Reference: Actaeon, Artemis/Diana
Description: Andrew Motion takes the myth of Actaeon and exploits a pun within the story to write this poem about the death of Princess Diana. In the myth of Actaeon, he is often seen as an innocent victim of a wrathful goddess. Actaeon is a hunter and one day, whilst in the forest, he accidently spies the Goddess Artemis bathing in a pool with her nymphs in attendance. When Artemis realises that Actaeon has seen her naked, she turns him into a stag and he is pursued by his own hounds, who eventually catch him and tear him apart. There is a particularly gruesome and voyeuristic element to Actaeon’s final moments as he screams out to his hounds to stop, but no human voice emerges; surrounding the bloodbath are Actaeon’s fellow huntsman who, thrilled by the scene, call for Actaeon to come and watch, unaware that he is the victim at their feet. Motion sees the hounds of the myth as the paparazzi who hunted down Princess Diana, a modern-day Actaeon (Diana was also the Roman title for Artemis). So who is Artemis is this poem? Is it the press? Is it the Royal family? Is it us? It seems that the relationship between how ‘we’ lapped up the salacious gossip regarding Diana at the time of her death is echoed in the huntsmen standing around and watching a tragic scene unfolding before their eyes, encouraging more rather than begging for less. The ‘snapping’ of the dogs alludes to the snapping of lenses and with the allusion of Actaeon, the tragic end to Diana’s life is made horrifically visceral. The first stanza of this poem is perhaps even more melancholic. Motion suggests that “darkness takes the edge off daylight… because it must”, there is no malice in death. There is no Goddess that we can petition or avoid, the “Earth’s axle creaks” and eventually “darkness takes the edge off daylight”. Sometimes bad things happen to people who do not deserve it. Just ask Actaeon or, more pertinently, remember what happened to Princess Diana.
Contributor: David Hogg
Description: The story of Icarus received a subtle re-working in the W.B. Yeats poem An Irish Airman Foresees His Death. There are no direct references to Icarus, Daedalus, Crete or Greece in the poem, but the thought process of the eponymous Irish Airman echoes that of the young and impetuous boy (Icarus) who flew too close to the sun. When analysing the myth of Icarus, it is easy to summarise it as a warning to the young to listen to their fathers and respect your elders, because they know best. However, the myth also deals pertinently with a simple human desire that has only recently been fulfilled - and that is the human desire to fly. Who, when thinking about Icarus can blame him for flying as high as he does? The Gods have the ability to float down to Earth and then fly away again without a care for any destruction they have wrought. In the Aristophanes play The Birds, the idea of being able to fly is seen as a key factor in the new utopia of Cloud-cuckoo Land. Therefore, it seems only human that when given the chance to fly, Icarus takes it and behaves as if life after flight will never equal that unique moment in the clouds. Therefore, Icarus throws caution literally to the wind and chooses that soaring moment to die happy, rather than to live long and die uncertainly. This idea of a having a ‘happy life’ despite it being short is a sentiment that Solon of Athens would understand. In Yeats’ poem, the Irish Airman seems to be driven by the same desire to fly as Icarus. The Airman knows he will die “somewhere among the clouds”, but this seems preferable to “the years to come [that] seemed like a waste of breath”. The Airman is very clear about his motives; he is not fighting for a country and no-one will care whether he lives or dies. The honest Airman tells us that “a lonely impulse of delight drove to this tumult in the clouds” and it is a line that could just have easily been said by Icarus as by the Airman. Both Icarus and the Airman are also victims of a colonial power that exerts greater control over them than they would like. Icarus was a prisoner of King Minos of Crete and was the son of a technically gifted father (Daedalus). Icarus was needed on Crete for no other reason than to ensure that his father Daedalus (a prisoner from Athens) continued to tow the party line of King Minos. Similarly, the Irish Airman is fighting for a colonial power (the British Monarchy) against an enemy that is not of his making. He is disconnected from history and is not in control of the narrative around him and therefore, just like Icarus, he takes his chance to fly because it will be the one time where he has freedom on his terms. Add to this the fact that both Icarus and the Airman have been mistreated by their captors and we start to understand that the desire to fly is a metaphor for freedom in these narratives. The death of these two thrill-seekers may well have been inconsequential to those back on Earth, but Icarus and the Airman both take their moments to soar because they know that to walk is mortal, but to fly is divine.
