Classical Mythology in English Literature: A Critical Anthology

By Geoffrey Miles | Go to book overview

1

THE MYTH-KITTY

As a guiding principle I believe that every poem must be its own sole freshly created universe, and therefore have no belief in 'tradition' or a common myth-kitty... To me the whole of the ancient world, the whole of classical and biblical mythology, means very little, and I think that using them today not only fills poems full of dead spots but dodges the poet's duty to be original.

(Larkin 1983:69)

Philip Larkin's dismissal of the notion of a 'myth-kitty' raises a real question. Why, at the start of the twenty-first century, should writers, readers, or students of English literature still be taking an interest in the fantastic tales told by Greek peasants three millennia ago? Why should I, at a university on the Pacific rim twelve thousand miles from Mount Olympus, be compiling yet another volume about the classical myths and their influence?

The shortest answer is that, despite Larkin's disbelief, a classical 'tradition' does exist: a continuous line of inheritance and influence connects ancient Greece and Rome with the modern 'western' world, shaping our arts, our instutitions, our values and philosophies. One small aspect of that tradition has been the use of classical mythology in English literature. For many centuries writers in English have been able to draw upon a common stock of mythological stories, characters, and images-a 'myth-kitty', to use Larkin's derisive term-in the confidence that their readers will recognise and understand their allusions. In the words of the critic George Steiner,

From Chaucer to [Eliot's] Sweeney among the Nightingales much of English poetry has relied on a code of instantaneous recognition. Where the code lapses...a good deal of the poetry may lapse too.

(Quoted in Radice 1973:13)

For educated readers from the fourteenth to the early twentieth century, a reference to (say) Hercules, or Venus, or Helen, or the sack of Troy, could be relied on to produce 'instantaneous recognition'-not an anxious search of

-3-

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Classical Mythology in English Literature: A Critical Anthology
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface xii
  • Part 1 1
  • 1 - The Myth-Kitty 3
  • Notes 19
  • 2 - A Rough Guide to the Gods 20
  • 3 - A Mythical History of the World in One Chapter 35
  • Notes 58
  • Part 2 59
  • 4 - Orpheus 61
  • Notes 74
  • 5 - Venus and Adonis 196
  • Other Versions of Venus and Adonis 329
  • 6 - Pygmalion 332
  • Notes 345
  • Bibliography 450
  • Index of Mythological Names 453
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