In “Hymn to Prosperine” (text) A.C. Swinburne uses the structure of a dramatic monologue to lament the transition from Pagan polytheistic tradition to Christianity and then prophecy a future downfall of the Christian God. The poem uses the image of the sea to explore both the shift to Christianity and its fate. Furthermore Swinburne uses anaphora and repetition to drive the poem through, to heighten the gravity of monotheism’s potential failure. This poem suggests that religion is doomed to constantly be shaped and re-shaped; that it is easily washed away.

Where beyond the extreme sea-wall, and between the remote sea-gates,
Waste water washes, and tall ships founder, and deep death waits:
Where, mighty with deepening sides, clad about with the seas as with wings,
And impelled of invisible tides, and fulfilled of unspeakable things,
White-eyed and poisonous-finned, shark-toothed and serpentine-curled,
Rolls, under the whitening wind of the future, the wave of the world.
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.
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.

Swinburne’s sea-imagery is significant in establishing a most basic argument against — and lament over — the rise of Christianity. In the Biblical creation story of Exodus, it is written: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is” (Exodus 20:11) — God’s creation of the sea plays a crucial role in Christian tradition, and thus Swinburne’s manipulation of the sea in this poem directly diminishes God’s power of creation and control. Swinburne writes of “invisible tides,” “the crests” as “fangs that devour.” He ascribes to the sea, this power to destroy. Although in Christianity, the sea clearly has the power to destroy — God calls forth this power in Genesis, “I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven; and every thing that is in the earth shall die,” (Genesis 6:17) in Swinburne’s poem the sea seems to have this power alone, uncontrolled by any greater figure.

Swinburne’s language, which emphasizes repetition of “and,” and to a lesser extent “in,” “with,” and “will,” drives the poem. The “Hymn”rsquo;s quasi-biblical style makes it sound like a godly decree; yet quite anti-Christian by nature. Swinburne reaches a blasphemous peak in declaring, “Ye are Gods, and behold ye shall die, and the waves be upon you at last.” In this line, the “waves” and “sea” are ascribed the power to destroy not only men, but “Gods.” Swinburne argues that Christianity, like Greco-Roman religion, will meet its own fate, and his use of the sea image serves to make this decrying of Christianity all the more powerful. For in Swinburne’s poem, the sea has ultimate control over God and can destroy Him when it so chooses; God neither controls nor creates natural occurrence.

Questions

1. Swinburne writes that the “spray” of the ocean is “bitter as blood.” Is there intentional Biblical significance to this ascription?

2. Does Swinburne mean to suggest that Christianity will be able to have control for some period of time and then will experience downfall, or is he rather suggesting that Christianity will never really have a firm grasp of faith and will meet a quick doom?

3. The imagery of Gods destroyed by the waves of the sea seems to be a reference of the flood in Genesis; then does Swinburne think there is some mercy in nature/humanity or when a populous overthrows a faith, do they just cast those God(s) aside with no mercy?

4. Does Swinburne mean to suggest that humanity will go through several religious shifts, and experience a whole number of Gods? Is he thus suggesting that there is perhaps no purpose in religion if it is so unfixed.

Related Material


Victorian Web Main Overview A. C. Swinburne Aesthetes & Decadents Leading Questions

Last modified 11 April 2009