Contributor: David Hogg
Description: In Carol Ann Duffy’s poem Mrs Icarus, the poet has used the myth of the boy who flew too close to the sun (showing-off and ignoring the wisdom of his father in the process) and has turned it into a straightforward and comic swipe at masculinity in poetry. At only 5 lines long and with use of the word ‘pillock’, it would be easy to dismiss this poem as a joke – but to do so would be to misunderstand the craft of its creation. There is no doubt that the word ‘pillock’ is the focus of this piece, yet it is found in the last line, as the very last word. The reader’s eyes are drawn towards this final word from the very first line. How? Perhaps the 5 lines suggest ‘limerick’ to the reader, yet this is not the rhyme scheme of the poem, although that does not stop us from searching for a rhyme at the end of each line. It is in fact the last word that actually forms the only rhyme and this adds great emphasis to the word ‘pillock’, heightening its impact on the reader. The final line is also much longer than the four above it and our eyes are attracted to the noticeable size difference (which can build up a sense of anticipation). The fact that we, as readers, are pulled towards this final line and the denouement of the poem found at the end, assisted by the polyptoton, is a structural representation of Icarus’ death-drop into the sea. Our eyes follow his descent from the first line to the last. The 5 lines of this poem seem to sum up the dichotomy of (stereotypical) man/woman. The narrator (presumed to be female) is passively observing the active male being foolish, he being oblivious to the fact that he is being pitied rather than admired from below. It is easy to read this poem and see comparisons to relationships, imagining you have been the person in a relationship watching that ‘pillock’ or you have been that ‘pillock’ being watched with disapproval from the side-lines. Whoever you identify with, neither participant seems to finish this poem feeling particularly proud of their past relationship decisions and behaviour.
Contributor: David Hogg
Description: There are many references to yearning and loss in this poignant, wistful poem by Victorian poet, Christina Rossetti. It is a poem which utilises a range of linguistics techniques throughout to ensure that the nymph, Echo, echoes throughout the words.
In Greek mythology, Echo was an Oread (a mountain nymph). When Zeus visited Earth, he liked to consort with nymphs behind Hera's back. Echo would distract Hera to protect Zeus and allow him to carry out his affairs undetected by his wife. When Hera found out what was happening, she punished Echo by taking away her voice, allowing her only to repeat the final words spoken to her. Because of this, when Echo falls in love Narcissus, she is not able to tell him how she feels and watches in pain as he falls in love with his own reflection and eventually wastes away. Echo also wastes away, leaving only her voice behind as evidence of her existence.
The first stanza of Rossetti's poem states:
"Come with soft rounded cheeks and eyes as bright
As sunlight on a stream;
Come back in tears,
O memory, hope, love of finished years."
In these lines there are pleas for the lover who has gone to return, to be as he or she once was, perhaps in an idealised memory of their youth (just as Echo watches Narcissus waste away to nothing but a memory). It seems that Rossetti is using the myth as an allegory for the memory of a love that is no more.
Rossetti's poem goes on to talk of Paradise and watching "the slow door" with "That opening, letting in, lets out no more." This could be a reference to the entrance to heaven, so it is possible that Rossetti is indicating the suffering caused by the death of her lover. Equally possible is the idea that once you open the door to love, losing love causes ‘the door’ to close and prevents one from ever feeling love again.
The title of the poem is echoed throughout the text as Rossetti utilises poetic techniques including assonance, alliteration, polyptoton, repetition and anaphora to create a feeling of quasi-repetition; we hear sounds that are similar, but they are not the same, just like an echo. This draws on comparisons with Echo in the myth and her voice which is leftover after her demise. The echoes in the poem give the impression that Rossetti is calling to her lover without response and that her re-treading of their relationship is in one direction only. It is Rossetti’s voice which is heard over and over again, fading away. Much like Echo, Rossetti has nothing left after her lover has gone, except her voice – which she has used here to express those feelings.
