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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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1. See Ostriker, Alicia Suskin. Stealing the Language. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.

2. Many scholars have labored to demonstrate the multiplicity of literary modernism. For a study of the conversation between the high and low modernisms, see High and Low Moderns: Literature and Culture, 1889–1939. Edited by Maria DiBattista and Lucy McDiarmid. New York: Oxford U.P., 1996. Another excellent study is Peter Nicholls’s Modernisms: A Literary Guide. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. I do not mean to suggest that high modernism was monolithic. When I refer to high or classic modernists, unless otherwise noted, I specifically refer to Eliot and Pound’s circle of poets, and exclude James Joyce from the group.

3. Hulme expands on his idea in his essay “Romanticism and Classicism” (1912), in which he “evokes the bare, empirical, and disillusioned landscape of the new classicism. The classical world is dry and hard; the romantic is damp and soft. ‘In the classic,’ moreover, ‘it is always the light of ordinary day,’ as opposed to the drugged, hallucinatory romantic light ‘that never was on land or sea’” (Gregory 16, Hulme 127). For a discussion of Romantic Hellenism, see David Ferris. Silent Urns: Romanticism, Hellenism, and Modernity. Stanford: Stanford U.P., 2000.

4. Much scholarship and theoretical work has been devoted to high modernism and myth. For the purposes of my study I am only interested in the effects of the modernist classical return...

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