Tag Archives: mythology

George Eliot – Silas Marner (1861)

PLOT: Silas Marner, a weaver living in Lantern Yard, is excommunicated after he is framed for robbery by one of the religious elders in his town, who eventually marries the woman Silas had been intending to marry. He leaves and goes to Raveloe, where he weaves on the outskirts of town, amassing a fair amount of gold in the process. Meanwhile, Godfrey Cass (son of Squire Cass) is in a monetary pickle after leading to his dissolute brother Dunsten. To get out of the bind, he lets Dunsten try to sell his horse, but he manages to kill it in the process. Desperate, he robs Silas Marner and goes out into the night. Silas comes home and is stricken with loss–his gold having been his sole comfort and companion. He goes into town, but the thief cannot be found. Meanwhile Godfrey sets about wooing Nancy, the town belle. There’s a big New Year’s party that’s interrupted when Silas comes to announce that a woman has collapsed outside and that a baby has crawled into his house, etc. The woman turns out to be Molly, Godfrey’s first wife that he has tried to hide. He is relieved, and deos not claim his child, who has telling golden hair. Silas raises Eppie. Sixteen years pass. Godfrey has married (no children) and Eppie has grown up. Godfrey finds the skeleton of his brother in the Stone Pits outside Silas’ house. The money is returned. Godfrey confesses all to Nancy, tries to go reclaim Eppie but she refuses. She marries a rustic boy from town named Aaron after her and Silas visit Lantern Yard and see that it has been replaced with a grim factory.

Written between Mill on the Floss and Romola, but it shares, strangely, many of the the mythical preoccupations of the latter historical novel. It is a short, concentrated portrait of rustic life, that is deliberately a-historical (as opposed to Middlemarch)

Gold: the golden coins get replaced by Eppie’s golden hair. The coins allowed him to withdraw from society, whereas Eppie forces him back into social “circulation.”  Connect to the “golden” water at the end of Mill on the Floss: the pastoral can only be accessed through the protocols of the aesthetic: in Silas Marner, deployed as myth and myth-making.

Myth: Not located in a particular time or space. Employs the “sixteen years pass” trope, recognizable from The Winter’s Tale, etc.

History: It consists of the breaking of brown pots and their reconstruction as memorials–c’est tout–or can consist of artistic intervention, plotting, etc (the novel as such). The intrusion of historical time at the end of the novel (factory churning out workers) stands in stark contrast to the de-historicized world of craft and agriculture (Eppie wants to be a gardener). Compare to the ending of Mill on the Floss.

Work: Silas’ work, the act of weaving, has meaning-making capacity. Talk about in terms of craft: Ruskin, William Morris, etc.

Double-plot: a paired down version of a device that will be exploited more fully in Daniel Deronda.

Repeated image of the rivulet: Silas’ mind is likened to a rivulet, which contracts and expands throughout. As Eppie grows up, his mind begins to unfold into things like memory and the social.

Catalepsy: why does Eliot need Silas to be cataleptic? Discuss as plot device.

Short-sighted: Silas is also literally short-sighted. Why these physical disabilities?



T.S. Eliot – Non-fiction (1919-23)

Tradition and and the Individual Talent (1919)

Eliot is struggling to articulate how, once the “newness” of poetic expression has become cliché, someone can still make something new. He turns to tradition, which he claims is not passively inherited, but must be acquired with great labor. “The historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence” (38). What happens when an artist makes something new, happens simultaneously to every great work of art that has come before. Each new work of art alters the entire tradition, at least in some small way. “The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered.” Thus in relation to this tradition, the work of the artist becomes that of self-sacrifice, “a continual extinction of personality.” He then says that the mind of the artist if like a “shred of platinum” that acts as a catalyst for two gases to become sulfurous acid. This chemical analogy bears a strange relation to Woolf’s “atomic” theory in “Modern Fiction.” He thus argues against a poetics of personality:

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But of course only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from those things. (43)

Metaphysical Poets (1919)

A book review that turns into a theory of literary history and poetics tout court. Eliot defends folks like Donne from critics like Johnson, who wrote disparagingly of them that, “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.” Rather than think of them as a failed aberration from the heritage of English poetry (Milton, Wordsworth, Tennyson, etc.), Eliot wants to say that there is something valuable in this poetry that has been lost–namely, the coincidence of thought and feeling.

A thought in Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly quipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noises of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes. (64)

Since their time, Eliot believes, we have suffered and are still suffering from a dissociation of sensibility–an inability to unify sensibility with thought (Shelley almost does in Triumph of Life, but he dies, along with Keats). Thus poetry today must be “difficult,” as he famously writes, since it needs to deal with complexity and fragmentations heretofore not experienced.

