Because historically the spirit of inspiration, the muse, has been gendered as feminine, and the creator of art or literature has been gendered male, it has been important for women writers to re-imagine Greek and Roman myth for their own purposes. In her influential work Woman in the Nineteenth Century, American feminist Margaret Fuller articulates this “Muse and Minerva” dilemma (NALW1 564).
If earlier women writers invoked classical myth in more traditional ways, contemporary writers are more apt to seek to inhabit and re-interpret female mythological figures. Early twentieth-century American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay invoked in her poem “An Ancient Gesture” the voice of Odysseus’s wife, Penelope (NALW2 457). Turn-of-the-century British suffragette Augusta Webster wrote a dramatic monologue in the voice of “Circe” (NALW1 1185), Homer’s temptress who turned Odysseus’s crew to swine, in order to explore female sexuality and psychology; while the contemporary British poet Carol Ann Duffy employs the guise of the Greek temptress in her witty poem of the same name including a recipe for how she likes her pork cooked (NALW2 1426).
The eighteenth-century working-class poet Mary Leapor imagined a recipe of a different kind for her reworking of Roman myth in “Proserpine’s Ragout” (NALW1 304). In the poem, the god of the Underworld, Hades, dispatches Mercury to gather insubstantial metaphors to make a medicine for his ailing queen, Proserpina (Persephone to the Greeks), the Spring goddess he kidnapped. Proserpina’s mother, the fertility goddess Ceres (Demeter in Greek), mourns her daughter for six months of the year by making the world barren, causing Winter. Several women writers have written about Ceres’s grief, including the early-twentieth-century social reformer Genevieve Taggard in her poem “Demeter” (NALW2 498); contemporary African-American poet Rita Dove, in her poem “Persephone, Falling” (NALW2 1389); and the Irish poet Eavan Boland, in her poem “The Pomegranate” (NALW2 1293).
The Trojan prophetess Cassandra, whose urgent visions fall on deaf ears, inspired the title of Florence Nightingale’s angry tirade against the enforced idleness of upper-class Victorian women (NALW1 1017). In her poem “Cassandra” (NALW2 506), the more contemporary American poet Louise Bogan seems to refer to Nightingale and her take on Cassandra: “Song, like a wing, tears through my breast, my side, / And madness chooses out my voice again” (5–6). Bogan also imagines meeting “Medusa” (NALW2 505), the snake-haired Gorgon, as does her contemporary, the American poet May Sarton, in her poem “The Muse as Medusa” (NALW2 643). Unlike Bogan’s speaker, Sarton’s is not turned to stone by the apparition, but instead recognizes herself in the monster:
I saw you once, Medusa; we were alone.
I looked you straight in the cold eye, cold.
I was not punished, was not turned to stone—
How to believe the legends I am told? . . .
I turn your face around! It is my face.
That frozen rage is what I must explore—
Oh secret, self-enclosed, and ravaged place!
This is the gift I thank Medusa for. (1–4, 25–30)
Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty, has also been variously re-interpreted by women writers. Imagist poet Amy Lowell invokes Botticelli’s famous painting when she depicts her lover, Ada Dwyer Russell, as “Venus Transiens” (NALW2 130). Muriel Rukeyser also references the painter in her poem “The Birth of Venus” (NALW2 648), though Rukeyser is much more explicit in her use of the goddess’s origins as a metaphor for the overthrow of patriarchy :
. . . born in a
tidal wave of the father’s overthrow,
the old rule killed and its mutilated sex.
The testicles of the father-god, father of fathers,
sickled off by his son, the next god Time.
Sickled off. Hurled into the ocean.
In all that blood and foam,
among raving and generation,
of semen and the sea born, the
great goddess rises. (7–16)
Leda and the swan is another myth that has been popular for women writers to refashion for their own purposes. The British turn-of-the-century couple who collaborated under the pseudonym Michael Field wrote “A Pen-Drawing of Leda” (NALW1 1224); the contemporary African-American poet Lucille Clifton crafted “Leda 3” (NALW2 1123) as a desire for masculine power; and the Navajo poet Luci Tapahonso re-imagined Leda as a contemporary woman picking up a man in a bar in “Leda and the Cowboy” (NALW2 1393).
The early Romantic poet and novelist Charlotte Smith invokes Greek myth in a more personal fashion in her sonnet “Nepenthe” (NALW1 330). The title refers to the mythical potion that induces forgetfulness that the Egyptian king’s wife gave to Helen after the Trojan War when she was to return to Greece with her husband, Menalaus. The speaker yearns
Oh, for imperial Polydamna’s art,
Which to bright Helen was in Egypt taught,
To mix with magic power the oblivious draught
Of force to staunch the bleeding of the heart, (1–4)
She laments at the end of the poem, “But still to me Oblivion is denied, / There’s no Nepenthe, now, on earth for me” (13–14).
But perhaps no woman writer has worked more extensively in re-imagining mythology than the Modernist poet H. D. (Hilda Doolittle). In her long work Helen in Egypt, H. D. challenges the scapegoating of Helen of Troy as the cause of the Trojan War. Among the poems anthologized is the short poem on the same theme, “Helen” (NALW2 291), which begins:
All Greece hates
the still eyes in the white face,
the luster as of olives,
where she stands,
and the white hands. (1–5)
The anthology also contains her short poem “Oread” (NALW2 284), titled after a woodland nymph, as well as the longer poem “Eurydice” (NALW2 285), which gives voice to the wife of Orpheus, the Greek poet, who went to the Underworld to recover his wife but lost her forever after he looked back at her on the return journey. Muriel Rukeyser references Orpheus in “The Poem as Mask” (NALW2 649), and contemporary American poet Jorie Graham also seizes upon the myth in her poem “Orpheus and Eurydice” (NALW2 1375).