In "Itylus" Swinburne transforms the constraints of form into a powerful liberation of meaning by sound. Alliteration and the use of words whose sound and form echo and complement one another magically mingle the sweetness of the nightingale's song with its sorrow. The marked alliteration in the first line of each stanza connects the swallow with "sister," "swift," "fleet sweet," "soft light," "singing," "sweet stray," and "shifting." While the swift and fleeting swallow can "Take flight and follow and find the sun" (line 25), memories of sorrow and suffering haunt the song of the nightingale. The piercing resonance of verse that characterizes the speaker's obsessive remembrance of pain and suffering contrasts with the swallow's light hearted forgetfulness and fleeting song.
O sweet stray sister, O shifting swallow,
The heart's division divideth us.
Thy heart is light as a leaf of a tree;
But mine goes forth among sea-gulfs hollow
To the place of the slaying of Itylus,
The feast of Daulius, the Thracian sea.
As the swallow's timely song finds joy in the spring and blithely flits through the trees, the nightingale's constant, song plunges ever downward into the speaker's past of lost love, lost life, and timeless grief. The play of "light" and "leaf," "goes" and "sea-gulfs" and the lilt of "place," "slaying" and "Itylus" convey the nightingale's aching memories in bittersweet song.
The title and "the place of the slaying of Itylus" (line 47) refer to a figure in Greek mythology, Itylus, the daughter of Aedon and King Zethus of Thebes. When Aedon accidentally killed Itylus she became consumed by grief and guilt. The gods took pity upon her turned her into a nightingale whose nightly song echoed a cry of sadness. This myth identifies the speaker as Aedon, who in the last two stanzas obsessively mourns the "The small slain body, the flowerlike face" (line 53) of Itylus's death. The speaker reminds us of "The voice of the child's blood crying yet / Who hath remembered me? Who hath forgotten?" (lines 57-58) and accuses the swallow, "Thou hast forgotten, O summer swallow, / But the world shall end when I forget" (line 60). Swinburne leaves us with the searing image of eternal grief echoed in the circular song of the nightingale, which always begins with the melodious forgetfulness of the carefree swallow and spirals into the sorrowful contrast of its own lingering memories.
1. The poem ends with "But the world shall end when I forget" (line 60). What are the implications of this? How might it relate to Swinburne's psychology of obsession and circular meaning?
2. The speaker's inability to free herself from the confines of her memories herself and others marks "Itylus," just as the need to free oneself from bonds of convention, religion, or even political oppression marks much of Swinburne's poetry. How does the poet infuse "Itylus" with his own bleakness and sense of the entrapment by time and memory?
3. Does the bleakness of the poem's speaker change because it belongs to a woman rather than that the male speaker used in many of his Swinburne's and other PRB member's poems? Do we find importance in the speaker's femininity?
4. "Swinburne's work, as a whole, suffers from the paucity of its contents; his rapid genius was too easily satisfied with returning to the same themes over and over again and reaffirming them with increased emphasis but little variety" (The Cambridge History). Do you find Swinburne's tendency towards cyclical themes and repetitive meaning to weaken his poetry or give it strength? In other words, do you like it?
The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907-21),Volume XIII, The Victorian Age, Part One: http://www.bartleby.com/223/0509.html
Last modified 5 November 2004