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Treatment of Mythological Traditions in Poetry

Updated on September 5, 2015

“Myths are public dreams; dreams are private myths” – Joseph Campbell

Poetry appears to have originated as a collective endeavor, or at least for a collective purpose. Many of the earliest literary and often religious works are poems. Notably, poetry played a major role in religious and other ceremonial events and helped to preserve a tribe’s or group’s history and its traditions, which were often passed down orally from generation to generation— a process that continues in some groups even today (Murfin, Ray, pg. 352). Other time, however, the collective use of poetry diminished. Poetry became a vehicle for individual expression. By the Modern Period, 1915-1945 poetry was considered a highly individualistic endeavor; perhaps no other form of expression is deemed so intensely personal and unique (Murfin, Ray, pg. 352). This social shift from collective to private poetry deeply reflects in a poet’s treatment of mythological traditions in his or her poetry.


Medieval Poetry: Beowulf

During the profoundly religious and carnivalesque Medieval times, poetical treatment of mythologies was strictly, and seriously, unsecular. The Church successfully conveyed to a diverse group of peoples— including the ancestors of the English people, the Anglo-Saxons—the value of a stable moral and civil order through Christianity (Murfin, Ray, pg. 252). This serious treatment of mythologies in medieval poetry is expected from society because poetry was rooted in religious practices in all cultures and the touchy topic of religion was expressed in elevated style and formal discourse (Week 1 Notes, 2014). “Beowulf,” the earliest English epic poem, exemplifies the cross-pollination of Nordic and Christian mythologies during the Medieval Period. For instance, while the anonymous poet of “Beowulf” alludes to biblical Cain, son of Adam and Eve, and the monotheistic Christian God in lines 106-108, “After his creator cast him out/With the kin of Cain, the everlasting Lord/Destining for the death of Abel killed” (Ferguson et al., pg. 4). Thus, while the poet alludes to the omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipotent God of the New Testament, the Book of Genesis, and concepts such as predetermined fate, the poet nevertheless incorporates heavy Nordic elements into the poetry as well, such as the religious burning of Beowulf’s funeral pyre, and the heroes epic battles with sea serpents, evil creatures of the wild, and the dragon. Therefore, “Beowulf” ultimately highlights the religious transformation of society in its midst phase of cultural diffusion in the Northern regions of Europe while also incorporating the large considerations of life and death, war and peace, and good and evil (Atwood, Ousby, pg. 84).


17th Century Poetry: "Paradise Lost"

As the democratic space of the public sphere became segregated into distinct classes during the 16th and 17th centuries, poetry then began using myths more as a vehicle for highlighting political or socio-economic tension, rather than strictly religious purposes as it did during the Medieval Period. During the English Renaissance Period in English literature, Poetical treatment of mythological traditions became more reflective of the political structures and the changes they underwent during the transition of monarchies between the Early Tudor Age (1550-58), the Elizabethan Age (1558-1603), the Jacobean Age (1603-25), the Caroline Age (1625-49), and the Commonwealth Age (1649-60) (Murfin, Ray, pg. 406). Furthermore, poets were often attached to the royal court and religious and political activists during the English Renaissance (Week 2 Notes, 2014). Thus, the representations of myths in poetry were often historical allegories for monarchal affairs. For instance, John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” is an allegory equating the fall of Satan and the icy coldness of the Christian God with the fall of the Puritan dominated Parliament and the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy with Charles II. Milton, who was a devote Puritan, paradoxically likened his political position with a uniquely sympathetic Satan in Book 1. Thus, Milton did accomplish something some “Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme,” that is to create a new perspective on the traditional Christian myths to stir resentment towards the objects, beings, and ideas intended for worship and praise. In fact, Milton even glossed over certain contemporary developments in scientific and intellectual thoughts to create mythological ‘realism’ because the credibility of the story was dependent on the shapes of Christian beliefs rather than historical details (Atwood, Ousby, pg. 755).


