winburne's "Hymn to Proserpine" presents a views of religion interestingly different from the other Victorian poets whom we have already covered. The speaker gives voice to a man unconvinced of the saving power of this "pale Galilean," from whose breath "the world has grown grey." Here Swinburne treats Christianity, just like the speaker's Paganism, as a fleeting thing. The Gods who were once sacred are now "dethroned and deceased."
In the face of his essentially godless world, the speaker creates a very strong and overwhelming image that overpowers all of life's forces, including man's measly divine creations: that of time. Near the mid-point of the poem, Swinburne creates a very vivid rendering of temporal forces, by resorting to spatial elements (as we discussed in class today). Here again is the imagery of the sea where we find "the foam of the present that sweeps to the surf of the past", and "tall ships founder" in a storm created by the "whitening winds of the future, the wave of the world."
The image becomes especially strong in the lengthy sentence that follows, in which Swinburne layers and layers the desolatation and strength of vision of Time — Godless and all consuming:
The depths stand naked in sunder behind it, the storms flee away;
In the hollow before it the thunder is taken and snared as a prey;
In its sides is the north-wind bound; and its salt is of all men's tears;
With light of ruin, and sound of changes, and pulse of years:
With travail of day after day, and with trouble of hour upon hour;
And bitter as blood is the spray; and the crests are as fangs that devour:
And its vapour and storm of its steam as the sighing of spirits to be;
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.
After this attempt at describing the strength of the insurmountable and all consuming nature of time, the Speaker turns to rhetorically ask the constructed Gods of man "will ye bridle the deeps sea with reins, will ye chasten the high sea with rods?" His answer is firmly negative. "Ye are Gods, and behold, ye shall die and the waves be upon you at last."
It seems to me that in the face of this overwhelming and pessimistic vision of eternity, the speaker holds out not religion, but death as the only source of earthly peace. It is only Prosperina, who gives death, who "art more than the Gods who number the days of our temporal breath." Is death a way in which to escape life,"the glass of the years . . . wherein we gaze for a span"? I'm still not sure of the speaker's view on death. "there is no God stronger than death," he says and ends the poem confirming that "death is sleep." Is death than the cessation of time, and the storm of its power on our little lives? Is it the ending of the soul?
What are we to make of the form of the poem, with its constantly circular imagery, which becomes stronger and stronger, climaxing with the Speaker's rendering of death, and then returning to his feelings at the beginning where understand fully why he asks Prosperina "to be near me now and befriend."?
Does it fully illustrate his devotion to her? I ask this because I don't fully understand her position in the poem, whether she is removed from a divine figure to being one of more an all powerful earth mother, if that makes sense?
Last modified 3 November 2003