The Context of English Literature, 1900-1930

By Michael Bell | Go to book overview

4

Myth and modern literature

CRISTOPHER NASH


Historical perspective

Myth has always had a privileged place in literature, whether it is Beowulf, Milton, Pope and Tennyson we have in mind or Yeats, Eliot, Joyce and Lawrence.

Yet something quite different seems to be happening when, in the nineteenth century, European artists with backgrounds and concerns as divergent as those of Wagner and Gauguin begin to take up the cause of what they think to be 'primitive thought', and men of letters as far afield as H.G. Wells, Anatole France, Spengler, Freud, Bergson, Jung and Wittgenstein pay special tribute — by means of extravagant praise and/or by the lavish exercise of his ideas — to James Frazer's The Golden Bough. And when, in the following decades, a T.S. Eliot declares that 'the mythical method' can make 'the modem world possible for art'. In order to understand how this shift in perspective came about, it will pay to look back to earlier generations and their developing attitudes towards the whole concept of myth.

'Civilized man' has tended to regard his myths according to one or the other of two quite distinct overviews. These do coincide with certain basic movements of ideas, yet they are not strictly tied to specific historical periods; they have existed side by side as far back as records go (Plato beside Aristotle, Pico beside Copernicus, Vico beside Voltaire, Cassirer beside Bidney). And the first quarter of this century in English literature is one of those moments in which circumstances and hitherto divergent ideologies seem to combine under the cover of one traditional but now revitalized mythologem —the evolutionary

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