The metaphorics of erotic pursuit and sexual violence in classical mythology and its transformations by women poets

Slabbert, Janie (2018-12)

Thesis (MA)--Stellenbosch University, 2018.

Thesis

ENGLISH ABSTRACT: The portrayal of heterosexual desire in classical myth is often ambivalent, without clear distinctions between seduction and sexual violence. The sexual exploits of male gods like Zeus, Apollo and Poseidon are frequently described, as Kate Nichols observes, with the term “seduction,” though the unions commonly involve “sexual violence” (109). The underlying imagery on which these tales are built is the metaphor of the hunt, which casts the male as predator and the female as prey, and involves a relentless attempt to capture and possess the woman sexually. An example is the tale of Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne, where the god is compared to “a wolf” or “a lion,” the fleeing nymph to “a lamb” or “a deer” (Ovid 1.504-6). This portrayal of male desire as something that necessitates the overpowering of the female figure, often performed as an act of sexual violence, is revised by woman poets, who rewrite the tales of figures such as Daphne, Medusa and Leda in a manner that exposes this dynamic. In the word “revision” lies the concept of improving or rewriting, while the word mythopoeia is made up of the Greek words mythos (μῦθος), meaning “tale” or “story,” and poéia, semantically related to the verb poéõ (ποέω), meaning “to make,” which leads to the literal translation of “story-making,” or, as Alicia Ostriker and Deirdre Byrne word it, “mythmaking” (4, 71). When women writers engage in the making of myth by altering and transforming the original tales in their poetry, particularly in the case of accounts where distinctions between seduction and sexual violence are ambivalent, the lack of clarity that exists in the primary sources is erased through the creation of a new language and new focal points to effect their retellings. In the poetic re-appropriations of Medusa unpacked in this thesis, for instance, aspects such as rage, creative inspiration and sexuality are conveyed through the perspectives of female first-person speakers to grant the Gorgon a complexity and agency not present in the classical texts, whereas the revisions of Leda engage with the pertinent question of consent in all its capacities. Consequently, this thesis considers the perspectives of the female figures of classical myth through the poetic re-appropriations of H.D. (“Pursuit,” “Leda”), Edna St. Vincent Millay (“Daphne”), Anne Sexton (“Where I live in this Honorable House of the Laurel Tree”), Sylvia Plath (“On the Difficulty of Conjuring Up a Dryad”), May Sarton (“The Muse as Medusa”), Carol Anne Duffy (“Medusa,” “Leda”), Amy Clampitt (“Medusa”), Eleanor Brown (“Leda, No Swan”) and Maxine Kumin (“Pantoum, with Swan”).

AFRIKAANSE OPSOMMING: Die verteenwoordiging van heteroseksuele begeerte in klassieke mitologie is dikwels teenstrydig, sonder ʼn duidelike onderskeid tussen verleiding en seksuele geweld. Die seksuele eskapades van gode soos Zeus, Apollo en Poseidon word volgens Kate Nichols gereeld as “verleiding” beskryf, alhoewel daar dikwels “seksuele geweld” betrokke is (109). Die onderliggende beeldspraak waarop díe verhale steun is die metafoor van die jagtog, wat die man as jagter en die vrou as prooi uitbeeld, en behels ʼn onverbiddelike poging om die vrou seksueel te oorheers. ʼn Bekende voorbeeld is die verhaal waar Apollo op jag na Daphne is, wat die god aan “ʼn wolf” of “ʼn leeu” vergelyk en die nimf as “ʼn lam” of “ʼn wildsbok” voorstel (Ovidius 1.504-6). Die uitbeelding van manlike lus as iets wat die oorheersing van die vrou behels, dikwels as seksuele geweld beoefen, is deur vrouedigters hersien, wat die verhale van figure soos Daphne, Medusa en Leda herskryf om díe patroon te ontbloot. Aan die woord “hersiening” kan konnotasies soos verbetering en herskrywing gekoppel word, terwyl mitopoéia ontstaan uit die Griekse woorde “mitos” (μῦθος), wat storie beteken, en poéia, verwant aan die Griekse werkwoord poéõ (ποέω), wat as maak vertaal kan word. Die samestelling mitopoéia lei dus tot die letterlike vertaling van “storieskepping,” wat Alicia Ostriker en Deirdre Byrne as “mitologievorming” beskryf (4, 71). Wanneer vrouens in die proses van mitologievorming betrokke is deur die oorspronklike verhale te herskep in hulle gedigte, veral in gevalle waar die onderskeid tussen verleiding en seksuele geweld nie duidelik is nie, raak hulle van die onduidelikheid in die oorspronklike verhale ontslae, en skep hulle ʼn nuwe taal en nuwe onderwerpe om hulle herskrywings saam te stel. Byvoorbeeld, in die poëtiese herskrywings van Medusa wat in die tesis bespreek word, word aspekte soos toorn, kreatiewe inspirasie en seksualiteit verwoord deur die perspektief van vroulike eerstepersoon-sprekers, wat aan haar ʼn kompleksitiet toeskryf wat nie in die oorspronklike verhale voorkom nie. Verder word daar in die herskrywings van Leda aan die belangrike onderwerp van toestemming in die konteks van seksuele verhoudings aandag gegee. Vervolgens neem dìe tesis die perspektiewe van vroulike figure uit klassieke mitologie in ag deur die herskrywings van H.D. (“Pursuit,” “Leda”), Edna St. Vincent Millay (“Daphne”), Anne Sexton (“Where I live in this Honorable House of the Laurel Tree”), Sylvia Plath (“On the Difficulty of Conjuring Up a Dryad”), May Sarton (“The Muse as Medusa”), Carol Anne Duffy (“Medusa,” “Leda”), Amy Clampitt (“Medusa”), Eleanor Brown (“Leda, No Swan”) en Maxine Kumin (“Pantoum, with Swan”).

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