14 April 2000
and Mythology in
"Ulysses" and Heaney's "Hercules and Antaeus"[comment2]
Among the best
known and most popular works of literature are those dealing with the
mythologies of ancient cultures. From classical sources like Homer's Iliad
and Ovid's Metamorphosis, to modern adaptations like Alfred, Lord
Tennyson's "Ulysses" and Seamus Heaney's "Hercules and
Antaeus," mythology has shaped the body of western literature. There
exists a marked difference, though, between the purposes of the classical
mythologies and their modern counterparts. The majority of the classics
focuses on exploration of the human spirit and the teaching of moral lessons,
while modern mythological poetry tends to concern itself with the social
and political aspects of contemporary society. This modern, socio-political,
focus is the basis for the branch of literary criticism known as Marxist
theory. According to Peter Barry, Marxist critics examine both the "covert"
(167) and "overt" (167) aspects of a literary work to determine
how its structure, message, and theme were shaped by the author's "social-class
status" (167) and by the "social period which produced' it"
(167). Literature, according to the Marxist critics, makes use of ideology,
"a system [. . .] of representations [. . .] endowed with an existence
and an historical role at the heart of a given society'" (qtd. in
Barry 163), to identify with and establish a kinship with its readers.
One such ideology is ancient mythology. The works of both Tennyson and
Heaney provide prime examples of Marxist utilization of ancient mythology
to either praise or condemn the practices of contemporary society.
Nearly every aspect of Tennyson's
"Ulysses" matches perfectly with the principles of Marxist literary
theory. Overtly, the poem is simply the lament of an aging Ulysses for
the passing of his life of adventure and fame. The mythological Ulysses
is a man of archetypal proportions--clever, brave, and strong. He is a
greatness that humans would aspire to, and Tennyson uses that ideology
to advance his covert goal. Writing in the early 19th century, a time
of great expansion and colonization for the British Empire, Tennyson uses
his poetry as a means of propaganda. He glorifies the exploration and
travel of Ulysses, hoping to incite his readers to travel to Britain's
colonies. This makes sense, considering the Marxist view that authors
work reflects their social class. As a member of the aristocracy, Tennyson's
own personal honor and station were tied closely to the glory of his country.
It is then only natural for his poetry to promote the magnificence of
Great Britain, and urge others to do the same.
The diction in Tennyson's
poem paints a picture of travel that resounds with awesome majesty and
engenders a feeling of wanderlust in those who read his words. On his
journey, Ulysses is "honored" (15) by myriad peoples in exotic
places. He "dr[a]nk delight" (16) and reveled his fame. After
experiencing such wonder, Ulysses cannot be content to settle down and
rest, for "all experience is an arch wherethrough / Gleams that untraveled
world" (19-20). There is little mention of the hardships Ulysses
endured, and what reference Tennyson does make toward them lasts only
two lines (8-9) and seems less like pain and more like glory. After reading
such a description, Tennyson's audience cannot help but feel the beckoning
tug of the unknown, the "hungry heart" (12) and "yearning
[. . .] desire" (30).
Tennyson's masterful depiction of Ulysses'
character creates an image which, though it looms larger-than-life, can
appeal to all members of society. The Ulysses of this poem is an old man
"[m]ade weak by time and fate, but strong in will" (69). And
that will is all that is necessary to propel him forward to greater glory.
Though he is no longer young and strong, Ulysses maintains that "[o]ld
age hath yet his honor and his toil" (50). By maintaining that even
in the twilight of his life, Ulysses can accomplish great things, Tennyson
convinces his readers that no matter their situation, they too can experience
adventure and win glory. They may not be great heroes or warriors who
once "strove with Gods" (53), but neither is Ulysses anymore.
And yet, he can still venture forth into the unknown. Ulysses' plea for
his sailors to accompany him on one last voyage can be translated directly
into Tennyson's call for the English citizens to go forth and settle the
British colonies; he says "[c]ome, my friends / ĪTis not too late
to seek a newer world" (56-7). Such an exhortation echoes the goals
of the British government during Tennyson's time, and, as such, his work
is not only a prime example of Marxist literary theory, but more specifically
of Leninist Marxist theory, which Peter Barry claims "insists on
the need for art to be explicitly committed to the political cause"
Like Tennyson, contemporary Irish poet
Seamus Heaney utilizes verse as a tool of social commentary. But unlike
"Ulysses," Heaney's poem "Hercules and Antaeus" criticizes
society rather then praising it. Heaney was born into a country rife with
violence, hatred, and misunderstanding. The struggle between Irish Catholics
and Protestants--the atrocities committed on both sides--profoundly affected
him throughout his life. And, as Marxist theory says it must, his writing
reflects the impact of his social environment.
