Philomela, by Matthew Arnold

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A short essay on the poem Philomela by Matthew Arnold
(Emiliano Colella)

Introduction

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...
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