Philomela by Matthew Arnold
This poem is a mythological history of love and treason, a history that show the poet’s dramatic loneliness and alienation from the real world. The poetic voice speaks to an external self, comparing his passion and his pain with the eternal passions and pains of the world, always the same, represented by the myth of Philomela.
It is then a clear declaration of what is poetry for the author, and by the use of mythological images he achieves an universal meaning through space and time. The poem has three stanzas of 4, 11, and 17 lines, with few rhymes and various patterns. The first part introduces the topology, the second adds the narrative elements with a link to the past, then, in the third stanza, the poet completes the narrative using rhetorical questions, obtaining a full fusion of himself with poetry and with the myth. First Stanza
In the four lines of the first stanza the poet introduces the setting of the story he is going to tell/narrate. His imperative “Hark! ”, repeated twice, is an invitation to listen the sing of the nightingale, a call to himself, a call to his world. Then the name of the mythical bird: “the nightingale”, a poetic symbol linked with the themes of love, betrayed love, revenge, and therefore rather a lament than a chant. At the same time the nightingale represents, over centuries, the superior art that can inspire the poet, a kind of romantic muse.
The other symbolic object in this first part of the poem is the “cedar”, for it is well known the wide use of this aromatic wood in ancient Greece to build ships, thus two specific semantic fields can be found in the cedar tree: the classical Greek environment that the poet wants to create, and his ability to build his own art. The last line of this stanza, evaluated with the title of the poem, makes completely clear the images just given: triumph and pain together are the feelings transmitted by the mythical nightingale, by the myth of Philomela. Second Stanza
The second stanza begins in perfect coherence with the setting of the first. The poet calls to a “wanderer”, a very topical noun for poets, rising/showing a feeling of surprise for something unexpected. Now the poetic voice is addressing directly the mythological bird, he calls it (the zoomorphic Philomela) “wanderer from a Grecian shore,” making a first personification from a human being into a nightingale that will be revealed in the following lines. After many years, and from the far land of Greece (line 6), the bird is here, where the poet can listen her “burst”.
From line 7 the personification is complete, the poet states two rhetorical questions to define more and more who is the nightingale’s personification: it is Philomela. She is asked from the poetic voice if she is still suffering for an ancient, deep, intact pain, an “old-world pain” that gives all the sense of wideness of her eternal love suffering. The second question of this stanza recalls the reader where the poet is, a topological point of view that change the time and space setting: from Greece to England, from myth to reality.
Now, Philomela, in the shape of a nightingale is here, with the poet, can the idyllic place be a “balm” for her sorrow? Third Stanza In the third stanza the poetic voice begins with one of the three interrogatives that will give the educated reader the whole scene of the mythological story the speaker is referencing to. It is the myth of Philomela and Procne, betrayed by Tereus. The zoomorphic personification reveals the identity of Philomela, now a nightingale, singing on the cedar tree, whose singing the poet can hear, getting from it a fresh inspiration for poetry.
From line 16 to line 27, each question is an episode of the myth, the poetic voice asks for facts he already knows, recalling the events to increase the pathos in an hyperbole of emotion. Then, it is clear a double personification: the one of Philomela into a nightingale, and the one of the poet himself into the same mythical bird, as the muse of his poetic art. The last question (lines 22-27) gives to the reader a feeling of hysical materialization of Philomela, the word “assay” is in general relevant with substances, objects (or subject) that change shape and state, “the feathery change”: from human to fauna, from history to myth.
And all this sorrow, for a betrayed love, “once more seem to make resound” in the city of Daulis, in the Cephis valley, the places where the tragedy happened. Now the very last interrogative (lines 28-30) is a call to Eugene. Who is Eugene? It is a name, but it is also a genus of the myrtle family plant, another main symbol in poetry.
Thus it can be inferred that Eugene is the muse of the poet, the poetic inspiration that is in himself, the old and new world that, inside him and in the same time, drives him to “Eternal passion! ” and to “Eternal pain! ”. Conclusion Same last consideration about the metrical scheme and the main subject of this poem. This poem is part of a tradition destined to endure through time, it shows the theme of the incurable loneliness of the exiled artist from his ethereal country, trapped in the physical world but subdued to the desire of infinity, a being always balanced between elevation and fall.