Dr Fred Sanders, Associate Professor of Theology at the Torrey Honors Institute (see end of post) writes for Scriptorium, and has kindly agreed to allow me to reblog what he has to say about Swinburne and his famous line ‘…O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath‘.
I hope to write an answer to Swinburne in the next few days. But perhaps there will be enough comments for this not to be necessary?
Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909), an English poet who was famous in his day, [is] hardly remembered in ours. One of his best-remembered lines is about this very changing of times, in which mighty figures of one age are forgotten by the next. But the mighty figure whose rise and inevitable fall Swinburne prophesied was Jesus Christ.
The lines occur in Swinburne’s 1866 “Hymn to Proserpine.” The sub-title of the poem is “after the proclamation in Rome of the Christian Faith,” and the epitaph is “Vicisti, Galilaee,” which were supposed to be the dying words spoken by Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor of Rome. Constantine had already set the empire on its path to Christ, and Julian had self-consciously set out to turn Rome back to the worship of the old gods. In legend and in Swinburne’s poetic crafting of the scene, Julian had challenged the faith of Jesus to a fight, and had to admit defeat with his dying breath: “Vicisti, Galilaee.” Or, in Swinburne’s longer version:
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.
Never mind that it was a case of the pot calling the kettle pale; little Algernon was a small (just over 5 feet), thin, pasty, fair-haired fellow. And “swarthy Galilean” probably didn’t scan as well. Nor did it make the point that Swinburne wanted to make: That paganism was great, lusty, life-affirming, and vigorous, but Christianity sucked the life out of it and left everything behind it dead. “Pale Galilean” seemed to describe all that Swinburne and his ilk hated about Victorian Christianity, and soon Nietzsche would be taking his turn at calling Christianity the ultimate form of life-denial. It was a critique the world-weary age was ready to hear, even if they didn’t quite think they had the alternative worked out yet.
Swinburne’s emperor Julian took his stand against the rising Christian faith of the Galilean, and said defiantly:
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.
And he predicted that, just as pagan Rome fell when its cycle came around, the empire of Jesus would inevitably fall as well:
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.
Swinburne set his hopes on the collapse of Christianity, a collapse that he thought was inevitable because all gods fail. The two brief words of the dying Julian are elaborated in this long hymn to Proserpine, and it is Proserpine not so much as the goddess of Spring, but as the symbol of the cycle that includes universal death. This is who Julian, or rather Swinburne, turns to, “having seen she shall surely abide in the end; Goddess and maiden and queen, be near me now and befriend.”
Under the heading of “Decadents” in literature and life, Swinburne has a major entry. Things run downhill and fall apart; everything breaks up eventually; and we are living at a time when the crashing and colliding of dying systems and gods is ringing in our ears every day. This was his worldview, and he extracted whatever fin de siècle vigor he could from it. It’s not exactly what you could call hope, but it was a kind of artsy resignation that gave him the energy for remarkable craftsmanship in his poetry.
Swinburne suffered a breakdown in his early forties, related to alcohol abuse, general “nervous excitability,” and dissolute living of various kinds. He survived into his seventies, perpetually convalescing and cared for by a friend. We do not know his last words, though he had given much thought to Julian’s last words, and had even written a funny poem on “The Last Words of a Seventh-Rate Poet.”
Swinburne was no seventh-rate poet. He had the full blessing of the poet’s power to charm, which his contemporaries acknowledged whether they found his views scandalous or exciting. One critic said, “His poetry is like fairy gold. We dream that we are wealthy, but our wealth perpetually eludes us.
‘Fred Sanders is an evangelical Protestant theologian with a passion for the great tradition of Christian thought. He holds a degree in art from Murray State University and an MDiv from Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, with a PhD from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. Since 1999 he has taught in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University.
‘The Torrey Honors Institute is a liberal arts and biblical studies program at Biola (the Bible Institute of Los Angeles) University. Its mission is to equip men and women to pursue truth, goodness and beauty in intellectual and spiritual community, enabling them to be strong Christian leaders. Classes, lectures, verbal exams, and student projects are all designed with the assumption that knowledge is an integrated whole, not fragments that can be easily separated. By exposing students to the great works of the Western and Christian traditions, Torrey provides the academic and spiritual foundation for work in any field and a life of Christian witness and leadership.’
You can also follow him on twitter at @FredFredSanders, where yesterday’s gems included:
Dante died this day in 1321. When he passed by, the women said he looked like he’d been to hell: http://goo.gl/hrGYH
I love Dr Sanders’ dry, if I may say so very English, wit. He has a delicious piece, for example, on Dr Johnson, which is effortless to read, so lightly does he wear his learning. And, as you can see from his photograph, he has a definite twinkle. A theologian with a sense of fun – what a find!
Dr. Sanders has published four volumes of theological comic books, Dr. Doctrine’s Christian Comix (InterVarsity Press, 1999). This probably makes him the world’s greatest systematic theologian cartoonist. His monograph The Image of the Immanent Trinity: Rahner’s Rule and the Theological Interpretation of Scripture(Peter Lang, 2005) sorted out that whole Trinity thing to the satisfaction of all 50 people who read it. He co-edited Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective: An Introductory Christology (Broadman & Holman, 2007). His articles have appeared in Dialog: A Journal of Theology, Cultural Encounters: A Journal for the Theology of Culture, Southwestern Journal of Theology, and the Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology. He has reviewed books in Theology Today, Scottish Journal of Theology, and First Things.
The illustration is Algernon Charles Swinburne by George Frederic Watts oil on canvas, 1867 25 1/2 in. x 20 1/2 in. (648 mm x 521 mm) Given by wish of George Frederic Watts, 1909 Primary Collection NPG 1542 made available under CCL.