I do believe that it is quite fashionable in some circles to criticize the literary Art of Old White Men simply because, well, it is the literary Art of Old White Men. In valiant defense of old white men—I do indeed love many literary works by old white folks—just as much as I love the poems by the black female Assata Shakur, which we read during the last Poetry Reading—today we unleashed some poetry contained within Thomas Bulfinch’s Greek and Roman Mythology: The Age of Fable and let it breathe.
Bulfinch’s Mythology, written in 1859, is a good introductory work to Greek and Roman mythology. In the book Bulfinch also briefly discusses Eastern and Northern mythology and includes concise but informative descriptions of related topics of interest such as the epic poem Beowolf and the pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses. What makes this work especially interesting is the fact that throughout the book Bulfinch includes citations from the works of over twenty-five poets (Yes, the majority of them are Old White Men).In the section in which Bulfinch tells the tale of Pygmalion he includes a poem by the German dramatist and poet Friedrich von Schiller entitled “Ideals.” In the poem, Schiller applies the myth of Pygmalion to a youth’s great love of Nature. After the end of the section on Venus and Adonis Bulfinch references some lines of prose from John Milton’s Comus, which mention the god and goddess. He does this type of thing throughout the book.
Bulfinch says he introduces these poetic verses for several important reasons: So they will help the reader learn the correct pronunciations of the proper names and because the poetry will log the facts of the story in the memory and enrich the memory with verses which are frequently alluded to and quoted. When I first read Mythology I was surprised by how many of the poems I recognized, poems that I had seen referenced or mentioned in many other works.
The way in which Bulfinch weaves some of the poetic verses into the stories contained within the book is really quite brilliant. Overall, Mythology is well written and despite the “classical” subject matter—and inclusion of so very many verses by revered highbrow Old White Men—the book is not stuffy, dry or overly didactic. Indeed, in his Introduction Bulfinch mentions that the work was not written for the philosopher or theologian but for the “reader of English literature” who seeks to understand the “allusions so frequently made by public speakers, lecturers, essayists, and poets, and those which occur in polite conversation.”
Being able to more fully grasp the meaning of English literature—and all literature—helps us to better understand the society we live in as well as the individual psyche. We vibed on this idea, and others, while reading various poems in Bulfinch’s Mythology. We spent quite a long time discussing the following lines of verse by Samuel Taylor Coleridge from The Piccolomini, Act ii, Scene 4:
The intelligible forms of ancient poets,
The fair humanities of old religion,
The Power, Beauty, and the Majesty
That had their haunts in dale or piny mountain,
Or forest, by slow stream, or pebbly spring,
Or chasms and watery depths; all these have vanished;
They live no longer in the faith of reason,
But still the heart doth need a language; still
Doth the old instinct bring back the old names;
Spirits or gods that used to share this earthWith man as with their friend; and at this day‘
Tis Jupiter who brings whatever is great,
And Venus who brings every thing that’s fair.
Metaphor and allegory are indeed the language of the Heart—and I am going to continue to keep this language alive and flourishing here in the center of the Belly of the Beast.
With Strength & Love: