or Swinburne moments of vision or epiphany often take the form of moments of loss. "The Triumph of Time" dramatizes the mind of one who experiences the loss of his beloved, and "Hymn to Proserpine" presents the experience of a Roman of the fourth century A. D. who is losing his gods, the old pagan deities, now that Christianity has become the official religion of the state. This poem dramatizes the thoughts and emotions of a person experiencing the destruction of an entire culture and its beliefs. Like Browning and Tennyson, Swinburne employs dramatic monologues in which historically reconstructed characters serve as Emersonian representative men. The characters in Tennyson's "Tithonus" (1860) and "Ulysses" (1842), however, are, strictly speaking, not historical embodiments of different periods of culture but mythic dramatizations of possible answers to problems troubling the poet. Tithonus, the mythic figure who has gained immortality without retaining his youth and vitality, responds, like the Struldbrugs in Swift's Gulliver's Travels, to the question, what if human beings lived forever? Ulysses, on the other hand, responds to the question, how should human beings confront death?
Unlike Tennyson, Browning and Swinburne employ not new versions of well-known mythic figures but imagined characters who represent a certain historical situation. The speakers in Browning's "Cleon" (1855), "Karshish" (1855), and "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed's" capture what the poet considers the essential ideas and attitudes of a particular lost age, though of course each is also relevant to the poet's readers because he can tell them something of importance about themselves as well. For example, Cleon's intellectual pride, like the bishop's materialism, helps Browning's reader understand an earlier age's spiritual problems and his own, for each in its own way instantiates the Victorian crisis of faith.
In "Hymn to Proserpine" Swinburne also concerns himself to embody specific historical conditions by means of a fictional character who thus becomes a representative man. Furthermore, again like Browning, he chooses a figure living in an age of transition from one religion to another. However, when Browning looks at men of late antiquity to learn what they can tell his contemporaries about the needs and difficulties of the human spirit, he conducts his investigations from the vantage point of a Victorian Protestant. He wishes to demonstrate, for example, what the experience of life in these earlier times can tell his audience of man's essential, defining need for religious faith. Moreover, Browning looks at the transition from the pagan to the Christian world as an essentially good thing, but Swinburne, who had little sympathy with Christianity, does not. As one might expect, "Hymn to Proserpine" and similar poems identify with the position of the imagined historical character far more than do Browning's analogous works. Whereas Browning's "Cleon" takes the form of high intellectual satire, as do many of his other poems such as "Caliban upon Setebos" (1864) and "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed's Church," Swinburne's poem both makes us understand the pagan's point of view and suggests that it is one suitable for the nineteenth century. In particular, "Hymn to Proserpine," which questioned contemporary beliefs in both Christianity and progress, makes us realize that change is not always improvement. To the refined pagans of the fourth century, Christianity came as a form of barbarism, and the passion with which Swinburne invests his speaker's objections against the new religion makes them seem credible. The poet enforces his historical pessimism by having this embodiment of a dying age turn prophet and warn that Christian gods, too, will in their turn find themselves submerged beneath the waves of time.
Last modified 29 November 2004