The “Philip” of this poem is from the the 1834 play “Philip van Artevelde” by Sir Henry Taylor which itself is a dramatization of the Battle of Roosebeke in 1382. In the play, Philip’s final words are “What have I done? Why such a death? Why thus?” perhaps because he believes his death will come to nothing at this his efforts to defeat the French army.
Why Emily was inspired to write this poem with Phillip’s “riddle” as the central metaphor is obscure, but she is contrasting his inability to see past death with her knowledge that come spring the “Daisy” will inspire her to know that life is ever renewing and that nobody is truly “lost”. Even in death there is rebirth and renewal so she is arguing that Philip was wrong to consider that his death was the end of everything.
Emily sets up the poem in the first two lines to describe how she would feel if she learned that those she “loved were lost” and she uses the word “Crier” to do double duty in that not only is the town “Crier” the person who announces the death, but she is expressing the act of crying when one hears that someone they have loved has died.
Lines three and four are more celebratory in that she creates a scene where the whole city comes out to honor those who have returned – perhaps from battle – but anyone who misses a loved one knows the joy of when that person returns home because it is like all the church bells of the city ringing, only it’s your heart that pounds with joy. However, she is alluding to Philip’s body being brought back to the city in full honors.
Lines five and six deal with the survivors who stand at the grave in which the body lies in “repose”. And “repose” is a wonderful word choice since it implies a temporary situation, not a permanent one which is what Philip feared. The “Daisy” will bloom again in spring just as the spirit will fly to heaven to live on.
Thus Philip’s riddle is also the riddle of death in that in dying one will still live on, either in the memory of those who ring the bells or come to the grave bearing flowers, or in a spiritual sense on the soul living on after death. Emily’s use of the word “Bore” is related to being born and thus the “riddle” is revealed as being the riddle of reconciling birth from death.