Contributor: Keeley Hickin
Reference: Martial, Recipe for Happiness
Description: In the poem Recipe for Happiness, Martial is giving a friend of his (who is also called Martial) some advice on how to achieve a blissful existence. He suggests, rather unspectacularly, that the things that make life most happy are: to inherit money, work just enough to keep your field fertile and your fire burning, good friends who know when to speak their minds and when to be quiet, an unfussy table setting, some alcohol (but no inebriation), a nice wife who is amorous “yet chaste” and a good night’s sleep that doesn’t eat into any of the hours that you need to carry out all of the above without becoming stressed. Basically Martial is telling Martial that a happy life is one without extremes. Do not chase money, women, notoriety and ‘good times’ as these are not guaranteed in any life and to pursue ‘things’ that you may never have is a pointless exercise. Martial’s poem acknowledges that a happiness based on ‘peaks’ of experience is a happiness that is at risk of being snatched away if those euphoric moments ever cease to be part of your life (Croesus springs to mind). Instead Martial suggests that simple lifestyle choices (that you have control over), will allow you to live a life of moderation, without extremes, which will lead to inner-peace and happiness. This is Martial’s recipe for happiness and it is a sentiment that is echoed in Larkin’s Born Yesterday. Larkin’s poem was a gift to the daughter of Kingsley Amis and uses imagery that juxtaposes the ‘fairy godmother’ at the side of the new-born’s crib with some ‘real world’ wisdom from a hardened veteran of the School of Life. In the first stanza, Larkin wishes the baby the best of lives and declares her a “lucky girl” if she is able to achieve what others have wished for her (the stereotypical beauty, wisdom etc. found in fairy stories). It is in the second stanza however where the voice of Martial can be heard. Larkin hopes that the girl can be “ordinary”, “like other women”, “average” and “not ugly, not good-looking”. These hopes are followed by the concluding lines, “may you be dull – if that is what a skilled, vigilant, flexible, unemphasised, enthralled catching of happiness is called.” If we compare Larkin’s final lines to Martial’s, (“Will to be, what thou art; and nothing more: Nor fear thy latest day, nor wish therefore.”) we can see a clear echo of sentiment. Both men’s lives seem to have taught them that the best chance of happiness for anyone is to be average (like Goldilocks – before the return of the bears). It is an unexpected piece of advice, but one that is perhaps difficult to argue with - although as it comes from two poets of consummate genius, who were decidedly not average, one must draw the conclusion that both Martial and Larkin were desperately unhappy people.
Contributor: David Hogg
Description: To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time is a poem written by Robert Herrick (1591-1674). Herrick was influenced by Roman poetry and often conjured up pastoral scenes in his works. This poem falls into the carpe diem genre and is most famous for the line “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”. Herrick never married and the women that appear in his verses are thought to be fictionalised - which perhaps explains the ‘advice’ Herrick is giving to the young maidens in To the Virgins…; he could easily be talking to himself (hidden in the imagery of the ‘virgins’) and his regret about missing out on the joys of his own youth - perhaps he wishes he had gathered his rosebuds while he had the chance. The ‘rosebuds’ quote is linked to a work by the Roman writer Ausonius and is found in a piece entitled Epigrammata where we find the line, “Gather, girl, roses while the flower is fresh and fresh is youth, remembering that your own time is hurrying on”. Herrick clearly echoes the ideas and images of Ausonius in To the Virgins…; he gives the young maidens advice about enjoying their youth and seizing the day, because, “[the] flower that smiles today To-morrow will be dying”. Ausonius is not considered one of the Roman greats and was disparagingly dismissed by Edward Gibbon when he stated, “the poetical fame of Ausonius condemns the taste of his age”. However, the fact that Ausonius inspired Herrick (and is also considered as an inspiration for Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress – see below), demonstrates that inspiration can come from unexpected sources.
