By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Greek and Roman mythology has been a constant source of inspiration for poets down the centuries. Whether it’s tragic figures or love stories, or tales of magic and the supernatural, classical myths have retained their power down the millennia, and poets have often made use of these memorable tales when writing everything from love lyrics to dramatic monologues.
Here are ten of the very best poems inspired by Greek and Roman mythology.
1. Oliver Tearle, ‘Ariadne’.
It wasn’t him abandoned her. The stars
made sure of it that they should walk apart.
The memory is good. But that’s tonight:
morning will come and take it all away.
To seagirt Dia (wherever that was) she went,
he weaving home, slowly losing the thread …
This contemporary poem relocates the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur to a nightclub in a modern-day Greek party resort. The result is a poem of almost metaphysical range which explores the chance encounter between two people and the whirlwind romance-that-never-was. Plays on mazes, weaving, and thread all keep the classical myth firmly in the poem’s sights.
2. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Tithonus’.
The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes: I wither slowly in thine arms,
Here at the quiet limit of the world,
A white-hair’d shadow roaming like a dream
The ever-silent spaces of the East,
Far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn …
We could have opted for another of Tennyson’s celebrated dramatic monologues about a figure from classical myth, namely ‘Ulysses’. But instead, we’ve plumped for what we think is a superior poem, written around the same time although not published until more than 20 years later, in 1860.
‘Tithonus’ is, as William Empson memorably put it, a poem in favour of ‘the human practice of dying’: spoken by the mythical figure who was doomed to live forever, the poem is a dramatic monologue about how death is a part of life. It’s based on the myth of Tithonus who was in love with Aurora, the goddess of the dawn.
Aurora asked the gods to make Tithonus immortal, so they could be together forever, but she forgot to ask for eternal youth; Tithonus was therefore destined to get older and older with each passing year, while his lover remained young and beautiful.
3. Augusta Webster, ‘Circe’.
The sun drops luridly into the west;
darkness has raised her arms to draw him down
before the time, not waiting as of wont
till he has come to her behind the sea;
and the smooth waves grow sullen in the gloom
and wear their threatening purple; more and more
the plain of waters sways and seems to rise
convexly from its level of the shores;
and low dull thunder rolls along the beach:
there will be storm at last, storm, glorious storm …
Webster (1837-94) is a forgotten name among Victorian poets. In her dramatic monologue ‘Circe’, she depicts the goddess from Greek mythology as a wild but complex female figure. This poem contains the stormy (and storming) line, ‘storm at last, storm, glorious storm’, but really the whole thing is wildly turbulent.
4. H. D., ‘Orchard’.
The American-born Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961), who her former boyfriend and fellow imagist poet Ezra Pound rebranded as ‘H. D.’, has been called ‘the perfect imagist’: her work carries a crystalline precision while also containing an air of ambiguity, so it’s not surprising that her fellow imagist F. S. Flint called her work an ‘accurate mystery’.
In this poem, H. D. offers a fruitful and fruity scene in which the female speaker prostrates herself before the god of orchards, that fertility symbol known as Priapus (Google him with caution!). Is she tapping into the sensual potential of a figure like Priapus, and is this poem about a sexual awakening of sorts? Its list of luscious fruits seems to be a nod to Christina Rossetti’s poem on that subject, ‘Goblin Market’.
5. T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land.
It’s well-known that the title of Eliot’s 1922 poem, and some of its symbolism, were inspired by his research into medieval Arthurian legends surrounding the Holy Grail and the Fisher King. We have discussed the poem in more detail here.
But many older mythic figures lurk behind this important work of modernist poetry, including Tiresias, the seer from numerous Greek myths and works of literature, who we find, here, transported to modern-day London and watching a young typist and her boyfriend in bed together …
6. William Empson, ‘Four Legs, Two Legs, Three Legs’.
Although not as famous as T. S. Eliot, William Empson (1906-84) was, like Eliot, one of the great poet-critics of the twentieth century. His poetry is challenging, metaphysical, and sometimes verging on the opaque, but study of it is both rewarding and stimulating.
In this poem, Empson addresses the two Sphinxes: the stone statue in Egypt and the mythical beast that posed Oedipus the famous riddle (we have discussed this riddle, as well as a less famous follow-up riddle, here). One of the most exhilarating things about this poem is how Empson weaves together not only the two Sphinxes but also many other frames of reference.
Scroll down the link provided above to find the poem.
7. W. H. Auden, ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’.
This poem was only indirectly inspired by mythology: it was inspired more directly by a painting, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, attributed to Brueghel the Elder.
But the myth of Icarus, who famously flew too close to the sun and drowned when the wax in his wings melted, is a key detail in this poem which is, as the title and first line make clear, about the ways in which artists have depicted suffering in their work.
We have analysed this poem here.
8. Sylvia Plath, ‘Medusa’.
Much of Plath’s best work was written in the months leading up to her death in early 1963, and ‘Medusa’ is a prime example. Like H. D. before her, though utilising a more direct, Confessional mode, Plath draws on the power of mythical figures as a way of exploring her own complicated emotions towards certain people and subjects.
Plath uses the myth of the Gorgon Medusa (which we have written about here) as a basis for this poem which addresses some of the feelings Plath had about her mother.
There’s a coded reference to Plath’s mother’s name, Aurelia, through the jellyfish reference in the poem, too: the taxonomical name for the moon jellyfish is Aurelia aurita. (Plath had already linked the moon itself to her mother in ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’.)
9. Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Mrs Midas’.
Duffy’s celebrated poetry collection The World’s Wife takes as inspiration and source-material a range of figures from history and mythology, re-imagining them from a modern perspective.
Many of the poems, as the title suggests, imagine the lives of the long-suffering other halves of male figures from myth, and ‘Mrs Midas’ is one of the best examples of this from the collection. What would it mean to be able to turn everything you touch to gold? Here, the fictional wife of the mythical king tells her story.
10. Louise Gluck, ‘A Myth of Devotion’.
A poem about the myth of Persephone and Hades, this is both dark and witty, as Gluck attempts to get inside the head of the abducting god of the Underworld who carried off the beautiful Persephone to be his prisoner, and willing lover, in hell.