Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“Philomela” opens by naming the players in the classical myth of the nightingale’s origin. To the American speaker, despite the violence of the story, the sound of their names is pleasing, but the power of myth has waned; the speaker finds the tale “improbable.” Philomela’s song of continuing sorrow is not in harmony with modern American poetry.
Elsewhere, the nightingale has found satisfactory homes, but her myth is at odds with the Puritanism that Ransom considers the most influential force in American culture. Ancient Greeks would consider America “barbarous”; though the speaker never explicitly agrees, he separates himself from overall American culture, conceding that Philomela is unlikely to survive in his “cloudless, boundless, public” democracy. At Oxford, the speaker seeks and finally hears the nightingale but declares her song, supposedly the most beautiful of all songs, a bit flat. Disappointed, the speaker leaves her presence.
In the final stanza, the mature speaker addresses Philomela, questioning whether Americans can become worthy of her. A society where bantering has replaced wit and minute analysis has replaced appreciation of the aesthetic whole seems unsuitable for myths; the nightingale belongs in societies where fables seem possible. “Philomela” can be read as an indictment of American aesthetic, but it also deplores the loss of innocence that has led to “post-scientific poetry” and resulted in humans’ limited knowledge of the world, as they ignore what Ransom calls “the world’s body” and substance.
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Brooks, Cleanth. “John Crowe Ransom: As I Remember Him.” American Scholar 58, no. 2 (Spring, 1989): 211-233.
Cowan, Louise. The Fugitive Group: A Literary History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959.
Howard, Maureen. “There Are Many Wonderful Owls in Gambier.” Yale Review 77 (Summer, 1988): 521-527.
Malvasi, Mark G. The Unregenerate South: The Agrarian Thought of John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997.
Modern American Poetry Web site. “John Crowe Ransom.” http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/m_r/ransom/life.htm.
Quinlan, Kieran. John Crowe Ransom’s Secular Faith. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
Rubin, Louis D., Jr. “The Wary Fugitive: John Crowe Ransom.” Sewanee Review 82 (1974): 583-618.
Young, Thomas Daniel. Gentleman in a Dustcoat: A Biography of John Crowe Ransom. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976.