‘Ulysses, Order, and Myth’ is the title usually given to T. S. Eliot’s review of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Eliot’s short review was published in The Dial magazine in 1923, and can be read here; below, we offer a few words of analysis of this influential essay by one major modernist writer, about the work of another major modernist writer.
1922 was the annus mirabilis or ‘year of wonders’ for modernist literature. James Joyce’s Ulysses had appeared in book form in February of that year (to coincide with Joyce’s fortieth birthday), T. S. Eliot’s own poem The Waste Land was published, Virginia Woolf published Jacob’s Room – her first truly ‘modernist’ novel after two relatively traditional books – and Katherine Mansfield’s collection of short stories, The Garden Party and Other Stories, appeared. In the following year, 1923, when ‘Ulysses, Order, and Myth’ appeared, modernism – both Joyce’s Ulysses and Eliot’s The Waste Land – was a matter of some debate, even if the term ‘modernism’ itself was at this stage still not widely used to describe such literature (Woolf’s own Jacob’s Room was most frequently called ‘impressionistic’ in the original reviews of it).
Eliot begins ‘Ulysses, Order, and Myth’ by praising Joyce’s achievement with Ulysses, a long novel set over the course of a single day, 16 June 1904, in Dublin. Joyce’s novel is less focused on plot and more interested in everyday details: a trip to the pub, the sounds and sights of the streets, even a visit to the lavatory (one of the reasons why many critics initially decried the novel: even Joyce’s fellow modernist, Virginia Woolf, described the novel as ‘a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples’). The novel loosely follows the plot of Homer’s classical epic poem The Odyssey (Ulysses is the Roman name for the character of Odysseus), but transports these general incidents to modern-day Ireland. But Eliot states that it is not his aim to praise or defend the novel against its critics.
Instead, Eliot confines himself to responding to one criticism of Ulysses, made by fellow poet-critic (and fellow modernist) Richard Aldington, whose poetry we have discussed here. Aldington, whilst praising Joyce’s skill, disliked the ‘disgust’ towards mankind which Joyce’s novel invited, and viewed it as an invitation to ‘chaos’. Eliot remarks that Aldington would probably agree with him that great literature aspires to ‘classicism’ (a term popularised by the modernist thinker T. E. Hulme in an essay written around a decade earlier). Classicism means rejecting the impulse to be overly idealistic or false (overly romantic, in other words) when writing about a particular subject, and doing the best job a writer can with the material.
So, Eliot’s concern is with how Joyce deals with his subject-matter (the common, everyday, and occasionally squalid) as an artist. And Eliot points out that the ‘mythical method’ which Joyce employs is important to his artistic technique: that is, using Homer’s Odyssey as a ‘parallel’ for the events of his modern-day Dublin novel. Indeed, it doesn’t matter whether we call Ulysses a ‘novel’ or an ‘epic’. The traditional form of the novel, Eliot argues, it becoming obsolete and any innovation with its conventions ended with the nineteenth-century French novelist Gustave Flaubert (the author of Madame Bovary) and the turn-of-the-century Anglo-American novelist Henry James. Nowadays, the true innovators with the ‘novel’ aren’t really writing novels in the old sense at all.
And according to T. S. Eliot, the innovative idea which Joyce hit upon, to write a largely plotless modern narrative which borrows its structure from classical myth, is like a scientific discovery. It enables Joyce to ‘manipulate’ and suggest parallels between classical antiquity (the world of Homer’s epic) and modernity (early twentieth-century Dublin with an ad salesman, rather than a great warrior-hero, as the narrative’s protagonist). This ‘mythical method’ replaces the old ‘narrative method’: E. M. Forster had written in Aspects of the Novel, ‘Yes – oh dear me, yes – the novel tells a story’, but perhaps the modern ‘novel’ is less about story and more about mythic resonance.
Eliot’s reference to James Frazer’s vast work of comparative religion and myth, The Golden Bough (1890-1915) reveals that Eliot is discussing his own use of the ‘mythical method’ in this final paragraph, as well as Joyce’s. Eliot’s The Waste Land was indebted to Frazer’s work, as well as Jessie Weston’s book From Ritual to Romance, about Arthurian legend among other things. From these texts, Eliot learnt about vegetation rituals and the legend of the Fisher King, which he alludes to in the final version of The Waste Land.
However, as one of the best critics of T. S. Eliot, Helen Gardner, pointed out, the centrality of the Fisher King myth to Eliot’s The Waste Land is often overstated: in Gardner’s memorable phrase, the Fisher King is behind, rather than in, the poem. Eliot appears to have added these mythic ideas into the poem at a relatively late stage, in an effort to bring his disparate materials together. We might view ‘Ulysses, Order, and Myth’, then, not as Eliot justifying his own method by drawing a parallel with Joyce’s great achievement, but Eliot inviting readers to make such a parallel themselves, in the hope that they will see The Waste Land as a similar example of the ‘mythical method’ used by Joyce.