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Anthony John Harding, The Reception of Myth in English Romanticism. University of Missouri Press, 1995. ISBN: 0-8262-1007-4 (hardback). Price: £ 38 ($39.95).

  • Allen W. Grove

…plus d’informations

  • Allen W. Grove
    University of Pennsylvania

Corps de l’article

This ambitious work attempts to construct what the author calls "a truly historicist myth criticism" by exploring how several Romantic writers "understood and received myth" as well as "what they understood 'the mythic' to be" (7). Harding convincingly argues that "myth" is itself a historically shifting term and that any study of the relationship between Romantic poetry and myth requires diligent historicizing and contextualization. At the heart of Harding's project is an effort to reestablish "myth criticism" within contemporary literary scholarship by revealing its interconnectedness with current post-structuralist, feminist, and new historicist theories. Working against the conceptualization of "myth criticism" as "a conservative resistance to the more innovative kinds of literary analysis," Harding attempts to unite "the study of myth with a deconstructive, or ideologically alert, approach to the use of myth in Romantic writing" (259).

Harding's introductory chapter grounds his study in the works of several earlier myth critics such as Hans Blumenberg, Northrop Frye, Jean-Pierre Vernant, and Ted Spivey. Harding takes to task several of these writers for their inability to successfully historicize myth and demonstrate the way in which myth is constantly in a state of transformation and reinterpretation. He argues that to focus on a mythological archetype is to efface the ideological, cultural, and historical conditions that inspire a writer to reappropriate and reinterpret any particular myth. Harding's methodology is indeed in line with "more innovative kinds of literary analysis" as it attempts to deessentialize myth by revealing the slippages and overlaps between myth, history, and ideology. Harding is not so much interested in the "myth traditions themselves," but in "the interpretive, appropriative strategy" a writer employs when incorporating myth into a literary work (17). This study intelligently gestures towards a politics of complexity as it values the "many different interpretive possibilities" myths provided Romantic writers (18).

Although Harding's study tends to embrace multiplicity, indeterminacy and complexity, it occasionally undermines its own critical agenda. When in Chapter Five Harding discusses Coleridge's "Christabel," his analysis becomes disappointingly monocausal and empiricist. Many studies of "Christabel," he argues, over-emphasize the poem's affinity to the Gothic novel: "["Christabel's"] remoteness from novelistic narrative is apparent in many of its most important episodes, not the least of which is the frightening metamorphosis of Christabel (in Part II) into a stumbling, hissing double of Geraldine." Harding concedes that "[n]o one expects a Gothic tale to obey canons of literary realism, but something is happening here that refuses to be confined even within the rather extravagant parameters of credibility that apply to the Gothic prose tales Coleridge could have known." Harding then attempts to connect the poem to myth, arguing that "[b]oth events and characters are polysemous in the way we usually expect myth to be polysemous" (142). Such a conclusion ignores the fact that we would be hard pressed to find a character more polysemous than Matthew Lewis's demonic changeling Rosario/Matilda and its many parallels in other Gothic prose narratives. Harding's claim that "[t]he poem is richer in significance if read as a reinterpretation of [the Genesis] myth than if treated as Gothic romance or, psychoanalytically, as the self-revelation of the poet's sexual anxieties" reductively robs the poem of the multiple interpretations and origins that his study seems to embrace elsewhere. The analysis of "Christabel" would be more true to the interesting methodology Harding establishes in the introduction and early chapters were it to consider the poem in relation to myth and romance and psychology, as well as the significant slippages between the three.

The majority of Harding's book, however, does succeed in presenting myth as a complex, shifting, indeterminate site of ideological exchange within Romantic poetry. The work's first chapter on Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" provides invaluable contextualization of the place of myth within late eighteenth-century British culture. Harding situates Coleridge within the debates of mythographers such as the Frenchmen Dupuis and Volney, and Englishmen Bryant and Maurice, concluding that Coleridge's work "is disruptive of certain newly sanctioned creeds, especially biblical literalism and the emerging 'nature religion'" (27). He convincingly argues that "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" "is a superbly indeterminate text that enables and compels the reader to participate in the process of rethinking myth" and that this process of rethinking is precisely what gives the poem its politics (28).

Harding devotes three chapters to the poetry of William Wordsworth. The first of these provides some much needed analysis of the 1798-1799 version of The Prelude. Harding carefully avoids making any aesthetic judgments about this early poem as he argues that we must historically position it in relation to specific late eighteenth-century attitudes toward both myth and sensibility. Within such a context Harding is able to construct a compelling argument about the poem's "imaginative animism" without dwelling (as much scholarship does) on less productive questions of "legitimacy," "polish," and "maturity" (61-62). After The Prelude, Harding considers what he calls Wordsworth's "defeminization of pastoral" through a study of "To M.H.," "Tintern Abbey," "Nutting," and the Lucy poems. In recent years we have seen a profusion of scholarship on Wordsworth's relationship to his sister and on the gender politics of his landscapes, yet by interfusing feminist and gender scholarship with myth criticism Harding adds an important dimension to these discussions. This third chapter reads many occurrences of the pastoral in Wordsworth's poetry as reinterpreted and masculinized versions of "the Theocritan mountain idyll, a genre that should authorize a greater prominence for 'the feminine' than most other classical genres" (90) Harding ends his discussion of Wordsworth with an analysis of contending Jewish and Greek traditions as they manifest themselves in "Home at Grasmere."

When Harding applies his "myth criticism" to Shelley's Queen Mab, "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty," and "Mont Blanc," he reveals a "psychological, human-centered theory of myth" of which "there is nothing in Coleridge or Wordsworth quite comparable" (165). Harding's handling of "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" is particularly compelling as he examines how the poem works to "cleanse the reader's mind of permanent or so-called innate forms" such as myth (166). He ultimately concludes that the poem "suggests that myths signify not by naming, nor even by the process of changing names; rather, they signify by constantly displacing each other and so making the inadequacy of language and therefore of thought apparent to us" (169). In the following chapter Harding suggests that the conflict between Apollo ("the bright light of truth itself, lumen siccum, the enemy of deceit and evil, triumphant over 'Dreams" and over the moon," 186) and Pan ("a god of the earth and its processes, his chief attributes those of perpetual change and division," 189) is key to the way in which we understand Shelley's later poetry. Here and throughout the book Harding argues that the importance of myth within Romantic poetry lies not in its "timeless truths," but in its mutability. The poet is able to invest myth with ideological import through revision, transformation, and conflict. (Harding carries similar ideas about the politics of "re-creating" myth into his single and disappointingly brief treatment of Keats's poetry).

Harding's study concludes with a return to Shelley and Coleridge and the different ways in which these two writers rework the Prometheus of Aeschylus. This final chapter rearticulates the book's central contention: that "myth operates as a vehicle of ideology and cannot be considered beyond ideological analysis" (259). Harding is quite aware of the immense scope of his subject matter and understandably chooses to limit his discussion of myth to a few well-known works by four major poets—Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley. The centrality of such canonical works makes The Reception of Myth in English Romanticism a valuable work not just for the scholar interested in the relationship between myth and Romanticism, but for the teacher who desires a better understanding of the place of myth within commonly taught works such as "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," "Mont Blanc," and "Eve of St. Agnes." Also, while Harding does not discuss Byron, Blake, or any of the important woman poets of the Romantic period, his work has hopefully opened the door for the appearance of such studies in the future. Harding's conceptualization of a new "myth criticism" and his invaluable historical contextualization of "myth" provide us with tools whose usefulness is by no means limited to the particular works and writers he discusses.