Ulysses, Order and Myth (1923)

Opens by praising Larbaud’s review of Joyce, which calls attention to the Odyssey parallels, and by criticizing Aldingtion’s review, which accused Joyce’s method of being undisciplined and vulgar. Eliot first defines classicism (drawing from Hulme), as something which all good literature strives for within the possibilities of its space and time–that is, not a fixed historical term, but a living category undergoing transformation. Joyce’s ability to deal with living material in a classical matter, Eliot believes, has the importance of a scientific discovery. It is not a novel, because the novel was the product of an age that has not lost its form enough to feel the need for something stricter (177). Along with Lewis’ Tarr, Eliot foretells the death of the novel. James and Flaubert were the last.

Thus Joyce employs the mythical method, which is a way of “controlling, ordering, giving shape and significance to the anarchy and futility which is contemporary history.” He says that Yeats has also done this (look at Easter 1916 for one example, but probably best to look at Leda and the Swan). It is through this method, that Joyce helps makes “the modern world possible for art,” which means that art has a intervening power beyond mere description. It can create it material. Very interesting to think of Tarr as employing the mythical method. One wonders….


Yeats – The Circus Animals’ Desertion (1939)

This is one of the most depressing titles in poetry, and most of the poem is similarly so. It is a late poem (literally the last poem in Last Poems). In it Yeats paints a sobering portrait of an aging artist (the ring leader and Yeats himself) profoundly disenchanted with his trade. The central problem revolves around his inability to forge a work of art (the performance or, for Yeats, a poem) out of the characters and tropes at his disposal: circus animals, stilted boys, burnished chariots, “lion and woman and Lord knows what…” Yeats was always anxious about his poetic symbolism–look at the short poem “The Coat” to see how he renounces “old mythologies” and decides that “there’s more enterprise / In walking naked.” I think it’s crucial while reading this poem to imagine Yeats himself looking back at his own oeuvre, questioning the deployment of his own constellation of characters and tropes. Read in this way, the poem is thoroughly post-modern, a poem about writing poems.

I was most impressed by the closing strophe of this poem, but I’m posting the whole thing–it’s not too long, and it’s necessary if one is going to fully appreciate the stunning finale.

The Circus Animals’ Desertion


I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so.
Maybe at last, being but a broken man,
I must be satisfied with my heart, although
Winter and summer till old age began
My circus animals were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.


What can I but enumerate old themes,
First that sea-rider Oisin led by the nose
Through three enchanted islands, allegorical dreams,
Vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose,
Themes of the embittered heart, or so it seems,
That might adorn old songs or courtly shows;
But what cared I that set him on to ride,
I, starved for the bosom of his faery bride.

And then a counter-truth filled out its play,
‘The Countess Cathleen’ was the name I gave it;
She, pity-crazed, had given her soul away,
But masterful Heaven had intervened to save it.
I thought my dear must her own soul destroy
So did fanaticism and hate enslave it,
And this brought forth a dream and soon enough
This dream itself had all my thought and love.

And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread
Cuchulain fought the ungovernable sea;
Heart-mysteries there, and yet when all is said
It was the dream itself enchanted me:
Character isolated by a deed
To engross the present and dominate memory.
Players and painted stage took all my love,
And not those things that they were emblems of.


Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

I only recently discovered that Yeats wrote that last line, even though it’s quite famous. I became acquainted with it while working at Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris, where it is inscribed above one of the door frames. I think Allen Ginsberg called S&Co. “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” A great image. Anyway, back to the poem…

In the first section, the ringmaster, “being but a broken man,” is struggling between sticking to his trade (seeking a theme) or being “satisfied with [his] heart.” The second section opens with a depressing revelation: “What can I but enumerate old things.” I don’t believe this means that he has run dry of creativity; rather, much more darkly, he is wondering whether he has ever produced anything truly original. After recalling the themes which have defined his career (by the way, these stanzas make direct references to Yeats’s early work), a kernel of self-knowledge comes in the third stanza of the second section:

It was the dream itself enchanted me:
Character isolated by a deed
To engross the present and dominate memory.
Players and painted stage took all my love,
And not those things that they were emblems of.

The ringmaster is questioning the validity of the abstract ideals he has represented with the “players and painted stage.” Having become enchanted by “the dream,” his art became disconnected with reality to the degree that its relevance and potency waned. It had become hollow, a play of masks symbolizing nothing. That said, there is beauty in the representation:

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?

A bit of back-patting on the part of Yeats (calling his poetry “masterful”) before asking a question that has been asked many, many times by many, many poets. Where does poetry come from? Or, What is the source of inspiration? For Yeats, who has just described the emptiness of a poetic system committed to the abstract and ethereal, the answer is thoroughly anti-Romantic. No fountains of knowledge, no vague notions of genius, no imagination “bodying forth.” What is the origin of poetry?

A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till.

Where are the sweeping vistas of the Lake District? Where are the existential crises of Hamlet? Where are the gods? Where is the Muse? Where are the fatefully beautiful women? Where are the warriors? Where is the impossible love? Where is the innocent child? Without them, what is the poet to do?

Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

I suppose this final retreat into the self is somewhat Romantic–but Yeats’s portrait of the artist’s interior is not at all. Deprived of access to the ethereal realms (the ladder is gone), he must finally be “satisfied with [his] heart”–here described as a foul rag and bone shop.

