In much of Swinburne's work, the poet turns his back on conventional religious themes. He often attacks religion, especially Catholicism, directly. He sometimes blasphemes by mixing Christian images with pagan ones. In "The Triumph of Time," religious concepts are inexorably tied to the relationship between the speaker and his mistress.
When his lover abandons him, the narrator denies himself access to conventional heaven, declaring:
You have chosen and clung to the chance they sent you,
Life sweet as perfume and pure as prayer.
But will it not one day in heaven repent you?
Will they solace you wholly, the days that were?
Will you lift up your eyes between sadness and bliss,
Meet mine, and see where the great love is,
And tremble and turn and be changed? Content you;
The gate is strait; I shall not be there.
But you, had you chosen, had you stretched hand,
Had you seen good such a thing were done,
I too might have stood with the souls that stand
In the sun's sight, clothed with the light of the sun;
But who now on earth need care how I live?
Have the high gods anything left to give,
Save dust and laurels and gold and sand?
Which gifts are goodly; but I will none.
Having deemed admission to heaven impossible or undesirable without his love by his side, the speaker speaks definitively, echoing scripture, "The gate is strait; I shall not be there." He yearns instead for an afterlife with "the great sweet mother, mother and lover of men, the sea" (ln257-8). The concept of sea-mother relates to pagan worship and not to Christian convention. The speaker thus rejects Christian ideas as his lover has rejected him. He even doubts the possibility of the existence of heaven, referring to the "iron hollow of doubtful heaven" in line 254.
Interestingly, this doubting, irreverent speaker adopts decidedly Catholic or High Church Anglican conventions when he speaks of his personal love and pain. In the forth stanza he turns himself into a Christ figure, offering "wine and bread without lees or leaven" made of his "fruit." Lines 91-93 repeat this Eucharist image:
I had wrung life dry for your lips to drink,
Broken it up for your daily bread:
Body for body and blood for blood,
The speaker portrays the offering of his love as something as significant as the sacrifice of Christ. Later, he puts himself in the place of the grieving Mary, claiming "the swords in my heart for one were seven." The image of the virgin with seven swords in her heart is common in Catholic iconography. The seven swords represent her seven sorrows, relating to Christ's crucifixion.
The speaker in "The Triumph of Time" uses sacred images to describe his very earthly concerns. He claims his own unhappiness is as significant as a universal story of suffering and his own love is as powerful as the gift of salvation. Does this reflect Swinburne's own irreverence or only the speaker's self-centered attitude?
How do the references to blood, bread, and wine in this poem relate to the images of consumption in Swinburne's other poems such as "Laus Veneris"?
In what ways does Swinburne's use of religious imagery relate to Christina Rossetti's? In what ways do the very divergent views of the two poets influence the way they use such images?
How do the concepts of heaven in "The Triumph of Time" relate to similar images in the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti?
The form of the poem, a dramatic monologue addressed to an absent lover, seems at times to resemble a prayer (especially in the last stanza). Can the speaker's despair at the loss of his lover be interpreted as a metaphor for an atheist's loss of faith? Could it be read as a poem of abandonment by God?