Swinburn and the Major Arcana

Now I’m really going to have to work! This brilliant piece of mystical poetry, extracted from Algernon Charles Swinburn’s epic verse drama, Atalanta at Calydon, is rife with possibilities for metaphorical correspondences to the cards of the Major Arcana. I was able to bring all 22 trumps to bear here; not all of them are a perfect fit, but all – with a little reflection –  are at least decent. The story in the cards is rather morose, but then so is the poem it illustrates.


Before the beginning of years

The Fool (who exists outside of time)

There came to the making of man
Time, with a gift of tears;
Grief, with a glass that ran;

The Hanged Man (the card of Primal Water)

Pleasure, with pain for leaven;
Summer, with flowers that fell;
Remembrance, fallen from heaven,
And madness risen from hell;

The Tower (especially the Thoth version)

Strength without hands to smite;

Strength and Justice (which can stay the sword as well as wield it)

Love that endures for a breath;

The Lovers (corresponding to the Air sign Gemini)

Night, the shadow of light,
And life, the shadow of death.

Death (reflecting the transition between extremes)

And the high gods took in hand
Fire, and the falling of tears,
And a measure of sliding sand
From under the feet of the years;

The Magician (the master manipulator)

And froth and the drift of the sea;
And dust of the laboring earth;

The Moon (the crustacean climbs out of the water and onto the land)

And bodies of things to be
In the houses of death and of birth;

The High Priestess (keeper of the Akashic Record)

And wrought with weeping and laughter,
And fashioned with loathing and love,

Temperance (the card of alchemical transmutation)

With life before and after
And death beneath and above,

The Wheel of Fortune (what goes around, comes around)

For a day and a night and a morrow,
That his strength might endure for a span
With travail and heavy sorrow,
The holy spirit of man.

The Universe (corresponding to the melancholy planet, Saturn)

From the winds of the north and the south,
They gathered as unto strife;

The Chariot (the card of conquest)

They breathed upon his mouth,
They filled his body with life;

The Sun (the card of inspiration and vitality)

Eyesight and speech they wrought
For the veils of the soul therein,

The Emperor (corresponding to the Hebrew letter Heh, meaning “window”)

A time for labor and thought,
A time to serve and to sin;

The Hierophant (corresponding to the Earth sign, Taurus)

They gave him light in his ways,
And love, and space for delight,

The Star (the card of hope)

And beauty, and length of days,
And night, and sleep in the night.

The Empress (corresponding to Venus, Goddess of Love, Beauty and Harmony)

His speech is a burning fire;
With his lips he travaileth;

Judgement (the card of Primal Fire and the Last Judgment)

In his heart is a blind desire,
In his eyes foreknowledge of death;
He weaves, and is clothed with derision;
Sows, and he shall not reap;

The Devil (the master of derision and misanthropy)

His life is a watch or a vision
Between a sleep and a sleep.

The Hermit (who keeps his solitary vigil)

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