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Medea’s Chorus

Myth and Women’s Poetry Since 1950

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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 Three: The Mysteries of Adrienne Rich’s Radical Feminism in Dream of a Common Language

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CHAPTER THREE

The Mysteries of Adrienne Rich’s Radical Feminism in The Dream of a Common Language



The Book of Myths

Like most of the women in this study, Adrienne Rich grew up copying the subjects and styles of the male poets whom she admired, but unlike many of her female contemporaries, she eventually rejected classical allusion. During the surge in feminist interest in matrifocal cultures and goddess worship in the 1970s, however, Rich adopted the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and the Eleusinian Mysteries, which celebrated the Greek goddess Demeter’s search for and reunion with her daughter Persephone, as relevant to her own life. Her prose work Of Woman Born (1976) and her volume of poems The Dream of a Common Language (1978) delineate what she gradually came to see as the crucial problem of patriarchal cultures—the fractured relationship between mother and daughter, woman and woman. Unlike Sylvia Plath’s choice to reinvent the tension-fraught mother/daughter relationship from the Electra/Clytemnestra myth, Rich worked from the joyous reunion of Demeter and Persephone in the myth that symbolized for her the essential connection for which contemporary women must strive. ← 51 | 52 →

Rich grew up reading the canonical male poets and believing that in order to be taken seriously as a poet herself, she would have to reject or hide “feminine” aspects of her thoughts or style. She writes in “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision” (1971), “I had been...

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