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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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Introduction: “Backward to your sources, sacred rivers!”


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“Backward to your sources, sacred rivers!”

What does it mean to claim that myths are timeless? That figures are archetypal? Implicit in our understanding of ancient mythologies is the notion that they contain a truth that resonates through the ages and across cultures. There is also, in the modern conception of the word “myth,” an understanding of falsehood. This definitional tension is inherent in what Alicia Ostriker famously calls feminist “revisionist mythmaking,” challenges to and revisions of representations of female characters from mythology (213).1 Myth is a powerful form of persuasion—it teaches people how to live and encodes and transmits cultural values. Feminist writers have capitalized on myth’s potency while they expose the ways in which existing myths marginalize female characters, often portraying them as victims, virgins, murderers, or deceivers, as reflections of male fantasies and fears. If archetypal gender roles allotted to mythic figures are not timeless, however, but malleable, and if the archetype is in fact an artifact of a culture that no longer exists, then writers can set out for new terrain, enact new cultural scripts, and create characters who are not bound by their previous incarnations. Myth is neither inherently misogynistic nor paternalistic. It is an imaginative rendering of a culture’s beliefs, which implies that as a culture changes, the wellsprings of the culture’s imagination should change along with it to remain viable. When the women poets in this study...

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