Archetypal Pattern in Poetry

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      Anthropological studies (of Sir Edward Taylor and Sir James Fraser) as well as psycho-analytical studies (of Freud and Jung) formed the basis of the Archetypal approach to the study of literature, in the 20’s and 30’s of the 20th century. The British scholars who were among the first to work in this field were D. H. Lawrence, Gilbert Murray, Andrew Lang and G. Wilson Knight.

      The principal premise of the method is that the secret of the appeal of great art is to be traced to the archetypes or patterns of values, personages, beliefs and attitudes which survive (as a “stored achievement”) in the collective unconscious, i.e. racial memory. Maud Bodkin’s Archetypal Patterns in Poetry (1934) is a classic study in the field. The subtitle of the book is: Psychological Studies of Imagination. “An attempt is here made”, claims Bodkin in the Preface, “to bring psychological analysis and reflection to bear upon the imaginative experience communicated by great poetry,” and to examine the recurrent forms or patterns, across the world-wide spectrum of cultures, of certain primordial forces (primordial images or ache types embedded in the collective unconscious) which have dictated human behavior at all ages. Archetypal criticism, therefore, seeks to discover in literature the dramatization of these continuing themes, which show men in all parts of the world and at all ages as members of the ancient race of man. Maud Bodkin explains further that the term “archetypal pattern” is used to refer to that within us which, in Gilbert Murray’s phrase, leaps in response to the effective presentation in the poetry of an ancient theme.

      Bodkin, in her first chapter, titled ‘Archetypal Patterns in Tragic great deeds or imaginative flights: that is, as Muse (Muse - Mother) or divine Mother or guardian of heroes (e.g. Thetis of Achilles and Venus of Aeneas). The Earth-Mother (Ceres), worshipped in ancient Greece, belongs to the same category. The image that Paradise Lost presents of Eve has affinity with different Type-figures: the Proserpine figure of virginal youth, transient and frail; the inviolable and immortal Diana or Minerva; and the Beatrice of Dante — “the sun of my eyes” and “She who imparadises my soul”—the Lady who is at once human companion and divine guide, and who brings about in the lover a transition from personal desire to ideal aspiration. An extension of the same is “the Immortal Woman in woman” portrayed by Goethe—the Francesca type.

      A parallel type is the Prometheus or Faust male figure who thirsts for knowledge, adventure, experience, and is defiant of human limitations. As St. Bernard represents the tender father figure, Homer’s Hector represents the Hero - archetype. (Even Milton’s Satan, in a sense, is hero). God too is imaged under a double figure: as Divine Despot and benevolent Father. The Devil-archetype is to be seen in the Iago of Othello, the Mephistopheles of Goethe’s Faust, and the Satan of Milton’s Paradise Fost, representing, as he does, the enemy of group values.

      The archetype of the God-man is to be met with, generally, in Sacred literature, outside of which we find an exemplar in the Christ of Paradise Regained and in St. Bernard of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Considering the poems of Milton (Paradise Regained) and Shelley (Prometheus Unbound), in connection with the Hero, God and Devil images, Bodkin observes that they are intimately related interchanging, with change of standpoint, within a process of conflict and transition.

      As a specimen of the static Paradise-Hades archetype (whose counterpart is the Rebirth type, in tenns of the time-dimension i.e. descent into Hell and ascent to Heaven), Bodkin examines the Sons and Lovers of D. H. Lawrence (since fiction, not poetry, is the representative form of 20th century literature). She takes up for examination the episode of the lovers’ stoning of the moon image. In Lawrence’s writing there is to be seen as an effort to discern some kind of harmony between the opposites of flesh and spirit. The Rebirth pattern dominates The Plumed Serpent, as it did the earlier Rainbow. Charles Morgan’s The Fountain also is built round the same theme. The book projects an image of Rebirth—Narwitz’s death letting him into another dimension of life. The pattern of the book communicates a transition from dream to reality. The glory of the lover’s dream of Paradise on earth fades away, and in its place comes a realization that man could still build a spiritual heaven amidst the winter of earth and of the flesh.

      A counterpart of man’s image of Woman is exemplified by reference to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, a Biography—a counterpart to the Beatrice type, who is both inspiration and guide.

      In the category of Poetry, Bodkin refers to that aspect of The Waste Land of T. S. Eliot which exemplifies the pattern of Rebirth. The poem, notably, fuses images from the remote past with those of the present and translates them into a contemporary idiom. There is no story, no concrete dramatic situation, in The Waste Land, remarks Bodkin, to bind associations together. As such, it is no surprise if critics have seen it as a “juxtaposition of fragments.”

      For Bodkin, this poem, again, exemplifies the initiation or rebirth pattern (Images of the Holy Grail Legend also intermingle, unsurprisingly, because its symbolism speaks of a faith in resurrection.)

      Maud Bodkin undertakes to answer some of the objections that have been raised, or might be raised: One, that the types or patterns of images — say, of God and Devil, Heaven and Hell, which reflect the religious beliefs of the times are part of the content of the particular poems taken up for analysis, they are not distinctive of all poetry, i.e. not all poetry contains such conceptions.

      To this objection, Bodkin’s answer is: that the poems were chosen as present experiences which are not bound by the beliefs of the poet s time. At the same time, Bodkin admits that other images and themes might have been selected. That, however, does not negate the validity of her basic assumption: that great poetry, in all ages, shows universal correspondences, in terms of theme and imagery, because they articulate memory complexes or experiences stored in the “collective unconscious” of the race.

      Two, there is the objection that there is nothing new in the results of such an approach. All experience shows certain general characteristics, which philosophers formulate in contrasting terms like tension and release, rest and renewal. If literature also does the same, what is so special about it?

      Bodkin’s reply is that she is not seeking to prove anything new as to the nature of poetry. All that she contends is that poetry presents these universal characteristics of experience, and images convey them, in a unique way and with great effectiveness. The study of poetry from this point of view can shed new light on the images of our religious experience, as well as supplement and modify the data for the psychologist and the philosopher.

      A third objection, which Bodkin thinks she must answer before developing her argument about the relations of poetry, religion and philosophy, is that voiced by A. E. Houseman (in ids The Name and Nature of Poetry, Cambridge University Press, 1933). It is Houseman’s plea that the essence of poetry is not realized in its intellectual content. The attempt to draw out, or analyze, the meaning often destroys the poetry. In other words, reflective analysis is the very enemy of poetic experience. A poem's music and magic are not to be subjected to logical thought.

      And, often, in poetry of the kind of Blake’s lyrics, there is so little meaning that nothing except poetic emotion is perceived. Houseman quotes, as an example of a poem where meaning is virtually non-existent, this particular poem: Here the voice of the Bard who present, past and future sees But, Bodkin argues, it depends. Under certain conditions, intellectual analysis may enhance, rather than destroy, the enjoyment of poetry. Her method is not simply one of “labeling”, nor one of paraphrasing.

      One basic objection (not anticipated by Bodkin), however, as pointed out by Wilbur Scott, is that Archetypal Criticism does not lead to evaluation of literature so much as to an explanation of the fundamental appeal of certain writing. Being an “eclectic” approach to the study of literature, it calls for “a mind of Europe”, a global consciousness on the part of the reader, as much as on that of the poet. It does certainly help broaden the experience of reading a poem within the structure of his (the reader’s) sensibility.

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