Backward to your sources, sacred rivers: a transatlanitic feminist tradition of mythic revision
MetadataShow full item record
This project examines the under-explored tradition of post-WWII mythological poetry by women. The poets in the study engage in cultural politics both by subverting and reaffirming the foundational stories of the Western literary tradition. Greek myths offer some of literature’s strongest and most eloquent female characters, and yet they provide the model for misogynist representations of women in the arts. Post-WWII mythic revision is partly a response to the male high modernist’s (particularly Pound’s and Eliot’s) return to a Greek heroic ideal. The women poets respond to three sets of texts: the original Greek, the male modernist poets’ versions of the myths, and previous mythic revisions by women. By juxtaposing poets who employ mythic revision, this v project exposes a transatlantic literary dialogue between generations of poets and demonstrates the tradition’s centrality to 20th-century literature and feminist theory. The project traces this dialogue through H.D.’s Helen in Egypt (1961), in which the archetypal figures of Helen and Achilles interrogate various accounts of their past and rewrite their lives. The chapter argues that H.D. revises cultural ideas of masculinity and femininity through her engagement with the Iliad’s concept of glory. The second chapter analyzes the transformation of Sylvia Plath’s poetic persona from victim, Electra, to avenger, Clytemnestra, due to Plath’s growing sense of anger at gendered social injustice. H.D.’s investigations into gender identity and Plath’s poetics of rage would influence the mythic revisions of second-wave feminist poets such as Adrienne Rich, who is the subject of Chapter Three. During the 1970s, Rich used the Demeter/Persephone myth to explore what she perceived as the principal problem in patriarchal cultures—the ruptured relationship between women and their need for re-union through radical lesbianism. Chapter Four addresses the intersection of myth with domestic violence and psychological abuse, social problems that were becoming visible when Margaret Atwood revised the Circe/Odysseus relationship in her poetic sequence “Circe / Mud Poems” (1974). Chapter Five turns to questions of age and race theories in contemporary revisions of the Demeter and Persephone myth by Eavan Boland and Rita Dove. In mapping myth’s place and function for each poet in the dissertation, this project charts the personal, aesthetic, and political motivations underlying the mythic revisions and locates them within the feminist social and theoretical movements of the second half of the 20th century.