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The following is a bonus question to "Who is the 'pale Titan-woman' in Swinburne's 'Ave atque Vale'?", which I was advised to separate into its own question.

The twelfth verse of 'Ave atque Vale' by Algernon Charles Swinburne reads:

But by no hand nor any treason stricken,
Not like the low-lying head of Him, the King,
The flame that made of Troy a ruinous thing,
Thou liest, and on this dust no tears could quicken
There fall no tears like theirs that all men hear
Fall tear by sweet imperishable tear
Down the opening leaves of holy poets' pages.
Thee not Orestes, not Electra mourns;
But bending us-ward with memorial urns
The most high Muses that fulfil all ages
Weep, and our God's heart yearns.

To whom does 'our God' refer? To the one God of monotheism and/or Christianity? The capitalisation seems to point in that direction; elsewhere, a lower case G is used; elsewhere, Swinburne refers to various gods, but here to God. But then again I know that Swinburne was not a Christian in any meaningful sense, but was in fact explicitly atheistic. But perhaps the poet was speaking as a representative of an era in which the polytheism of the classical world had been displaced by monotheism? I really do not know at this point!

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    Wouldn't that God be the same as the "God of all suns and songs," a few stanzas later? It seems to me that there are only two possible choices for this God: Apollo (God of the Sun, poetry, and presumably poets) or the Christian God (God of everything).
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Nov 2, 2023 at 20:42
  • Well, as you said yourself, the 'God of all suns and songs' could be Apollo, but then Apollo doesn't fit at all as 'our God'. Perhaps 'our' could be made to fit in the sense that both Swinburne and Baudelaire were poets, and thus fell under Apollo's patronage. But why is Apollo God-with-a-capital-G, and not all the other deities referenced in this poem?
    – Tom Hosker
    Commented Nov 2, 2023 at 21:04
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    The references to Troy and Muses make me think it is not the Christian God.
    – Skooba
    Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 13:15
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    In my opinion, the fact that the last line of staanza XII, along with stanzas XIII and XIV reference "our God", while stanza XV shifts to Aphrodite, introducing her with "And one weeps with him ..." is strong evidence that "our God" is Apollo. This makes sense if you take "our" as referring to Swinburne, Baudelaire, and other poets.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Nov 4, 2023 at 17:45
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    It's not completely clear that God's should be capitalized. In the book The British Poets, Vol. III — Keats to Morris (1876), edited by Rossiter Johnson, "god's" is lowercase. Was this change intentional on Swinburne's part? I can't tell.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Nov 5, 2023 at 0:16

1 Answer 1

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Jerome McGann offers the following interpretation of this line:

Swinburne describes his active and passive relation to the noble dead when he speaks of the “opening leaves of holy poets’ pages.” They offer him a vision:

But bending us-ward with memorial urns
The most high Muses that fulfill all ages
Weep, and our God’s heart yearns.

The idea of reciprocity is the key one here: the living become conscious of their own “God’s heart” and yearn completely to spiritualize themselves through it by remaining aware of the poetic gods of the past, by acknowledging those human divinities who are the mediums of the eternal “most high Muses”.

Jerome J. McGann (1971). ‘“Ave atque Vale”: An Introduction to Swinburne’. Victorian Poetry 9:1/2, p. 152.

McGann suggests that we should parse the line, not as “(our God)’s heart” but as “our (God’s heart)”. That is, our heart becomes god-like through the appreciation of poetry and the reverence of the great poets of the past. McGann quotes the following passage from Swinburne’s study of William Blake in support of this interpretation:

it must be remarked and remembered that the very root or kernel of this creed† is not the assumed humanity of God, but the achieved divinity of Man; not incarnation from without, but development from within; not a miraculous passage into flesh, but a natural growth into godhead.

Algernon Charles Swinburne (1868). William Blake: A Critical Essay, p. 217. London: J. C. Hotten.

† The one set out by Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

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