‘Philomena’ by Matthew Arnold is a four stanza, free verse poem written from the perspective of a narrator mourning the ancient plight of a character from Greek mythology. While the poem does not have a set rhyme scheme, there are a number of end sounds that can be found in repetition, such as “pain” and “brain,” and “dew” and “peruse,” throughout the poem. This lends the piece a sense of unity without the poet having to strictly structure it.
The Myth of Philomena
Before a reader can fully understand this piece by Matthew Arnold, it is beneficial to read the myth on which the poem is based. The Greek story of Philomena can be found here.
To summarize, Philomena was the sister of Procne, who married the Thracian king, Tereus. After being married for a number of years and living in Thrace, Procne wanted to see her sister, Philomena. Tereus went to retrieve Philomena from Athens and on the way back Tereus assaulted Philomena in a small cabin in the woods. He then abandoned her and cut out her tongue.
After this tragedy had befallen Philomena she wove her story into a tapestry and had it delivered to her sister in Thrace. Procne, wanting to take revenge on her husband, killed her son by Tereus and served the boy to his father during a meal. Tereus found out what had happened and attempted to kill Procne. The gods saved the two women by turning Philomena into a nightingale and Procne into a swallow. Tereus was transformed into a hoopoe, another type of bird.
‘Philomena’ by Matthew Arnold follows a narrator who after encountering a nightingale in the woods in England, interprets its calls for the sounds of mourning. The narrator speaks of, and to, this nightingale as if it is the embodiment of the Greek mythological figure Philomena.
The speaker questions the bird, asking if still she feels the pain of her past life or if this beautiful English vista relieves any of her sufferings. He believes the former to be the case and calls upon the Roman Christian Saint Eugenia to help remove some portion of Philomena/the nightingale’s agony. The speaker senses from the bird that it/she is experiencing equal parts agony and triumph from the memories of the past.
Analysis of Philomena
Hark! ah, the nightingale—
Hark, from that moonlit cedar what a burst!
What triumph! hark!—what pain!
The first stanza of ‘Philomena’ by Matthew Arnold is punctuated by three instances of onomatopoeia usage. Arnold is taking the sound made by a bird, in this case, a nightingale, and using it as language. The speaker in this poem is hearing the sounds made by the bird, and interpreting both “triumph” and “pain” in them.
Arnold chooses to use to word, “Hark!” as the representation of the sounds of a nightingale. The first line begins with this word and is immediately followed by the speaker recognizing the sound and beginning to speak about the bird that made it, “the nightingale—.”
The speaker first refers to the bird as “tawny-throated” referencing the traditional coloring of the bird’s feathers. He then adapts the “hark!” noise made by the bird and uses it in the next to lines to interpret, what he thinks, the bird is hoping to communicate. The noise, he states, “burst[s]” from the “moonlit cedar.” He describes it as sounding like a “triumph” but also “pain.” He uses the phrase, “what pain!” to display that he is in full understanding of what this creature is trying to say. He too can feel the pain.
Due to the fact that the reader knows that the speaker is interpreting this nightingale to be the embodiment of the mythical Philomena, one can understand the “pain” he references to be in regards to her assault, and the “triumph” to refer to the victory Philomena and her sister, Procne, had over Tereus.
O wanderer from a Grecian shore,
Still, after many years, in distant lands,
Still nourishing in thy bewilder’d brain
That wild, unquench’d, deep-sunken, old-world pain—
In the second stanza, the speaker continues to reference the story of Philomena and he speaks to the nightingale. He describes her as being, a “wanderer from the Grecian shore.” She has come, the speaker implies, from Greece to his location by wandering throughout the world. The next three lines speak to what the narrator understands to be the mental state of this nightingale and of Philomena herself, if she does indeed reside inside it.
She is described as still “nourishing” that “old-world pain” that began so many years ago. Even after she has wandered for centuries, her “bewilder’d brain” torn from the body of a woman and placed within that of a nightingale, is unable to shake the pain that is “deep-sunken” within her. The years have not healed her wounds.
Say, will it never heal?