18th Century Poetry: The Myth of the Exotic Other

In the 18th century, which was characterized by a massive influx in European exploration overseas and over untrodden lands, the private individuals in England generated an intense curiosity for the exotic and newly discovered mythos of Native Americans, Atlantic Islanders, South Americans, and Africans. This desire of the ‘other’ manifested in many forms other than poetry such as Aphra Behn’s “Ooronoko,” and Samuel Johnson’s “Rasselas.” Even so, this new fascination towards exotic myths from new lands also surfaced in American poetry as well, such as in Philip Freneau’s “The Indian Burying Ground,” who travelled to the West Indies in 1776 and was inspired by the exotic settings of the Caribbean (Atwood, Ousby, pg. 372). “The Indian Burying Ground” was written towards the end of the 18th century and accurately highlighted the complex, and often ambiguous, feelings associated with exotic myths: captivation and devaluation, desire and repulsion, cultural comparisons and misunderstandings. In the tide waves of Enlightenment theories, English writers often viewed these myths, despite their admiration and interest, as inferior and animalistic practices. Thus, during the 18th century, mythological traditions were associated with barbarism and savage ways of life as Freneau describes in his poem in lines 24, “The fancies of a ruder race,” 27-28, “(and which the shepherd still admires)/The children of the forest played!” 31-32, “And many a barbarous form is seen/To chide the man that lingers there,” and 37-40, “And long shall timorous fancy see/The painted chief, and pointed spear,/And Reason’s self shall bow the knee/To shadows and delusions here” (Ferguson et al., pg. 657).


19th Century Poetry: Reconnecting with Ancient Myths

19th century poets, on the other hand, resented the logocentric ideologies of the Enlightenment and thusly recalled in their poetry the ancient mythos long lost to the recent memory of English poets such as the Greek and Middle Eastern mythologies. Since poets during the 19th century began to come from classes other than nobility, new perspectives on culture appeared in poetry, thusly igniting a poetical trend of self-appointing voices of change contributing to the political changes and revolutions of this time (Week 3 Notes, 2014). Therefore, the socio-political power charged in 19th century poetry cannot be understated. The poetical treatment of mythological traditions during this era of literary was directly related to ideological tensions between the Enlightenment and the emerging Romanticism, which marked a pervasive sense of collapse within the individual subject of those intricate systems of moral, religious and psychic control, constraint and limitation which were being shaken apart at the public or institutional level by the American and French Revolutions (Atwood, Ousby, pg. 851). This re-embracement of ancient myths, which was often evoked elegiacally as if ‘myths’ were dead, was a form of ideological rebellion against the Reason. This treatment of mythological traditions is exemplified in Percy Shelley’s poems “Ozymandias” and “Adonais,” during which he alludes heavily to Greek mythological figures, stories, and language. For instance, the title “Ozymandias” is the Greek name for the Egyptian monarch Ramses, and in “Adonais” Shelley uses a quote directly from the Greek philosopher, Plato, in order to amplify and set the tone for the rest of his verse (Ferguson et al., pgs. 799, 807). These poets highlight the creative contradictions of the Romantic movement: the tantalizing ambiguity of certain key myths, ideas and images, and the persistence of philosophical idealism in his political thought (Atwood, Ousby, pg. 906).


19th Century Poetry: Reconnecting with Nature

Furthermore, the Transcendentalists of the 19th century, while not directly alluding to ancient mythos, they nevertheless exemplified, and thus reanimated, a form of animism. The most notable poets to do so were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. This new approach to the treatment of mythological traditions seems to stem directly from the socio-economic changes of the 19th century. In an increasingly industrializing, and urbanizing world, the more overshadowed the role of the individual and nature became; writing at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, Wordsworth beheld the assault of technology on nature to sense the demise of the spiritual in his poem “The World is Too Much With Us,” ultimately arguing that it is better to possess the Pagan’s awe of nature’s animated power than to domesticate that power with pollution-spewing factories (White, pg. 34). Thus, the Transcendental Movement and its reverberations of ancient animism is ultimately a call to retreat towards traditionalism. As Emerson allegorical represents in his poem, “The Snow-Storm,” industrialism and modernism are conquering the countryside, consuming nature in all its beauty like a swiftly spreading disease, leaving the private lives of individuals “shut out” and “In a tumultuous privacy of storm” (Ferguson et al., pg. 851).


