Poetry and Myth (Part I)
This hub describes about the relation between poem and myths. It is part I.
Poetry and myth are, generally speaking, blood relations, scions of human imagination, individual or collective, which has ever tended to impose order on the chaos of life around in order to establish a fruitful relationship between man and the things and forces external as well as internal. The great myths of the world are apparently fabulous or even fantastic stories dealing with the union, conflict and interplay of natural and supernatural beings; but a closer view will find some moral, historical or spiritual and psychological core hidden in their bewildering structure. They, in fact, represent the earliest attempt of human communities at an imaginative and emotional apprehension of the forces and mysteries of the universe which were, at every step, impinging upon the life and activities of man.
Mythology or the collective body of such myths, is a cherished heritage of the races or nations in the world and I. A. Richards has rightly stated that a nation without mythology is, in fact, a nation without a soul. As the myths were part of the national culture and played a vital role in education from the earliest childhood till they became familiar and popular as household-words and old proverbs, they were naturally taken up by the poets and carefully cast into the mould of secondary imagination. The classical mythology, for example, the richest and the best cycle in the West, received a powerful impetus from the poetic efforts of Hesiod and Homer, of Pindar and the Greek tragedians before the myths were received by the Romans, who altered and modified them in details, setting the seal of their own genius in the Metamorphoses of Ovid, one of their popular poets and the most fruitful channel through which these Greek myths passed into the Christian countries of Europe and later became a tradition which is living and vital till this day.
The relation between myth and poetry has been permanent, complex and many-sided. The most elementary treatment of these myths is illustrated by numerous efforts to re-tell the old mythical stories simply or elaborately, directly or dramatically. Thus, Victorian poet, Morris, has retold a good many of these stories in his own simple, realistic and at times decorative style, while Landor has brought out the intense dramatic situations embedded in several widely known Greek myths. The second obvious way of using myth is a common device in poetry and prose alike and is based upon the author’s tendency to introduce mythological allusions in order to enrich, decorate ad elevate the style or illustrate and elucidate his meaning and thought. English literature is full of illustrations of this type and one has to open only a page of Spencer or Shakespeare, Milton or Keats for a convincing proof of it. This device, however, is most effective only so long as the myths remain familiar to the audience.
With the advance of scientific civilization, however, mythology has ceased to be a part of popular education and mythological allusions consequently have lost their force and immediacy of appeal. Under such circumstances, therefore, the only course open to the poet is interpretation of the old myths. This has been one of the oldest and most fruitful poetic practices which has conclusively demonstrated the surprising flexibility of myth as a device in poetry.