Algernon Charles Swinburne
"Hymn to Proserpine (After the Proclamation of the Christian Faith)"
Genre: This is another dramatic monologue. The scene is his death, and
the audience is Proserpine, the pagan goddess of the underworld.
Vicisti, Galilæe "Thou hast conquered, Galilean," supposed
to be the final words of Julian the Apostate. Constantine had divided the
Empire among his three sons who, as you might expect, began fighting one
another over complete control of the Empire. His sons all adopted Christianity
as well, but the next emperor, Julian the Apostate (361-363), opposed Christianity
and tried to undo it by dismissing all the Christians from the government.
He wrote the "Letter
to Arsacius" saying that pagans should compete with Christianity be
being more honest and more generous to the poor. He was a little too late
and reigned a little too briefly, though, to have any real effect. By recommending
that pagans adopt Christian morality and hospitality as a way of stopping
its spread, Julian had already lost. Paganism had lost its distinctiveness
and was dead. Recognizing the futility of his efforts to stop Christianity,
the dying emperor is supposed to have said this.
Julian is dying in the poem, so he prays to Proserpina, Queen of the Dead.
He feels like the last pagan.
#1. Proserpine (Persephone) was the daughter of Jupiter (Zeus) and Ceres
(Demeter), goddess of harvests. Jupiter made a deal with his brother Pluto
(Hades) the King of Hades. Pluto kidnapped Proserpine and took her to the
underworld. Her mother was so upset that she made everything stop growing,
so Jupiter made a deal with Ceres that Proserpine would spend half the
year with her mother & half with her husband in the underworld. This
was the explanation for seasons - spring and summer occurred when Proserpine
was above with her mom, fall and winter when she was in Hades with Pluto.
As Pluto's wife, she presided over the death of mankind. Constantine the
Great made Christianity the official faith of the Roman Empire in 313 A.D.
The Latin quotation was supposed to be the dying exclamation in 363 of
Constantine's nephew Julian the Apostate.
#2. The Greeks called her Kore (the Maiden). This was partly because
she was a young maiden when kidnapped by Hades, partly as a way of avoiding
saying the name of the queen of the Underworld. (Just as some people
call Hell 'the bad place' instead of using the term.)
He’s tired of life, ready to die. He asks to give him what she has to offer
- rest. He's tired of the gifts of the other gods. Has given other gods
their time, so now he’s given his dues to her.
#7. Apollo, identified with the sun, was the god of medicine, and as such
could bring plagues. Homer calls him "the Lord of mice."
#15. The old gods are passing away. The new gods of compassion are moving
in & taking over.
Jesus has taken fun out of life.
#35. This is based on the quote at the beginning of the poem. Jesus has
turned the world gray - the old zest left when the old gods did.
End of paganism and end of his life occur at same time. New emperor is
He will not bow to Christ; will worship old gods.
#73. Cytherean - nickname for Venus/Aphrodite
Compares Mary and Venus – Lines 70-80. Mary’s not much fun. Venus was the
pagan goddess of love. She was supposed to be the mother of Aeneas, the
hero who founded Rome. That made her Rome's patron. The ancient Romans
noted that Roma (their spelling of Rome) was Amor (love) spelled backward.
#97. Poppies: sacred to Proserpine, flowers of sleep. She is associated
with flowers because she and her attendants were picking them when she
#105, Talks to Proserpina. Even the Christian God can’t overcome death.
#108. In his note, Swinburne acknowledges that he is here using the phrase
of the Greek philosopher Epictetus: "You are a little soul, carrying around