Contributor: David Hogg
Reference: Ars Amatoria Book III, Part 1, by Ovid
Description: In Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress, the narrative voice is trying to persuade a virtuous woman to surrender her chastity to him and succumb to his seduction. It is an uncomfortable poem, especially to a modern reader, as the ‘Coy mistress’ has clearly said ‘no’, but her pursuer will not take no for an answer. The man seems to be having a Socratic dialogue (but only with himself) in order to convince her that she is wasting her life by turning him down. He is a dangerous predator who knows how to use language and traditional love motifs (such as descriptions of her beauty) to bamboozle her into saying ‘yes’ to his advances. However, the most troubling moments occur in the second stanza. There seems to be a definite change in tone that comes across as threatening. He reminds the ‘Mistress’ that “Time’s winged chariot is hurrying near and yonder… lie deserts of vast eternity. Thy beauty shall no more be found… worms shall try that long-preserved virginity… your quaint honour turn to dust… the grave’s a fine and private place, but none, I think do there embrace.” In these lines we hear a ‘Carpe diem/YOLO’ attitude that is solely for the benefit of the man who hides his lust behind a veneer of ‘advice’. Marvell’s words seem to echo those of Ovid’s in his Ars Amatoria Book III Part 1. In this poem, Ovid takes on the persona of ‘Love Expert’ for women, a role that he had already fulfilled for men in Book I and II. Ovid seems to be telling women to forget about propriety and live for the moment, life is short and you’re only young once! He states, “Old age will come to you… don’t be timid… have fun while it’s allowed…the years go by like flowing waters, a wave that’s past can’t be recalled again, the hour that’s past never can return… there will be time when you, who now shut out your lover, will lie alone and aged… how quickly the sagging flesh wrinkles… add that the time of youth is shortened by childbirth…”. The similarities between Ovid’s poem and Marvell’s are quite striking. The ‘mistress’ is being wooed with threats of missing this ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’, the inevitability of her aging (and thus becoming unattractive to her pursuer) and her eventual death – at which point all of this ‘coyness’ becomes pointless. I do not think that Marvell was plagiarising; but I think his persona was. Thinking that the Coy Mistress would not be familiar with the works of Ovid, he steals the lines of the poet, repackages them and passes them off as his own (is this what Catullus did with Sappho?). In To His Coy Mistress, Marvell has created a deeply unpleasant persona. My only hope is that the Mistress laughed at his advances and walked away shaking her head in disbelief.
Contributor: David Hogg
Reference: Hesiod - Theogony
Description : While Sin is recounting her genealogy at the gates of Hell, she informs Satan that she is his daughter sprung from his head:
Then shining heavenly fair, a goddess armed,
Out of thy head I sprung. Amazement seized
All the host of Heaven; back they recoiled afraid
At first, and called me Sin, and for a sign
Portentous held me. (Paradise Lost 2.757-761)
In Hesiod’s Theogony, Zeus marries Metis/Thought (Th.886). Athena is conceived through this marriage (Th.886-93), and then is born fully armed from the head of Zeus (Th.924-6). If the language of these passages is compared, one can see how close Milton's poetry is to Hesiod's:
PL 2.758: Out of thy head I sprung . . .
Th. 924: αὐτὸς δ᾿ ἐκ κεφαλῆς γλαυκώπιδα γείνατ᾿ Ἀθήνην.
In the universe of Paradise Lost, the goddess of knowledge becomes the distorted figure of Sin.
Contributor: Ryan Tribble
Reference: Nicander of Colophon
Description: In book 2 of Paradise Lost, Satan is horrified when he encounters Sin at the “thrice threefold the Gates” of hell (2.645). His offspring, Death, charges Satan as he approaches the gate (2.675). He discovers that Sin is his daughter, whom he raped by means of which his son Death was conceived. Death grew in the womb of Sin and tore through her insides in order to be born (2.778-787). Milton seems to be making an allusion to several passages from antiquity that describe offspring that tear through a mother’s womb (Herodotus 3.109, Aristotle Mir. 846b 18, Claudius Aelianus 15.16), the closest of which is likely Nicander’s account of the viper in Theriaca 128-136.
