April 20, 2004

Algernon Charles Swinburne & The Pagan Obsession

"Hymn to Proserpine (After the Proclamation in Rome of the Christian Faith)"

Vicisti, Galilaee

I have lived long enough, having seen one thing, that love hath an end;
Goddess and maiden and queen, be near me now and befriend.
Thou art more than the day or the morrow, the seasons that laugh or that weep;
For these give joy and sorrow; but thou, Proserpina, sleep.
Sweet is the treading of wine, and sweet the feet of the dove;
But a goodlier gift is thine than foam of the grapes or love.
Yea, is not even Apollo, with hair and harpstring of gold,
A bitter god to follow, a beautiful god to behold?
I am sick of singing: the bays burn deep and chafe: I am fain
To rest a little from praise and grievous pleasure and pain.
For the gods we know not of, who give us our daily breath,
We know they are cruel as love or life, and lovely as death.

O gods dethroned and deceased, cast forth, wiped out in a day
From your wrath is the world released, redeemed from your chains, men say.
New gods are crowned in the city; their flowers have broken your rods;
They are merciful, clothed with pity, the young compassionate gods.
But for me their new device is barren, the days are bare;
Things long past over suffice, and men forgotten that were.
Time and the gods are at strife; ye dwell in the midst thereof,
Draining a little life from the barren breasts of love.
I say to you, cease, take rest; yea, I say to you all, be at peace,
Till the bitter milk of her breast and the barren bosom shall cease.
Wilt thou yet take all, Galilean? but these thou shalt not take,
The laurel, the palms and the paean, the breasts of the nymphs in the brake;
Breasts more soft than a dove's, that tremble with tenderer breath;
And all the wings of the Loves, and all the joy before death;
All the feet of the hours that sound as a single lyre,
Dropped and deep in the flowers, with strings that flicker like fire.
More than these wilt thou give, things fairer than all these things?
Nay, for a little we live, and life hath mutable wings.
A little while and we die; shall life not thrive as it may?
For no man under the sky lives twice, outliving his day.
And grief is a grievous thing, and a man hath enough of his tears:
Why should he labour, and bring fresh grief to blacken his years?

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.
Laurel is green for a season, and love is sweet for a day;
But love grows bitter with treason, and laurel outlives not May.
Sleep, shall we sleep after all? for the world is not sweet in the end;
For the old faiths loosen and fall, the new years ruin and rend.
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 tides.
O lips that the live blood faints in, the leavings of racks and rods!
O ghastly glories of saints, dead limbs of gibbeted gods!
Though all men abase them before you in spirit, and all knees bend,
I kneel not neither adore you, but standing, look to the end.

All delicate days and pleasant, all spirits and sorrows are cast
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 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.
In the darkness of time, in the deeps of the years, in the changes of things,
Ye shall sleep as a slain man sleeps, and the world shall forget you for kings.
Though the feet of thine high priests tread where thy lords and our forefathers trod,
Though these that were gods are dead, and thou being dead art a god,
Though before thee the throned Cytherean be fallen, and hidden her head,
Yet thy kingdom shall pass, Galilean, thy dead shall go down to thee dead.

Of the maiden thy mother men sing as a goddess with grace clad around;
Thou art throned where another was king; where another was queen she is crowned.
Yea, once we had sight of another: but now she is queen, say these.
Not as thine, not as thine was our mother, a blossom of flowering seas,
Clothed round with the world's desire as with raiment, and fair as the foam,
And fleeter than kindled fire, and a goddess, and mother of Rome.
For thine came pale and a maiden, and sister to sorrow; but ours,
Her deep hair heavily laden with odour and colour of flowers,
White rose of the rose-white water, a silver splendour, a flame,
Bent down unto us that besought her, and earth grew sweet with her name.
For thine came weeping, a slave among slaves, and rejected; but she
Came flushed from the full-flushed wave, and imperial, her foot on the sea.
And the wonderful waters knew her, the winds and the viewless ways,
And the roses grew rosier, and bluer the sea-blue stream of the bays.

Ye are fallen, our lords, by what token? we wist that ye should not fall.
Ye were all so fair that are broken; and one more fair than ye all.
But I turn to her still, having seen she shall surely abide in the end;
Goddess and maiden and queen, be near me now and befriend.
O daughter of earth, of my mother, her crown and blossom of birth,
I am also, I also, thy brother; I go as I came unto earth.
In the night where thine eyes are as moons are in heaven, the night where thou art,
Where the silence is more than all tunes, where sleep overflows from the heart,
Where the poppies are sweet as the rose in our world, and the red rose is white,
And the wind falls faint as it blows with the fume of the flowers of the night,
And the murmur of spirits that sleep in the shadow of gods from afar
Grows dim in thine ears and deep as the deep dim soul of a star,
In the sweet low light of thy face, under heavens untrod by the sun,
Let my soul with their souls find place, and forget what is done and undone.
Thou art more than the gods who number the days of our temporal breath;
For these give labour and slumber; but thou, Proserpina, death.
Therefore now at thy feet I abide for a season in silence. I know
I shall die as my fathers died, and sleep as they sleep; even so.
For the glass of the years is brittle wherein we gaze for a span;
A little soul for a little bears up this corpse which is man.
So long I endure, no longer; and laugh not again, neither weep.
For there is no god found stronger than death; and death is a sleep.

Before I even get started, I must briefly digress. Anyone named Algernon Charles Swinburne is fated to write poetry. That name is too good to waste on anything else (except, perhaps, the Church . . . if you lacked the necessary talent . . . which you wouldn't, with a name like that). Anyway . . .