I like to think of this as a response to a goal Yeats set for himself earlier in his career in “The Fisherman.” Speaking of the eponymous character, he cries,

‘Before I am old
I shall have written him one
Poem maybe as cold
And passionate as the dawn.’

Yeats – Leda and the Swan (1928)

From The Tower (1928), but dated 1923. Leda is Helen’s mother, this therefore connects with both “No Second Troy” and “September 1913.” Two quatrains of alternating rhymes followed by two tercets rhyming ABC/ABC. The poem connects the insemination of Leda directly with the fall of Troy:

A sudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.

Yet one more instant of Yeats connecting birth and reproduction with destruction (cf. Easter 1916, Second Coming), yet here, in tis penetration of the human by the divine, the argument is that history (blind, violent) takes place as a rape. The question of knowledge and self-consciousness remains: the interrogatives of the second stanza are paired with interrogatives in the final stanza:

So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop.

This begins to get at a question that runs throughout Yeats: What sort of relationship to history can historical actors actually have? Do we act blindly, or can we achieve soem sort of objectivity in relation to our actions, contingent as they may be? The beauty of the opening stanzas points to the ability to aestheticize these histories. “A sudden blow” contains a  mimetic quality–not entirely referential–that may be required of language if we are going to be able to put on a knowledge at all.


Yeats – A Coat (1914)

The second to last poem in Responsibilities (1914), it is one of Yeats most sparse and biting poems, critiquing in 10 lines improper relationship to history, the  middle-class reception of his poetry, and the flowery language of his early poetry:

I made my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world’s eyes
As though they’s wrought it.
Song, let them take it,
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.

The rhyming scheme opens with In Memoriam stanza but quickly devolves into ABAAB(C/B). Further, the A is merely It repeated three times, barely a rhyme, and naked almost rhymes with it, a commentary, perhaps, on the bare bones of poetic resources. Imagery is allusive to other Yeats poems: the coat looks forward to Sailing to Byzantium. Mythologies could be tied in with no second Troy. And the task of embroidering harkens back to Adam’s Curse. The turn to “Song” in the closing lines effectively objectifies poetry as something outside the complete control of the poet: his poems have taken up and used by readers that have an insufficiently critical relationship to Irish myth and history. Yet asking the Song to walk naked is paradoxical, since it is a piece of clothing? So here is a disavowal of poetry, but a disavowal that will become immanent to poetic form. “Naked” then points forward to Yeats later sparseness.

Yeats – September 1913 (1914)

From the volume Responsibilities (1914), which continues the move away from magical Irish past in Green Helmet, but now explicitly linking that move to the political environment of the day. The first epigraph “In dreams begin responsibility” can be read as a direct overhaul of his previous ideas concerning the role of poetry and the poet (cf. Wandering Aengus). in his essay on the volume, Pound would declare that Yeats had struck “a new note,” more harsh and severe–apparent in “minor ways” in the Green Helmet collection.

“September 1913” refers to the workers strike, which for Yeats is directly linked to “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone.” The opening describes in sordid detail the miserliness characteristic of Ireland’s rulers (“fumble in greasy til / And add the halfpence to the pence”). He laments the squandered deaths of particular Irish heroes by name–looking forward to the specificity of citation that will arise in other late poems. Formally,the four stanzas comprised of eight lines of alternating verse. But after the first stanza, the rhymes begin to break down (kind/wind; again/pain; were/hair). Yeats is working in a form struggling against its material. Crucially, this poem is about Ireland not living up to it Romantic past; Yeats is not saying that such a past did not exist or is not interesting. He is locating an historical rupture. The final stanze looks back to “No Second Troy,” when it accuses “You” of consigning the uprising to a unbridled passion inspired by “some woman’s yellow hair.” Yeats is saying, no, that sort of use of history and myth is not appropriate to explaining the workers strike of 1913.

Yeats – No Second Troy (1910)

The poem is part of The Green Helmet and Other Poems (1910). It explicitly refers to Yeats’ fractious affair with Maude Gonne, a revolutionary muse that married one of his friends. But this personal event gets couched within a mythical frame imported from Homer, which in turn frames the revolutionary impulses of the Irish. Thus a very good poem for looking at the convergence of the subject, history and politics. Formally, the poem is a series of four questions: the first two are entire quatrains, and they therefore lose their interrogative character as they expand from the inside into something very much like declaration. This reflects Yeats own ambivalence to the the political activities of Gonne and others. The final two questions, one line each (making to lines of alternating rhyme) intimate resignation and awe:

Why, what could she have done, begin what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?

Here we see the problematic importation of the mythic impulse into the political landscape of 1910.  Yeats seems to claim that such fervor is ultimately destructive when unleashed by “ignorant men” without “courage equal to desire.” Thus “hurling little streets upon the great” is a diminution of the mythic impulse that cannot entirely disregard the heroism of this poetic-political activity, “simple as a fire.”