In the Theriaca, Nicander recommends avoiding the bite of a dark-colored viper in the crossroads (τριόδοισι, Ther.128). This leaping viper has dog-like fangs (κυνόδοντι, 130). The young of this breed of viper immediately chase after the disgrace of the father (πατρὸς λώβην) when gnawing their way out of their mother’s womb (γαστέρ’ ἀναβρώσαντες). Thus they are born 'motherless' (ἀμήτορες ἐξεγένοντο, 134). Parallels with McDuff in Macbeth? [Ed.]
It should not be too surprising that Milton found inspiration from Nicander’s didactic poem about venomous animals and plants since the protagonist of Paradise Lost eventually becomes a serpent. Milton also interprets the venomous beast of Nicander’s poem as part of the consequence of the Fall of Adam and Eve. So this viper that is particularly dangerous in the crossroads (τριόδοισι), a place also associated with magic and Hecate recalls the 'triple gates of Hell'. The dog-like fangs (κυνόδοντι) might also contribute to the references to Scylla and Cerberus, though Milton is clearly borrowing these from other sources. The vipers mode of germination and birth in Theriaca most resemble the germination and birth of Death in Paradise Lost 2.645.
Contributor: Ryan Tribble
Reference: Zeus, Helen of Troy
Description: Yeats uses the story of Zeus taking the form of a swan to rape Leda as an allegory for the turmoil in Ireland following Henry VIII's invasion in the 16th century.
The poem begins in media res with Zeus violently attacking the innocent Leda. In Greek mythology, Helen of Troy is born from this brutal encounter, which ultimately leads to the destruction of the great city state of Troy. As the rhyme scheme in this subverted sonnet breaks down, the Trojan empire is sacked and replaced with a new era. This poem can represent the initial fall of Ireland to British rule as well as the partition in 1922 when the south was given its independence. This prescient poem leans heavily on the Sack of Troy and foresees the years of troubles that lay ahead in the birth of modern Ireland. It is a another example of how the Modernist movement used the mythology of the ancient world to make political and social comments in literature. James Joyce's Ulysses does the same as does T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland. The Classical contexts can sometimes make the texts difficult to understand unless you have a Classical education. This is another reason to advocate the teaching of Classics in state schools - pupils need them to fully access these great works!
For discussion: Is it possible to carry the analogy of Troy beyond the poem and interpret Aeneas leaving the city as an allegory for the success of the Irish diaspora?
Contributor: Paul Hussein
Description: The name is clearly stated, but that is the only thing that is obvious about this poem. Medusa is present in the words, but the meaning of the poem is far from straightforward. The text has as many interpretations as there are snakes on her head. There is something very 'modern' about the story of Medusa, which Duffy plays with very well. There is the initial idea of vanity/hubris and the glee we take in schadenfreude, which we can see today in any tabloid article about celebrity women. Then there is the other story about a powerful woman, who inadvertently challenges men to 'conquer' her. The men know that she is dangerous, but this does not stop them trying to beat her. Parallels again can be made to the unfair treatment of women in the press compared to their male peers. Duffy's poem is interesting because she never quite explains what Medusa wants, neither does she tell us what the men who enter her life want. Our personal opinion and experience start to fill in those gaps.
Contributor: David Hogg
Description: Owen turns the patriotic slogan from Horace's Odes on its head and uses it to create one of the greatest anti-war poems ever.
When I teach this poem, I try to show the pupils a translation of Horace's Ode (Book 3, Poem 2). It is easy to dismiss Horace's Ode as a tool of propaganda, but context is everything. In the time of Classical Rome, not fighting when you were at war could (in some small way) expedite the death of your family. SPQR should have been the most important thing in your life, because SPQR stops the barbarians breaking down the gates. Therefore to not fight was to put you family at a greater risk - hence the need for soldiers. So rather than blind bloodlust, I think he was thinking war was the best way to protect your loved ones. When you place Owen's poem next to this and remember the 'point' of WW1, the pointlessness of WW1 is emphasised even further; Owen's family were not at risk from barbarians and it was his 'SPQR' that had perpetuated this mess in the first place.
Contributor: David Hogg
Description: Keats is not feeling in a party mood when he states, "Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards", but it is good to know that he had an option. On the other hand, I am sure Byron would not have thought twice about the offer of a lift from the fun-loving God of Wine!
Contributor: David Hogg