In "Hercules and Antaeus,"
Heaney retells the mythological struggle between the strongest man ever
to live and the great giant who is invincible as long as some part of
his body touches the earth, his mother. But he tells it from an unique
perspective. Usually Hercules, the son of Zeus, is portrayed as a great
hero slaying a monster, but Heaney takes a different view. His Hercules
is an invader, an interloper who destroys without cause or right and does
so in pursuit of his own personal glory. There are definite parallels
between the senseless violence Heaney depicts in this poem, and the brutality
he observed and continues to observe in Ireland.
Antaeus, as the child of
the earth, the "mould-hugger" (Heaney 8), represents the common
people of Ireland, the farmers of Heaney's childhood. Heaney describes
the giant as an almost passive elemental, not a monster. Antaeus draws
his strength from "the river veins, the secret gullies" (14),
from the earth, just as Irish farmers depend upon Ireland itself for their
lives. Following this logic, Hercules then becomes the terrorism, the
hate, that has plagued Ireland for centuries. Such hatred is one of "the
black powers / feeding off the territory" (6-7), and is crushing
the common people in the "remorseless V" (26) of its arms. Terrorism
in Ireland justifies its existence by claiming it acts for the greater
good, for a higher purpose, for God. To symbolize this connection, Heaney
labels Hercules "[s]ky-born and royal" (1). Later, he describes
Hercules' intellect as a "blue prong" (14), a color traditionally
assigned to designate divinity. While Hercules may claim to carry out
the work of the gods, his true focus is on personal glory, on "golden
apples" (3) and "trophies" (4). And Heaney considers him
nothing more than a "dung-heaver" (2). The hatred he represents
is worthless and can accomplish nothing save meaningless death.
Among the most interesting
aspects of this poem are the three figures to whom Heaney compares Antaeus:
Balor, Byrthnoth, and Sitting Bull. In these three men, who each represent
a different type of violent conflict, lies Heaney's message to the Irish
people. Balor, in Irish-Celtic mythology is the god of the underworld,
the lord of the dead who is vanquished and slain by his son. By referencing
Balor, Heaney calls attention to the fact that the Irish people are fighting
and killing each other. They are of the same race, of the same blood.
In effect, they are fighting a civil war. Byrthnoth, an Anglo-Saxon earl
in the early 11th century, fell to the spears of the Vikings in the Battle
of Maldon, and was later immortalized by the epic poem of that name. His
death at the hands of invaders symbolizes the exterior influence of British
Protestantism on the Irish conflict. Byrthnoth's undoing was his pride;
"the Earl permitted in his great pride / to allow land many of [the
Vikings]" (Maldon 89-90). It is pride that has kept the hate
alive in Ireland, pride that negates any possibility of reconciliation.
And it is pride which must be overcome if peace is ever to return. Sitting
Bull was the Native American chieftain who led the resistance of the Sioux
against the government confiscation of their lands. He defeated George
Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn,
but was eventually captured and killed in a riot. Of the three, he is
the only truly historical figure, and his conflict stands in the grey
area between civil war and invasion, exhibiting aspects of both. Sitting
Bull died as a result of violent protest, and illustrates Heaney's plea
for an end to demonstrations of force in Ireland. He believes that if
Ireland fails to heed his warning, then the land must be "bequeathed
[. . .] / to elegists" (Heaney 25-6) and will live only in the mournful
lamentations of the dead.
Though one lauds civilization
and the other condemns it, both Tennyson and Heaney convey social commentary
through the vehicle of their verse. The authors adapt the old stories
to suit their purposes, taking the familiar and easily recognizable characters
of ancient mythology and utilizing them to make a statement about modern
society. Their work, as Marxist critics say it must be, is shaped by the
world around them, by their interaction with culture. "Ulysses"
and "Hercules and Antaeus" derive their material from the same
Greek mythology, but convey very different, conflicting messages. Yet,
this makes since, for literature tells the story of people--their emotions,
their experiences, and their civilizations. All authors work with the
medium of humanity, but each sees a different shape hiding within that
clay. And each sculpts it to reflect his or her own unique viewpoint.
This is how it has always been, and how it shall continue to be.
Barry, Peter. Beginning
Theory. New York: Manchester UP, 1995.
"The Battle of Maldon."
Old English Pages: Electronic Texts and Manuscript Images. Trans.
Online. 9 April 2000.
Heaney, Seamus. "Hercules
and Antaeus." North. New York: Oxford UP, 1976. 52-3.
Tennyson, Alfred. "Ulysses."
The Norton Introduction to Literature. Eds. Jerome Beaty and J.
Paul Hunter. 7th ed.
New York: Norton, 1998. 1139-41.