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Poem of the Month: June
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“The Palace of Pan” / A. C. Swinburne

Inscribed to my Mother

September, all glorious with gold, as a king
In the radiance of triumph attired,
Outlightening the summer, outsweetening the spring,
Broods wide on the woodlands with limitless wing,
A presence of all men desired.

Far eastward and westward the sun-coloured lands
Smile warm as the light on them smiles;
And statelier than temples upbuilded with hands,
Tall column by column, the sanctuary stands
Of the pine-forest’s infinite aisles.

Mute worship, too fervent for praise or for prayer,
Possesses the spirit with peace,
Fulfilled with the breath of the luminous air,
The fragrance, the silence, the shadows as fair
As the rays that recede or increase.

Ridged pillars that redden aloft and aloof,
With never a branch for a nest,
Sustain the sublime indivisible roof,
To the storm and the sun in his majesty proof,
And awful as waters at rest.

Man’s hand hath not measured the height of them; thought
May measure not, awe may not know;
In its shadow the woofs of the woodland are wrought;
As a bird is the sun in the toils of them caught,
And the flakes of it scattered as snow.

As the shreds of a plumage of gold on the ground
The sun-flakes by multitudes lie,
Shed loose as the petals of roses discrowned
On the floors of the forest engilt and embrowned
And reddened afar and anigh.

Dim centuries with darkling inscrutable hands
Have reared and secluded the shrine
For gods that we know not, and kindled as brands
On the altar the years that are dust, and their sands
Time’s glass has forgotten for sign.

A temple whose transepts are measured by miles,
Whose chancel has morning for priest,
Whose floor-work the foot of no spoiler defiles,
Whose musical silence no music beguiles,
No festivals limit its feast.

The noon’s ministration, the night’s and the dawn’s,
Conceals not, reveals not for man,
On the slopes of the herbless and blossomless lawns,
Some track of a nymph’s or some trail of a faun’s
To the place of the slumber of Pan.

Thought, kindled and quickened by worship and wonder
To rapture too sacred for fear
On the ways that unite or divide them in sunder,
Alone may discern if about them or under
Be token or trace of him here.

With passionate awe that is deeper than panic
The spirit subdued and unshaken
Takes heed of the godhead terrene and Titanic
Whose footfall is felt on the breach of volcanic
Sharp steeps that their fire has forsaken.

By a spell more serene than the dim necromantic
Dead charms of the past and the night,
Or the terror that lurked in the noon to make frantic
Where Etna takes shape from the limbs of gigantic
Dead gods disanointed of might,

The spirit made one with the spirit whose breath
Makes noon in the woodland sublime
Abides as entranced in a presence that saith
Things loftier than life and serener than death,
Triumphant and silent as time.

Pine Ridge: September 1893

Composed in 1893 and published in Astrophel and Other Poems in 1894, “The Palace of Pan” has been generally perceived as one among the dozens of Swinburne’s later nature poems that combine second-rate deism and pseudo-Romantic aesthetics, and as such received almost no critical attention. But as a closer and more subtle reading of the poem reveals, “The Palace of Pan” represents in fact a key moment in the formation of Swinburne’s mature theological thought. The poem begins with a depiction of a marvelously bright September day, “glorious with gold” and attired with the “radiance of triumph.” Such sight, as we soon learn, inspires nature with religious awe, expressed in the erection of “temples unbuilded with hands” made of majestic pines that stand “column by column” like rows of “infinite aisles.” This is the palace of Pan, the god of dark forests and the incarnation of the sylvan spirit. His palace, therefore, is the forest and the forest is his palace:

Ridged pillars that redden aloft and aloof,
With never a branch for a nest,
Sustain the sublime indivisible roof,
To the storm and the sun in his majesty proof,
And awful as waters at rest.

