The doctoral dissertation by Ewa Młynarczyk, entitled Literary Appropriations of Myth and Legend in the Poetry of Alfred Lord Tennyson, William Morris, Algernon Charles Swinburne and William Butler Yeats, written in English, under the supervision of Prof. Grażyna Bystydzieńska, and completed in 2022, has been published by the Institute of English Studies of the University of Warsaw. By purchasing a hard copy of the book at an online charity auction, you will be able to support the Avalon Foundation. Its digital version is available for free download via this website.
Update [16.02.2024]: the charity auction has ended. For those interested in free hard copy of the book, please send a private message via contact form: link. In stock: 9.
Literary Appropriations of Myth and Legend in the Poetry of Alfred Lord Tennyson, William Morris, Algernon Charles Swinburne and William Butler Yeats
For centuries, myth has proved to be a powerful vehicle for generating new, epoch-dependent meanings. After its temporary eclipse in the eighteenth century, myth’s universal usability once again reasserted itself in the poetry of Romantic, Victorian and later nineteenth-century poets.
The aim of the book is to show that the works of Alfred Lord Tennyson, William Morris, Algernon Charles Swinburne and William Butler Yeats prove that myths and legends could still be employed in original and creative ways. Not only do these poets show keen awareness of the classical heritage but they also venture into other cultural areas, exploring Celtic and Norse themes and adapting them for their particular needs. Another important feature that they all share is the influence of the Romantic tradition on their works, so that these poets themselves may be perceived as the last Romantics.
The book focuses on the comparative analysis of three motifs, common to myths and legends coming from different cultural backgrounds: the quest, the otherworlds, and the outcast (the sense of alienation and internal conflict experienced by a mortal in touch with the higher reality). Questers for inspiration, seekers of higher knowledge, dreamers versed in ancient lore, born out of their time, escaping from their world into the fairyland, yet struggling to communicate their vision to their contemporaries, the mythological characters have provided the Victorian poets with the masks allowing them to make their message at the same time personal and universal.
Introduction: Myth in the Nineteenth Century
Mythography and the Comparative Approach
Myth and the Poetic Imagination
Chapter One: The Quest
Quest as a Structural Principle
Quest as a Poetic Autobiography
Chapter Two: The Otherworlds
The Chronotopes of the Otherworlds
The Otherworlds, Escapism and Art for Art’s Sake
Greek Otherworlds: The Land of Oblivion
An Interlude: The Images of the Earthly Paradise
Celtic Otherworlds: The Blessed Islands
Chapter Three: The Outcast
The Poet as a Visionary — a Prophet or an Outcast?
The Mood of Stagnation
The Mood of Restlessness
The aim of the book is to examine the use of mythical and legendary themes in the selected poems by the four Post-romantic poets, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Algernon Charles Swinburne, William Morris and William Butler Yeats. It is based on two main premises. Firstly, world myths and legends are regional manifestations of the underlying universal patterns, and as such, lend themselves to a comparative study. Secondly, the specific realisations of these common themes are context-dependent, and thus, they may take on different shades as they are adapted and modified by the storyteller/poet retelling the myth.
The book consists of Preface, Introduction, three analytical chapters, and Conclusions. The purpose of the Preface is to delineate the modern theoretical concepts concerning literary myth criticism at the core of the present thesis, such as Jung’s ‘archetypes,’ Frye’s ‘mythoi,’ Lévi-Strauss’s ‘mythemes,’ and Barthes’s ‘empty signifiers,’ as well as theories taking into account the reception of myth in a given epoch. The Introduction shows how these notions are rooted in the nineteenth-century theoretical and literary stances concerning the nature of myth — on the one hand, the comparative approach focusing on the universal aspects of myth represented by Müller, Lang, and Frazer, and on the other, the creative approach espoused by the nineteenth-century men of letters, with a special emphasis on the views of myth in Tennyson, Swinburne, Morris, and Yeats.
These two complementary approaches to myth in literature as a realisation of a common motif through a literary appropriation serve as underlying concepts for the three main chapters, each of which focuses on the individual creative treatment of one motif in the works by all the four poets. The first chapter concentrates on the quest motif, which in the poems of Tennyson, Yeats, and Swinburne has become a symbolical representation of the poet’s search of inspiration and his poetic maturing. In Morris, on the other hand, the metaphorical journey into the realm of myth and legend gives the reader a chance to escape from the ugliness of nineteenth-century Industrial England. This nineteenth-century escapism is especially visible in the poems based on myths about Greek and Celtic Otherworlds, which constitutes the main theme of the second chapter. Whereas in Swinburne’s works, Proserpine’s kingdom is presented as a place of peace and respite from the passions, in the poetry of the other three poets, this respite turns out to be illusory, and the life in the Otherworlds is shown as sterile and purposeless. Thus, paradoxically, this seemingly escapist theme may in fact be interpreted as a call to action in the real world.
The third and final motif, common to myths and legends coming from different cultural backgrounds, is the sense of alienation and internal conflict experienced by a mortal in touch with the higher reality. Both Tithonus and Tiresias in the poems by Tennyson and Swinburne suffer from emotional paralysis as they cannot find their place either among the immortals or their fellow men. In Yeats’s early poem, glimpses from the world of the Celtic sídhe cause unease and dissatisfaction with the ordinary life in its protagonist. Finally, the works by Morris and Swinburne based on medieval legends combine the theme of alienation with the other two motifs of the quest and the otherworlds, as their main characters turn away from the world they know and embark on the quest which leads them into the supernatural realms, bringing them even greater sense of isolation. These myths and legends appear to reflect the position of the visionary poet torn between his allegiance to the world of imagination and the demands and incomprehension from his community.
Hence, the book shows how the four poets use the mythical and legendary motifs in their poetry to comment on the issues concerning art, faith, politics, and the poet’s place in society. For Tennyson, Morris, Swinburne, and Yeats, myths and legends were not just mere stories, but important sources of inspiration which provided them with a means to express their preoccupations and, perhaps inadvertently, the spirit of their times.
Key Words: Tennyson, Morris, Swinburne, Yeats, Victorian poetry, myth, legend, archetype, empty signifier, quest, otherworlds, outcast, prophet, escapism, art for art’s sake.
- Prof. Grażyna Bystydzieńska on the book | Institute of English Studies (University of Warsaw) – official announcement
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- Dr Małgorzata Januszewicz on the book (I) PL | Dr Małgorzata Januszewicz on the book (II) PL
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