Myth Criticism

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Myth Criticism

Myth Criticism


Myth criticism attempts to bring out the cultural myths underlying literature, and many are indeed apparent in this poem: time, sea, land and sky, control, creation, decay and regeneration. Some need to be developed more fully.

Myth Criticism in Literature

Far from being primitive fictions — about the natural world, some supposed ancestor, or tribal practice — myths are reflections of a profound reality. They dramatically represent our instinctive understandings. Moreover, unlike Freud's concepts, myths are collective and communal, and so bring a sense of wholeness and togetherness to social life. Native peoples, and indeed whole civilizations, have their own mythologies, but there appear to be common images, themes and motives which Jung called "archetypes".

The mythology of the classical world provided themes for some of the world's greatest drama, and similar themes can be traced in Renaissance literature through to modern poetry. Hamlet, for example, is often seen as the reluctant hero who must sacrifice himself to purify a Denmark made diseased by the foul and unnatural murder of its king. Yeats, Pound and Eliot employ the myths of history, rebirth and fulfillment through sacrifice, as do other poets.

Myth criticism continues to draw freely on the psychology of Jung, on social anthropology, on the study of religions, on metaphor and depth psychology, but the archetypal criticism of Northrop Frye has attempted to redefine what criticism is, and what it can be expected to do.

Frye attempted a general theory of literature, which he approached from four perspectives. Rather that justify what were little more than matters of preference (i.e. squabble over the relative merits of authors and their works) scholars should derive principles, structures and laws from the study of literature itself. His first essay in Anatomy of Criticism recognized various levels of realism in literature, an articulation he termed a theory of modes. The second essay put forward a theory of symbols, recognizing five levels ranging from the mundane to the anagogic (the last represented in work of a religious or spiritual nature).

The theory of myths that forms the third essay has possibly been Frye's most influential contribution. He starts by identifying the four seasons — spring, summer, autumn and winter — with the four main plots or 'mythoi' of romance, comedy, tragedy, and irony/satire. These are further broken down into phases. The mythos of winter consists of six phases, the last representing human life in terms of unrelieved bondage: prisons, madhouses, lynching mobs and places of execution. The human figures of this phase are the dispossessed, the destitute and mad-ogres, witches, Baudelaire's black giantess and Pope's Dullness. Frye distinguishes between signs (which point outward to things beyond themselves) and motifs (which are understood inwardly as parts of a verbal structure). Literature is preeminently an autonomous verbal structure where the sign-values are subordinate to the interconnectedness of motifs. The fourth essay proposes a theory of genres, where Frye outlined the differences between the lyric, epic, dramatic work, ...
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