Such palace differs from any human place of worship. And indeed, in one of the most beautiful stanzas in the poem, Swinburne describes the unfathomable scale of Pan’s shrine:

A temple whose transepts are measured by miles,
Whose chancel has morning for priest,
Whose floor-work the foot of no spoiler defiles,
Whose musical silence no music beguiles,
No festivals limit its feast.

Not only is the palace of Pan bigger than any human structure, but it also exists in an eternal present, perfect and unchanging. One may claim, then, that Swinburne’s view of nature does not differ much from that of other Romantic deists. Like Wordsworth and Shelley, Swinburne too perceives nature as a shrine for an invisible god:

The noon’s ministration, the night’s and the dawn’s,
Conceals not, reveals not for man,
On the slopes of the herbless and blossomless lawns,
Some track of a nymph’s or some trail of a faun’s
To the place of the slumber of Pan.

Even though the entire forest celebrates Pan’s divine presence, Pan never reveals himself. But Swinburne is not concerned with the question of divine revelation or lack thereof. For the later Swinburne, divine revelation is never an actual experience, but rather a metaphor that represents a shift in the poet’s state of consciousness:

Thought, kindled and quickened by worship and wonder
To rapture too sacred for fear
On the ways that unite or divide them in sunder,
Alone may discern if about them or under
Be token or trace of him here.

The god (“him”) is not found in a physical place, but in a mental space—between “thought” and “rapture,” where spirit and sense converge. Gods, according to Swinburne, are not revealed in nature, but are created in the poet’s mind as a response to the beauty of natural scenery. Swinburne does not seek for divinity in the natural world, but in the poet who observes it. The poem ends, then, with the fusion of human and divine spirit, thereby celebrating and acknowledging Swinburne’s theological view that considers humanity as the maker of its own deities: “The spirit made one with the spirit whose breath / Makes noon in the woodland sublime.”
Swinburne’s view of Pan seems to evoke Blake and his notion of divinity. As Blake writes in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “[t]he ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and adoring them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, [and] nations.” As such, Blake’s deities are not autonomous entities distinguished from humans, but are rather poetic constructs that “reside in the human breast,” and that exist solely in the minds of those who conceived them.
But “The Palace of Pan” also presents Swinburne’s concern with the psychological conditions that allow poets to create gods. That is, in his poem Swinburne wishes to draw attention to the mental state that results in divine visions:

With passionate awe that is deeper than panic
The spirit subdued and unshaken
Takes heed of the godhead terrene and Titanic
Whose footfall is felt on the breach of volcanic
Sharp steeps that their fire has forsaken.

The key word in this stanza is of course “panic,” which refers to both the sylvan god and the state of emotional ecstasy that leads to the creation of gods. The human spirit, which “takes heed of the godhead,” takes in fact heed of itself, for these are the inner workings of the human psyche that function as the real source of Pan’s divinity.

“The Palace of Pan” can be seen, therefore, as an attempt to redefine the relationship between humanity and its gods in a manner that consciously departs from Judeo-Christian spirituality. According to Swinburne’s poem, man was not created in the image of God, but rather gods were created in the image of man’s psyche. Swinburne’s formal choices in the poem help him to further emphasize this point. The shift between four- and three-beat lines in the poem’s stanzas makes a clear reference to common meter, the metrical scheme traditionally associated with Anglican Church hymns. But while common meter stanzas consist of two iambic tetrameter lines (A, C) and two iambic trimeter lines (B, D), “The Palace of Pan” uses mostly anapestic feet. Moreover, while common meter stanzas consist of four lines, Swinburne adds an extra four-beat line, thereby making each of the stanzas in “The Palace of Pan” five lines long. In doing so, Swinburne simultaneously alludes to and departs from common meter and the tradition it represents. Thus the stanzaic structure he uses in his poem distinguishes him from Christian thought on the hand, but also presents his interest in spiritual matters on the other.

Taken from the Introduction of A.C. Swinburne and the Singing Word: New Perspectives on the Mature Work (Ashgate 2010)

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Poem of the Month: June by Yisrael Levin, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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