Matthew Arnold's Philomela (1822-1888)

   Procne is a victim. That’s what the author of this poem believes. Procne is the victim because she had to go through so much in order to get through this ordeal. The poet is inquiring of the listener as to whether or not, in truth, Procne ever really pulls through the ordeal.

   “Poor fugitive” is the basis of the whole writer’s view. Procne is the “poor fugitive”-life has dealt her a terrible hand and she’s trying to play it the best way possible with the cards she was given. Perhaps the way that she got back at her husband-killing her child, boiling him up and then serving him to Tereus-was not the most kosher way to do so, but the point of the poem that the writer is trying to make is that Procne is completely misunderstood. The hand that life dealt to her was not fair in the least.

   The author was attracted to the myth because he believes that she is misconstrued to be a bad or uncaring person. It is shown even in the author’s own words that Procne is misunderstood! Even in just lines one through four, they are saying that it’s such a wonderful thing to be a nightingale. You are “tawny-throated”, and who wouldn’t want to have a beautiful, soft-feeling throat. The author’s imagery on this is so beautiful, so glorifying: “Hark! From that moonlit cedar what a burst!” Yet, there as well, we have misleading words. A “burst” can mean any number of things: this gorgeous, “tawny-throated” bird is shooting through the trees, a glorious sight to behold. Also, this terribly troubled woman is finally free of her ills. Everything has finally exploded, and this is her “bursting” into her freedom from it all, from the devil himself chasing her down and making her do his bidding. “What triumph!” it says. This is, indeed, Procne’s triumph. She has won what she so terribly desired-her freedom from this tyranny. We come to the final, definitive part-“hark--what pain!” What pain? Wasn’t Procne just “bursting” from “that moonlit cedar”? Wasn’t she just full of joy and happiness for the freedom she so desperately desired? However, is she really fully of joy and happiness? That is something the poet is addressing. Not once in the poem does he really so much ever talk about Procne being full of joy, so much as she is free from her pain. Procne doesn’t ever really appear to be happy in this poem.

   “O wanderer from a Grecian shore” (line 5), a wanderer indeed, as Procne seems to be wandering through the maze that life has set out for her. In this maze are many obstacles, including the obstacle of an abusive, sister-raping husband. This story is appealing because it is telling the story of two tortured sisters and how they live through it and somehow manage to survive it into freedom. They walk this maze of life together, even if they are separated for quite a bit of time, knowing that the other is dead and gone.

   This story is a tortured one. It starts out happily enough-Daddy wins the battle and saves the day, and the helper that Daddy could not have done it without gets the pretty girl as a prize. That’s where it turns interesting. Say, perhaps, said pretty girl doesn’t necessarily want to be with Daddy’s little helper. Say, instead, she likes the life she lives. That doesn’t matter to Tereus, Daddy’s helper. He wants what he wants, and that’s the end of it. Procne, unwilling participant though she may be, gives Tereus what he wants-a lover and a child-bearer. Bear child, she does that. When she becomes pregnant, however, she is sent away in a remote cabin somewhere in the mountains that just about nobody knows about.

   The story is such a beautiful one, with all sorts of twists and turns that the author obviously felt that it could only be told in the form of a beautiful poem, melodically written. It tells the story of passion, lust, hatred, infanticide and love. So much woven in to such a quick story. It’s changed into this incredible poem with such excitement and confusion to it. In the poem, it jumps around from moment to moment in the stanzas. It makes the whole thing much more exciting and different that way. It makes the reader wonder-“what pain”? The poet’s mind has wandered to Procne because of this nightingale that has appeared outside of his window. He still wonders if her pain was truly ever gone. If, perhaps, that the reason that the nightingale has such a beautiful song isn’t because of Procne, trying desperately to tell her tale of woe. To sing out the pain that has not dissipated, despite the freedom that is now hers and her sister’s.

   Procne is the victim because she had to go through so much in order to get through this ordeal. First, she is handed away as a gift to Tereus, a man who helped her father win a battle for his kingdom. Next thing she knows, Procne is raped and then sent off to live somewhere in the country where no one can find her. Meanwhile, without her knowing, Tereus is seducing her sister, telling Philomela that she, Procne, is dead. While the seduction is taking place and Philomela being whisked off, Procne gives birth to Tereus’ son, Itylus. Procne receives word, through the ingenuity of Philomela, that Philomela has been raped and had her tongue cut out. The attitude of the author to the subject is one of pity and almost encouraging. He needs her to fly away and be okay. He needs her to have her freedom.

   The author seemed to also need to give Procne this understanding that she is not quite right, that life has given her nothing but a horrible hand. The author gave Procne this reason-not excuse, reason-that she did what she did. This reason that she committed infanticide in order to exact her revenge. Itylus was not a wanted child. Maybe at first, but definitely not by the time Procne received word about her sister. Now, is this any excuse to kill him for revenge? Absolutely not. However, the author tells us that that was how Procne was feeling at the time. That she needed to do this in order to be a whole person again. This is in no way excusing her actions, but it gives reason for them. Also, the author is giving her a plausible basis for sympathy from the reader. Procne doesn’t necessarily get that from the people, the readers. While she isn’t necessarily vilified up until the point of her killing the fruit of her loins, neither is much sympathy given to her situation, and that’s what the author was hoping to accomplish with this poem-sympathy for the eternal pain despite the freedom. Pity. Maybe even a bit of love for this poor, tortured woman, whose situation is far beyond what any of us cringed about in the worst nightmares of our lives.

   The author used a different myth from the one that I based my analysis off of in here. In the one the poet used, it is Procne that has her tongue cut out and not Philomela, and so Philomela becomes the singing nightingale, and not Procne.

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Last updated 24 October 05