Sir Philip Sidney's 91. Philomela from The Oxford Book of English (Arthur Quiller-Couch, ed. 1919)Verse: 1250–1900.


     In "Philomela", Sidney alludes to Philomela’s violent treatment by Tereus, but that is not the main topic of this work. In this poem the focus is on the narrator being envious of Philomela. This jealousy toward such a wretched mythological figure displays the intense loneliness experienced by the narrator and the subsequent sexist undertones.

     In the first few lines of the poem Philomela is called a “nightingale” and the narrator further attributes her more bird-like qualities, alluding to her escape from Tereus as an actual nightingale, displaying a prior knowledge of the myth (1). An informed audience would usually see Philomela as a pitiful victim guarded over by a vicious Tereus. This is not how the narrator sees the situation at all. He or she does not even address the horrors committed against Philomela. The way the poem is presented it does not even provide the slightest indication of the abuses suffered by Philomela at the hands of Tereus. The narrator sees Philomela’s sole source of pain to be Tereus’ over-abundant love, of which the speaker is obviously envious. The narrator makes this jealousy clear because they say that they are “daily craving” such attentions and that “wanting is more woe than too much having” (17, 20). So, in this person's opinion, wanting love is more painful than having too much, as the case seems to be with Philomela and Tereus. So, it appears that the narrator is jealous of the lust, or love, that Philomela inspires in others. And this envy, along with the lack of love, is causing the narrator great distress.

     While Philomela’s “earth now springs,” the narrator’s “fadeth” (11). This language demonstrates the continual theme throughout the work of the narrator making reference to how lucky Philomela is and how he or she is in a worse position than she is. The narrator also suggests that Philomela is overreacting to her situation. He or she even tells Philomela to “take some gladness, that [t]here is juster cause of plaintful sadness” (21-22). In the narrator’s eyes Philomela has no cause to wallow in grief. To the narrator a strong, or even overly powerful, love is better to have than no love at all, so the narrator's position is much more deserving of pity and sorrow. Therefore, Philomela has no right to complain when others are in a far worse situation than she.

     Philomela is in fact “full womanlike [in her] complain[ing] her will was broken” (16). This line shows a new side of the poem, a more sexist viewpoint. Up until this point in the poem the audience is not sure of the narrator’s gender. This statement most likely issued forth from a male mind, because of the sexist tone, and this sexism creates the issue of taking sides with the mythological characters. It is apparent that the narrator is dismissing Philomela’s pain but now it is also apparent that a sexist element is present in the work. The narrator sees Philomela’s complaining as a female trait, because a man would never be distraught over something as simple as someone loving them. The love the narrator talks of seems to intentionally portray Philomela’s relationship with Tereus as a consensual relationship. This is simply not the case. If one has prior knowledge of the tale, like the narrator does, one knows Philomela was kidnapped, raped, and imprisoned by Tereus. This omission of details allows the narrator, and audience, to more easily find fault in Philomela and not in Tereus. In the narrator’s eyes she is a weak character. In the actual Philomela, Procne and Tereus myths most versions of the story center on a male, Tereus, dominating a female, Philomela, and the female’s quest for freedom, not revenge. But Philomela requires aid from multiple characters and ultimately resorts to pleading to the gods for help. Because of her weak, complaining and unappreciative nature the narrator in Sidney’s poem is looking down upon Philomela but at the same time envies her for the love Tereus gives her.

     Based on the analysis of this poem one can conjecture about the thoughts of the author at the time of its composure. It may be especially meaningful to the author because of the sexist undertones as well as the extreme loneliness exhibited. The writer of "Philomela" was a man who lived in the fifteen hundreds and probably shared the sexist views of women that pervaded the time. He probably looked down upon women so, he could make light of Philomela’s situation and claim that she was overreacting. One could also conjecture that he was a lonely man, after all, he has written about desiring love and envies a kidnapped woman. This poem was most likely written by an individual that lacked complacency with their relationships, and so, attracts an audience with similar problems. The narrator addresses Philomela in such a painful tone, all but ignoring her grief, showing how distressed the narrator is while also demonstrating a disregard for female well-being.

     While Sidney alludes to Philomela’s violent treatment by Tereus there is not any concern for her instead the focus of this poem is on the narrator being envious of the complaining Philomela. This work demonstrates the author’s mind-set at the time and also gives a new generation of grief-stricken, loveless individuals a poem to relate to.



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Last updated 24 October 05