Swinburne wrote of his poem 'Hertha': "Of all I have done I rate Hertha highest as a single piece, finding in it the most of lyric force and music combined with the most condensed and clarified thought." He described the poem in a letter of October 26, 1869, to William Michael Rossetti, as "another mystic atheistic democratic anthropologic poem" (Works, II, 245). Indeed 'Hertha' does live up to be all of these things.
The poem takes the form of a dramatic monologue narrated by the Teutonic goddess of fertility — Hertha — 'Mother Earth' and opens with the 'I am' made famous by the bible. This announces the poem as one which will subvert the paradigms of Christian biblical rhetoric and use it towards its own pagan, pantheistic ends. We can note the fidelity with which Swinburne's god-fearing contemporary Christina Rossetti uses 'I am' and how altogether different it is in this poem.
I am that which began;
Out of me the years roll;
Out of me God and man;
I am equal and whole;
God changes, and man, and the form of them bodily; I am the soul. [ll.1-5]
'Hertha' abounds with 'I am' constructions by which the narrator defiantly opposes herself to the bible. Indeed one of the main functions of the poem is as an argument in which the goddess claims her superiority over the Christian God worshiped by the Victorians of Swinburne's day, allowing the poet to forward his vision of an idealised 'mystic atheistic democratic' Republic.
Thought made him and breaks him,
Truth slays and forgives;
But to you, as time takes him,
This new thing it gives,
Even love, the beloved Republic, that feeds upon freedom and lives. [ll. 186-90]
Swinburne argues that Mother Nature is more essential than God — 'Out of me God and man' — God is mutable and provisional, ironically shown to be a falsehood through his own rhetorical logic which Swinburne has abducted and misappropriated in a typically rebellious fashion. We can see this again in his penchant for transcendental democracy, or parity with his deity, and his disgust at the seperateness which individuates the Christian God from his subjects.
But what thing dost thou now,
Looking Godward, to cry I am I, thou art thou,
I am low, thou art high"?
I am thou, whom thou seekest to find him; find thou but thyself, thou art I. [ll. 31-35]
Like Swinburne's fair ladies, the all abiding deity of his Platonic Republic, Hertha, is a passionate and matriarchal figure; 'Mother not maker' on whose breasts the world is shapen. The feminized sensuality in the 'mouth that is kissed' and the 'breath in the kiss', even 'that which caresses'. There is the wonderful languorous synaesthesia of the lines
And the sound of them springing
And smell of their shoots
Were as warmth and sweet singing
And strength to my roots;
And the lives of my children made perfect with freedom of soul were my fruits. [ll. 151-55]
where the lyric force can be heard in the alliterative 's' sounds and these give us an altogether heady vision of Mother Earth's bounteousness.
The poem ends with emphasis on truth and unity
For truth only is living,
Truth only is whole,
And the love of his giving,
Man's polestar and pole;
Man, pulse of my centre, and fruit of my body, and seed of my soul.
One birth of my bosom;
One beam of mine eye;
One topmost blossom
That scales the sky;
Man, equal and one with me, man that is made of me, man that is I. [ll.191-200]
These last two stanzas transmute the poem into the image of a womb and with the sound of the final word 'I', acting almost like the hindu chant 'om', the poem comes full circle, returning to where it began. The last construction 'man that is I' cleverly reverses the biblical 'I am man' so that it serves the pagan logic of man's harmony with Nature. Swinburne, in 1870, told D.G Rossetti that he would most want to be remembered by this poem and as we have seen it is his paradigmatic piece.
1. If 'Hertha' is the sum of Swinburne's work, as he liked to see it, which of his works is it like and why?
I am in thee to save thee,
As my soul in thee saith;
Give thou as I gave thee,
Thy life-blood and breath,
Green leaves of thy labour, white flowers of thy thought, and red fruit of thy death.
Notice the Italian flag in line eighty. Perhaps Swinburne really was trying to embody all of his ideals in one poem. Are there any hints of political radicalism in the poem? Is the point developed in a sustained manner?
3. We have already seen that 'Hertha' embodies Swinburne's version of the Pre-Raphaelite fair lady in certain respects. Are there any other ways in which she does this?
4. Swinburne described the poem as 'another mystic atheistic democratic anthropologic poem'. Is there any sense in which the poem is markedly different from his other works?
5. What did he mean by the term 'anthropologic'? How does it play out in the poem?
6. According to Harrison 'woman is the physical embodiment of the generative/destructive matrix' in Swinburne's poetry'. Is that the case in this poem? If so how does he do this without making the woman (in this case the goddess) sinister as he does in his other poems?
7. Does any other Victorian poet use synaesthesia in the manner which Swinburne does?
Swinburne, Algernon Charles. The Complete Works. Ed. Sir Edmund Gosse and Thomas James Wise. London: William Heinemann, 1926.