Are we sensing a little hostility here? Are we sensing a little well-justified hostility here? Before we go any further, I should explain something. I can't analyze this poem from a Christian perspective, at all (Meaning: I can't put the traditional "positive Christian spin" on it.) If I tried to analyze this by slanting a Christian lesson into it through the author . . . that would be wrong. It's not there, people. There's no hidden message. Swinburne isn't just taking on a persona here, this is what he thinks. Moving forward . . .

My lovely footnotes tell me that the Latin words you see just under the title ("Vicisti, Galilaee") were spoken by Julian the Apostate in 363, as he was dying. He had attempted to revive paganism, (Christianity having been officially made permissible in 313), and had not succeeded. Obviously, he's a little bitter about this. The words, as you can probably tell, mean "Thou hast conquered, O Galilean."

The speaker in this poem is a Roman patrician and poet who, like Julian, prefers the pagan gods. Proserpine, of course, is known in Greek mythology as Persephone. You can read her story here if you need to refresh your memory.

In brief, the poem proceeds thusly: The speaker alternates chiefly between praises for Proserpine and curses (or perhaps they are closer to threats . . . or merely observations?) for "the Galilean." He compares his gods with the new one in various ways and finds the new one wanting. He compares his goddess with the new one's mother, and finds her wanting. He talks about how short life is, and the sweet release of death. And then, after that wonderful section about the ocean of change, he assures himself that this new religion won't really last, in the end. "Yet thy kingdom shall pass, Galilean, thy dead shall go down to thee dead."

Right. When I start quoting in my summary . . . Well, he isn't telling a story here, he's making a point that is already well summarized and perfectly stated by him. You need to read the poem for yourself. Go do that, and then come back.

The brief biography I read about Swinburne links him with Shelley in terms of ideas and themes. Ummm . . . Yeah. Definitely. (See my entry on Shelley from the last round of English Journals.) He has taken the principles of Ecclesiastes, as communicated by Percy Shelley, and applied them not only to the things of this world, but to the gods themselves. And he's got a point . . . historical precedent is on his side. Dominant religions may have a longer average lifespan than dynasties, but which of them has ever remained dominant anywhere near forever (if there is such a concept)?

The speaker loved the gods that he served, and he liked their style. He finds this whole compassion, mercy, and pity game to be more than a little pathetic, compared to what he had before. "Wilt thou yet take all, Galilean?"

So, the speaker reminds us that we aren't here for very long. Life is short, enjoyment of life is key. "A little while and then we die; shall life not thrive as it may?" Christianity, from that perspective, cannot even pretend to compete with the old religion. It is all about being wholly focused on what comes next and so encouraging its followers to ignore, or even deprive themselves of, the finer and more beautiful things in this life . . . That's a real bummer when laid next to the earthly splendor and majesty and nobility and moral abandon and riotous fun of Rome's pagan beliefs. ". . . the world has grown gray from thy breath."

Next, he carries his thought processes out to their logical conclusion. He may not last for long, but neither will this new religious craze. As his gods cast down those who came before, and were in their turn cast down, so will the new god someday be usurped. Nothing lasts, save one thing. And that's where the last laugh will belong to Rome and her gods. For death is the all-powerful god that cannot be beaten . . . and death is the only god(dess) he has left to serve (in the form of Proserpine). "Though these that were gods are dead, and thou being dead art a god . . . there is no god found stronger than death."

The Galilean may have won for a season, but death will be back in the end. By then, of course, Proserpine (to whom he has remained faithful) will have brought the speaker unto herself, into blessed sleep. And he takes his satisfaction and comfort from the forthcoming oblivion. "Thou art more than the gods who number the days of our temporal breath; For these give labor and slumber; but thou, Proserpina, death . . . and death is a sleep."

I did that very badly, I know, because the poem speaks so beautifully for itself, but it would be redundant simply to quote key sections of it. If you didn't see this stuff already, hopefully I've pointed you in the proper direction. Now, on to the point.

The deep, dark secret of life is this: Not that it is meaningless, or perhaps even that our gods are not there . . . but that they are enslaved to death and change just as surely as we are. For the unbeliever who has just had his religion supplanted, there can be no greater truth than that. Nothing is, or ever could be more certain. This is Ecclesiastes with God cut out, and only god left behind.

"Time and the gods are at strife; ye dwell in the midst thereof, Draining a little life from the barren breasts of love. I say to you cease, take rest; yea, I say to you all, be at peace, Till the bitter milk of her breast and the barren bosom shall cease."

Those are your instructions. Much joy may they bring you. Meanwhile, it's time for me to be a Christian again.

You know when I read this poem, I can't help but think of poor old Salieri, patron saint of mediocrity. We're in a similar fix, he and I. However, it is late, so I'll leave you with this. First, if you haven't seen Amadeus, don't bother trying to figure out what I'm thinking. Second, the rough parallel is this: If I were Salieri, and Swinburne were Mozart, what would I be thinking right now, more or less, about serving God with the gifts you have and the distribution of artistic talent?

What disturbs me the most about this poem, (aside from the fact that I really like it), is that I think Swinburne sees matters far more clearly than a lot of Christians do . . . he's just got things backwards. Many Christians believe without seeing (often without looking, either, but that's another issue). Swinburne (and/or the speaker in the poem) sees without believing. He's spotted the angles, knows what it all means, and has the Galilean’s “game” figured out; he's just not buying any of it. Now that's depressing.

Posted by Jared at April 20, 2004 02:07 AM | TrackBack