And can this fragrant lawn
With its cool trees, and night,
And the sweet, tranquil Thames,
And moonshine, and the dew,
To thy rack’d heart and brain
Afford no balm?
The speaker reiterates this idea in the third stanza, asking the bird, will your wounds “never heal?” The reader can interpret from this line, and those that preceded it, that the speaker is moved by her story and is hopeful that one day she can move past what happened to her.
He continues on, asking if this new land with it’s “fragrant lawn… cool trees, and night” as well as the “tranquil Thames” (the river that flows through southern England) cannot heal her. He hopes that perhaps the “moonshine, and the dew” can “afford” a “balm” to her brain. The narrator is hoping that this beautiful setting in which he has come upon the nightingale, will help her to improve and take her thoughts from that terrible night.
Dost thou to-night behold,
Here, through the moonlight on this English grass,
The unfriendly palace in the Thracian wild?
Dost thou again peruse
With hot cheeks and sear’d eyes
The too clear web, and thy dumb sister’s shame?
Dost thou once more assay
Thy flight, and feel come over thee,
Poor fugitive, the feathery change
Once more, and once more seem to make resound
With love and hate, triumph and agony,
Lone Daulis, and the high Cephissian vale?
How thick the bursts come crowding through the leaves!
The speaker hopes to determine in this last stanza whether even now, “through the moonlight on this English grass” Philomena the nightingale is still reminded of what happened to her in the “Thracian wild,” referring to the land of Thrace of which Tereus was king.
He continues, asking if this place reminds her of her past and if it forces her to relive, “With hot cheeks and sear’d eyes,” from which she had been crying, all that befell her and her sister who was initial “dumb” to all that happened, and then vengeful in her “shame.”
This longer final stanza continues and the speaker asks Philomena if she can remember when she was first transformed into a nightingale and felt the dread combination of “triumph and agony” which still defines her.
The final lines of this piece reference a number of different locations related to the myth of Philomena. The narrator speaks of “Lone Daulis” which was the hometown of Tereus, the Thracian king that assaulted Philomena, and of the “Cephissian vale.” Cephissian refers to both Cephissus, an ancient river God of Greece who fathered a daughter named, Daulis, for whom Tereus’s home town is named, as well as a river that runs through the Attica region of Greece. Attica contains Athens, the home of Philomena.
In this context, these two place names reference the areas in which the tragedies were played out. It was in Daulis that Procne fed her own son to her husband, Tereus, and it was from the area of Cephissus that both sisters came.
The next line of the poem is a plea to the Roman martyr, Saint Eugenia who was beheaded after converting to Christianity. Just as Philomena did what she believed was right, and was punished for it, so too did Eugenia. This makes her an apt saint to implore for help.
The poem concludes with the plea to Saint Eugenia; begging her to see how still Philomena is affected by her past. “Still” there is the “Eternal passion!” and “Eternal pain!”
The way in which Arnold has brought this story, told with the powers and rule of Greek gods, into modern English society and Christianity, relays a very poignant message about the strength of grief. This character, pulled from her origins, centuries previous, is still being impacted by her past assault. The narrator hopes to accomplish for her what the gods of the past could not restore her peace by relieving some portion of her anguish. He calls on a Christian saint for assistance and is genuinely moved by her distress.
Additionally, it is important to keep in mind that all emotional aspects of this character have been imbued onto a single nightingale that the speaker has stumbled upon. The amount of empathy that the narrator is experiencing, to interpret this story, is remarkable.
About Matthew Arnold
Matthew Arnold, poet, and essayist, was born in Laleham, Middlesex, in 1822 and was quickly recognized for his talent. He completed an undergraduate degree at Balliol College, Oxford University after which he taught Classics at Rugby School.
Arnold would then work for thirty-five years as a government school inspector, during which time he acquired an interest in education that influenced his poetic works. He established his reputation as a poet and became Professor of Poetry at Oxford and wrote a number of critical works during this time.
His poetry is known for its contemplation of isolation, the dwindling faith of his age, and his subtle style. His work is often compared to that of Sylvia Plath and W.B. Yeats. Matthew Arnold died in 1888 in Liverpool.