In “Hymn to Proserpine,” Swinburne speaks with affection for the sea, which he associates with pagan gods, but uses Biblical imagery to describe it. Through his mouthpiece he portrays Christianity as a macabre religion of death. He makes the Eucharist into a corpse and the Lethe, the gloomy river of the dead and forgetfulness.
Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath;
We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fullness of death.
Swinburne turns repeatedly to the sea as an image of something that will outlast Christ as a god.
Fate is a sea without shore, and the soul is a rock that abides;
But her ears are vexed with the roar and her face with the foam of the tidesÉ
Far out with the foam of the present that sweeps to the surf of the past:
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 thingsÉ
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.
These sections are peppered with Biblical references. “Fulfilled of unspeakable things” brings to mind Psalm 104:25, “So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts.” In Jeremiah 5:22, God claims power over the sea. “Will ye not tremble at my presence, which have placed the sand for the bound of the sea by a perpetual decree, that it cannot pass it: and though the waves thereof toss themselves, yet can they not prevail; though they roar, yet can they not pass over it?” Swinburne, seeing the sea as a greater and enduring power, asks almost incredulously if Christianity will bridle and chain the sea, as it claims to have done. He makes the individual soul a rock, rather than the Church. He also refers to Christ as the Galilean, basing ChristŐs identity on the Sea of Galilee, subordinating him to it.
Swinburne ties Christ to Galilee but also builds up a connection between the sea and the goddess he calls the Cytherean, with death associated with one and birth with the other. Is the sea supposed to be a symbol of death, birth, or fluid depending on the predominant religion?
Revelation 20:13 has one of the most famous passages on the sea, “the sea gave up the dead which were in it.” Are there signs that Swinburne thought of this while writing this poem?
Why should Swinburne describe the sea, which he creates as almost an enemy of Christianity, with such Christian language and references?
What exactly does Swinburne use the sea to symbolize?