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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 Five: Eavan Boland’s Aging Earth Mother


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Eavan Boland’s Aging Earth Mother

Theories of Myth and Aging

From W.B. Yeats’s Kathleen Ni Houlihan to Seamus Heaney’s Bog Queen, the poetic trope of land as woman pervades Irish literature. In traditional male poetry, the earth as an old hag, such as the Cailleach Beare, who turns into a young queen leaves no room for a woman’s natural aging process. Since the feminist movement took effect in Ireland in the 1970s, women poets have questioned the images of woman as a cyclically barren and fertile mother earth that are so pervasive in Irish poetry and legend. When Adrienne Rich wrote of “a book of myths in which our names do not appear” in “Diving Into the Wreck,” she highlighted the dearth of representations of “real” women in mythology. Using the Demeter and Persephone myth to undergird each poem in her subsequent collection, Dream of a Common Language, Rich set out to inscribe her own name and those of other women, calling for “a whole new poetry” based on feminine eros that would break the hold of Tradition. While Boland writes in Object Lessons (1995) about the profound influence Rich had on her understanding of her own position as a woman poet, she rejects Rich’s “separatist thinking,” which, she explains, “is a persuasive and dangerous influence on any woman poet writing today. It tempts her to disregard the whole poetic past as patriarchal betrayal. It pleads with...

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