The speaker of "From the Hymn of Empedocles" first acknowledges that people tend to view their small successes and joys - like having "lived life in the spring"- as insignificant. Instead, they dream of a practically unattainable future rather than enjoying the present moment.
He addresses the listener of "From the Hymn of Empedocles" directly, and admits that neither he nor the listener have much to prize, since life has been hard for both of them. They both work in the fields, each day the same as the last. Yet the speaker worries that the listener worries too much about the after-life, believing that God will punish him in heaven as he has on Earth. The unfortunate side-effect is that the listener ignores life's joys because of this fear.
The speaker tells him not to fear; there is plenty of beauty and joy in the world today that he can appreciate. In the final stanza, he warns to be wary of dreaming, because there is no telling what ills the future might bring. If you do not dream, you cannot despair, and will instead enjoy the present.
This poem is an excerpt from Arnold's 1852 verse drama Empedocles on Etna, but has remained much more well-known than the larger work.
Empedocles was a Greek philosopher who lived in the fifth century B.C. He is best known for having theorized that all life was built from the four elements: water, fire, earth, and air. His philosophy espoused a carpe diem attitude, which was evidenced by the way he died: he threw himself into the active volcano Mount Etna without fear of what would come after. In his works, Empedocles very much focused on the present state of humankind; he did not worry about the future. With all this in mind, one can begin to understand how the allusion underscores the poem's meaning.
The poem serves as a lesson: the speaker (presumably Empedocles) advises his readers to appreciate the small joys of present-day, rather than waste time dreaming of a future that likely will not occur. On one hand, this philosophy is pessimistic - it suggests that nothing better will come, robbing sufferers of hope in a better after-life. And yet the poem also has a deep optimism ingrained in it, especially for people of Arnold's time who constantly lamented the difficulties of their lives. There is a strong pastoral streak in the message that aligns with Arnold's other work, in that it posits the beauty of the sun, the spring, and our community as glorious. Overall, the poem warns that we overlook everyday beauty from anxiety about the future.
The message is also underscored by the structure. The poem employs a singsong, whimsical rhythm and a very simple ABABC rhyme scheme, almost reminiscent of children's poetry (which makes sense, since verses intended for children typically teach some kind of lesson, just as this one does). The lines are short and uncomplicated, which allows for a flowing, rapid read. Each stanza ends with a longer line, which typically provides the big takeaway of that section. Because this line is different in length from the rest, readers are meant to stop and focus on it for a few seconds longer while reading.
Finally, the poem espouses a complicated relationship with religion, which is consistent with Arnold's general attitudes towards Christianity. While he frequently writes of heaven or God, those usually function as symbols of transcendence, a way to become closer to ourselves and nature. While Empedocles, as a Greek, would not have had such a fixed idea of the after-life as Victorian Christians would have, the audience for whom Arnold wrote might have read an attack on these values. The poem posits that life on Earth is more important than hopes of life in heaven, suggesting that it is better to be happy here than to hope for happiness elsewhere. By extension, then, the poem insists we revel in our individual passions, rather than attempting to please a God that is far away and perhaps has nothing better in store for us.