20th Century Poetry: Myths as Allusions

At the fin de siècle, the modernist poet, characterized by a desire to break away from literary traditions and conventions, was in incubation. Poetry became more individualized and personal, particularly during and after the Great War and Great Depression. Again, in response to the changing socio-economic conditions of society, the poetical treatment of mythological traditions also altered from the previous centuries. Since the nature of the Modernist poet was characterized by intense privacy, and the nature of mythology is characterized by its collective consciousness and appeal to whole societies, naturally tension arose between the poet and the subject of mythology, igniting tones of mockery and fragmented traditions. No other poet from the early 20th century better epitomized this treatment of mythological traditions than T. S. Eliot in his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” While Eliot emphasizes his distaste for industrialization and the rigid, systematic routines of modern living, he nevertheless characterizes the hopeless, depressed, and confused Modernist individual trapped inside his or her secluded mind. This idea is consistent with the growth of psychological studies, particularly psychoanalysis. Furthermore, however, Eliot’s treatment of mythological traditions reflects these social and ideological changes. For instance, in lines 94-98, Eliot describes the folly in reading ancient myths because they are so far removed from our linguistic understanding, “To say: ‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead,/Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all’—/If one, settling a pillow by her head,/Should say: ‘That is not what I meant at all./That is not it, at all.’” (Ferguson et al., pg. 1232). Ultimately, Eliot’s concerns on mythologies deal not with the ancients, but rather the empty social rituals and myths of the ‘American Dream,’ characterized by the aspirations of middle-class families, and the industrially incompatible Victorian legacy of marriage and family values (Aries, Duby, pg. 540-541). In addition, mythology in general was becoming overlooked in the Modern Period because individuals began finding the meaning and purpose of organizations and collective actions in politics through labor movements and scientific studies rather than religion and classical texts (Kourany, Sterba, Tong, pg. 243).

Summary and Concluding Thoughts

Over the course of time and distinct literary periods, it is apparent that each era approached mythological systems differently. Usually these approaches are consistent with the socio-economic and ideological changes of history, which naturally and significantly affect the treatment of countless other literary and universal themes besides the treatment of mythological traditions. Even so, by noticing the changing of poetical attitudes towards mythology, readers will notice that as poets became more individualistic and poetry in the English language became an art of all classes, races, and ethnicities, the more fragmented traditions became represented, including the treatment of ancient mythologies. Even so, into the Postmodern Period, major literary theorists such as Roland Barthes and Dick Hebdige further show the relationship between politically-made myths (appealing to nationalism) manifest in the period’s explosion of mass advertising, production, and media, during which the treatment and manifestations of mythological traditions stem beyond linguistics to other systems of discourse outside language (fashion, film, food) which opens up the door for contemporary cultural studies investigating in this same theme (Cain et al., pg. 2450-2451). Ultimately, these cultural spectacles are directly reflected back into the poetry and thus worth mentioning here as we head into the contemporary literary world.



Aries, P., Duby, G. (1991). A history of private life: Riddles of identity in modern times (2nd Ed., Vol. 5). Cambridge, MA; London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Atwood, M., Ousby, I. (1988). The cambridge guide to literature in english (1st ed.) New York, NY: Cambridge University Press & The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited.

Cain, W., Finke L., Johnson B., Leitch V., McGowan J., & Williams J.J.(2001) The norton anthology: Theory and criticism (1st ed.) New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Ferguson, M., Salter, M. J., & Stallworthy, J. (Eds.). (2005). The Norton anthology of poetry (5th ed.). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Murfin R., Ray S. (2003). The bedford glossary of critical and literary terms. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

White, F. (2008). The daily writer. Ohio, PA: Writer’s Digest Books & F+W Publications, Inc.


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    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 

      3 years ago from Australia

      thank you - I never knew that about Columbia!

    • LiveFitForLife profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Batavia, NY

      Thank you for your response, Anne! You are rightly amazed about the influence of mythology and its relevance in contemporary society. I can think of a number of examples ranging from superheroes to political cartoons. Even so, my favorite example is one we often see but never recognize: you know the lady holding the statue during the opening credits of some movies? That's the goddess Columbia, hence Columbia pictures. There is a rich history surrounding this mythical figure. For instance, she was often used as a political anthropomorphization for manifest destiny during the 19th century. I'm glad you enjoyed this hub.

    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 

      3 years ago from Australia

      An impressive precis of such a wide-ranging subject. I'm often amazed at how often ancient myths are still incorporated into modern lives/culture. Voted up


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