Classical Tradition and Myth in Modern Poetry

Classical_mythologyClassical Tradition and Myth in Modern Poetry
b
y Bruce Burnett

Writing an essay about James Joyce’s controversial and recently published (1922) novel Ulysses in Dial Magazine in 1923, T. S. Eliot declared:

In using the myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him. [….] It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history. It is a method already adumbrated by Mr. Yeats, and of the need for which I believe Mr. Yeats to have been the first contemporary to be conscious. It is a method for which the horoscope is auspicious. Psychology (such as it is, and whether our reaction to it be comic or serious), ethnology, and The Golden Bough have concurred to make possible what was impossible even a few years ago. Instead of narrative method, we may now use the mythical method.1

It is noteworthy that Eliot credits W.B. Yeats with being the first contemporary poet to be mindful of the significance of myth to current events. Certainly Yeats adapted and applied both traditional Celtic and ancient Greek myth to the problems of Ireland, especially during that troublesome time when “a terrible beauty” was being born, and what he regarded as modern philistine society “grubbing in a greasy till.” His poem “The Realists” is addressed to those who underestimate the value of myth:

Download the complete essay (PDF): Classical_Tradition_in_Modern_Poetry

1 T. S. Eliot, “‘Ulysses’, Order, and Myth,” in Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, p.177-178. Faber And Faber Ltd. (1975).

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