Academic journal article Mythlore

Allegorical Reference to Oxford University through Classical Myth in the Early Poetry of Dorothy L. Sayers: A Reading of "Alma Mater" from Op. I

Academic journal article Mythlore

Allegorical Reference to Oxford University through Classical Myth in the Early Poetry of Dorothy L. Sayers: A Reading of "Alma Mater" from Op. I

Article excerpt

"Helen, close-girded with immortal spells Of beauty and of ancient power,

"Helen, my mother, whom I greatly love-- Nowise for that majestic grace, The changeless beauty of the seed of Jove Set godlike on thy face [...]." ("Alma Mater" stanzas 14, 24)

In the most of her Oxford University years, primarily between 1913-1915, Dorothy L. Sayers began to write poems about her impressions of Oxford and of her experiences as an undergraduate student. To Sayers, Oxford University was a place of legend, equal to, if not better than, the spellbound kingdoms about which she had earlier written in poems. (1) From October 11, 1912, the date she entered University, to the end of her life, Sayers was enchanted by the world of Oxford. She was not particularly enchanted by academia, (2) but she loved the rarified and mythical environment of Oxford University. That fascination came to life through her written poetry and was realized materially through publication, in December 1916, of her first poetry collection, OP. I., noted as No. 9 in Adventurers All: A Series of Young Poets Unknown to Fame, a book series published by Basil Blackwell, Oxford. (3)

Within this small book of poetry, Sayers lays out a rhythmically structured series of thirteen titled poems (these composed of thirty-six shorter poems) (4) which incorporate themes of classical myth, medieval legend, bewitchment, hypnosis, dreadful premonition, loss of godly gifts, spellbinding love, magical dimension, prayer, incantation, hidden symbolism, repercussions of betrayal, and various other aspects of divine intervention and supernatural power. Within this framework, Sayers's poems weave a web of charmed experience, of a world where the past melds with the present and future, where fairytales and myth weave through mundane normative daily existence, in the world of Oxford University.

The poems of OP. I. are a collection of allegorical references to Oxford University. Sayers employs classical, medieval, and Christian, analogies to express her vision and interpretations of the Oxfordian academic world built upon the literary devices of allegory, symbolism, and metaphor. The book is a carefully constructed and organized set of poetic windows to her Oxford experience from 1912 to 1915.

In this paper, I focus on Sayers's use of the first of these overarching worlds of myth and romance, that of classical mythology, as she applied Hellenic legend (5) in allegorical reference to the world of early twentieth century Oxford University as a recurring motif in several poems of this book, particularly through her seminal epic poem, "Alma Mater," the primary poem within the main text of OP. I. The cohesive poetic ties that link "Alma Mater" with the second piece, "Lay," a metrically interlaced series of twelve poems, each poem a medieval allegory of Oxford, are briefly introduced. (6)

Dorothy L. Sayers began her adult writing life as a poet and ended her writing life with the translation of Dante's poetry. In fact, Sayers considered herself, throughout her life, primarily a poet and translator of medieval verse (Reynolds 185; Brabazon 126). Her reading public, on the other hand, most often associates Sayers with the genres of mystery fiction and theatre, and perhaps with lay Christian apologetics. Her fame, resting mostly on these genres, does not usually include a serious consideration of Sayers as poet, nor do her critics or supporters often consider the value of her poetry within Sayers's writing life (Kenney 6-7).

There appears to be something of a disconnection between Sayers's view of herself, as poet and translator, and the opinions of her reading public who catalog her work primarily within the genres of prose or play-writing. The dismissal of Sayers's poetry as serious or professional writing has led to an incomplete view of Sayers's literary corpus, or at the least, gives limited perspective to the true scope of Sayers's literary strength. …

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