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Medea’s Chorus

Myth and Women’s Poetry Since 1950


Veronica House

Women’s mythic revision is a tradition at the heart of twentieth-century literature. Medea’s Chorus explores post-WWII women’s poetry that takes Greek mythology as its central topos. The book investigates five of the most influential poets writing in the twentieth century (H.D., Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Margaret Atwood, Eavan Boland) who challenge both the ancient literary representations of women and the high modernist appropriations of the classics. In their poetry and prose, the women engage with cultural discourses about literary authority, gender, oppression, violence, and age. Yet even while the poets rework certain aspects of the Greek myths that they find troubling, they see the inherent power in the stories and use that power for personal and social revelation. Because myths exist in multiple versions, ancient writers did not create from scratch; their artistic contribution lay in how they changed the stories. Modern female poets are engaging in a several millennia-old tradition of mythic revision, a tradition that has ruthlessly posited that there is no place for women in the creation and transmission of mythological poetry. Medea’s Chorus tracks mythic revision from the 1950s through the second-wave feminist movement and into turn-of-the-century feminism to highlight individual achievements and to show the collective effect of the poets’ highly varied works on post-WWII literature and feminist thought and practice. This engaging and beautifully written book is a must-read for any student, teacher, or scholar of the Classical Tradition, revisionist mythmaking, and twentieth-century poetry.
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Chapter One: H.D.’s Revision of Kleos Culture in Helen in Egypt


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H.D.’s Revision of Kleos Culture in Helen In Egypt

H.D.’s Mythic Mirror

When Hilda Doolittle accepted Ezra Pound’s name for her, “H.D. Imagiste,” she could hardly have imagined the muscle his words would have in shaping her lifelong reputation. He and his contemporaries wielded the power to create and destroy literary lives, and they executed it with definitive and unforgiving strokes. In 1952, forty years after her “naming,” when H.D. looked back at her career, from her poetic fragments to her long poems and novels, she found a lifetime of her mythic revisions of female characters conscribed to limited roles by their male creators. During the next four years, H.D. wrote Helen in Egypt to challenge prevailing ideas about her own identity, gender constructions, and literary authority. Using the earliest literature in the Greek language, Homer’s Iliad, she critiqued both the dominant culture and the Western literary tradition. This choice was a direct response to Pound. In Helen in Egypt, H.D. challenges his ideas about the appropriate use of the classics and asserts her poetic legitimacy. Indeed, the issue of reputation is at the heart of Helen in Egypt. The ancient Greek concept of kleos (glory, renown, fame) as it relates to the figure of Helen in H.D.’s four major classical predecessors (Homer, Stesichorus, Euripides, and Sappho) guided her vision of her heroine in Helen in Egypt and her own conception of herself as a writer. ← 1...

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