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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 Four: Margaret Atwood’s Transformed Circe


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Margaret Atwood’s Transformed Circe

Living on the Margins

During the same years in which Adrienne Rich was experimenting with mythology, only to turn away from it as too representative of oppression to use in her writing, Margaret Atwood also wrestled with how to make it meaningful for a modern audience. Much like Rich, she sought to expose the dangerous gender constructions within the existing stories that she felt had become so engrained that they not only reflected human behavior but influenced her contemporaries’ actions, ensnaring them in limiting and dehumanizing roles. She wanted to shatter the belief that archetypes are inflexible, that the familiar endings to stories are fixed, that the gender roles assigned to the sexes through the ages are inevitable. But unlike Rich, she would not give up on mythology. When Odysseus washes up on Circe’s island in Atwood’s twenty-four-poem sequence “Circe/Mud Poems” (1974), he is ready to relive the same story to which he has been bound for millennia. Atwood’s Circe challenges him to break free of the myth that keeps them locked in a cycle of violence and abandonment, to envision an alternate life in which the two characters defy their ascribed roles. Through Circe, Atwood challenges mythology’s failings, even while she embraces The Odyssey’s affirmation of Odysseus’s choice of mortality over immortality. Ultimately, through her revisions Atwood upholds ← 77 | 78 → a principal theme of Homer’s epic: the need for humans to rediscover...

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