venture that Swinburne's personal poems are, by this turn, just as political and unapologetic. What I mean by political is that despite their — or because of their — ephemerality, these poems include a sort of realism (for a man of a certain station within the context of his time and place) and therefore a certain politics. To show real people doing real things might detract from his argument of stasis. One would have to ignore one's own progression in life to make this claim. Now, someone like Tennyson is able to create a sense of "person," of "voice," of a real experience, all the while — through the reader's shared experiences — showing at the same time, that his progression through despair is a timeless one. If Swinburne talks about love, as concrete experience, it is often abstracted through dream or death. Especially at a time when science is progressing quickly and it becomes possible to imagine a world, an experiment, in which there are no people, a place devoid of their influence (which is to deny one's own experience in a way), when scientist begin to imagine how elements might react in a vacuum, or under Ideal conditions, etc, these poems are political.
One thing I first hated, and then loved about "Hymn to Proserpine," is that the form itself of the poem might provide, or creates, a sense of concrete experience outside of the current political references. The meter is different than the other poems we've read, but there is still end rhyme. There is much more emphasis (in of quantity of device) on alliteration, assonance, consonance within the line. I would say the poem has three main segments but it is presented in a single stanza. There is a big language shift in the middle of the poem. (When Swinburne talks about Proserpine, about love, the language is archaic.) But in the middle, the emphasis on the metaphorical image of the sea is heightened.
And its noise as the noise in a dream; and its depth as the roots of the sea:
And the height of its heads as the height of the utmost stars of the air:
And the ends of the earth at the might thereof tremble, and time is made bare.
Will ye bridle the deep sea with reins, will ye chasten the high sea with rods?
Will ye take her to chain her with chains, who is older than all ye Gods?
All ye as a wind shall go by, as a fire shall ye pass and be 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.
Though the feet of thine high priests tread where thy lords and our forefathers trod,
Though these that were Gods are dead, and thou being dead art a God,
Though before thee the throned Cytherean be fallen, and hidden her head,
Yet thy kingdom shall pass, Galilean, thy dead shall go down to thee dead.
What might be the effect of the change from iambic in other poems to and anapest in this poem?
What is the effect of such long lines upon the end-rhyme, if any?
What do these affects, heavy alliterations, assonance, line structure, have to do with Swinburne's comparison between Christianity and the Greeks?
Why do you think there is only one stanza? Are there clear demarcations within the poem? Does this relate to any aspect of the content of the poem?
Is there any relevance to the particular sounds that are repeated?
Last modified 5 November 2003