jungian literary criticism

Jungians do not see art structured along sexual lines but in archetypes, which may be those of the collective or personal unconscious. The poem has some obvious imagery of the collective unconscious (sea, land, interior, exterior, etc.) but more useful is an analysis in terms of animus-anima archetypes, and of the mechanisms of repression and transference.

The animus-anima elements need sorting out, and the poem would also benefit from a better balance between the assertive opening and the reflective conclusion.


Jung saw the mind as a battlefield of conflicting psychic forces, personal and collective. Such forces were not necessarily sexual, but did emerge as archetypes: predispositions of beliefs, activities and symbols in which the unconsciousness becomes articulate and conscious to us. Archetypes of the collective unconscious are the recurring images to be found in any culture, and the artist, like all human beings, is simply their midwife. Archetypes of the personal unconscious, however (particularly the shadow, and those masculine or feminine aspects of personality known as animus or anima) are dispositions we each need to recognize and accommodate if we are to mature as persons and take our place in society. Both come into Jungian analysis.

While myths of the collective unconscious may occur in poetry at all levels, it is fiction of some length (novels, plays, narrative poems in which the protagonist faces painful adjustments in growing up and/or coming to terms with life) that benefit from analysis of the personal unconscious. Elements may have been repressed into the shadow side, or personalities unbalanced by denial of the animus or anima elements.

Jung himself was more concerned with the creative process than Freud, and shielded artworks from psychoanalysis. Art was not neurosis, and individual productions must be judged by the methods appropriate to that art form. Similarly, the nature of art was a matter for aesthetics. Psychiatry could not adjudicate on literature, any more than should science.

Jung's followers have taken different routes. Stress on the midwife role of artist leads to the Structuralist view of the writer, who is not the originator of his writings but merely the mouthpiece of more general forces. The myth criticism of Northrop Frye accepts that psychiatry cannot judge the aesthetic value of literature, but does claim to categorize objectively and universally.{1}

Examples of Jungian Literary Analysis

Maud Bodkin. Archetypal Patterns in Poetry. 1934.

Lillian Feder. Ancient Myth in Modern Poetry. 1971.

Wilfred Guerin et al's. A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. 1992.


Analysis: Symbols of the Collective Unconscious

Many of the collective myths employed in this poem are obvious. There is the restless, fecund and accommodating nature of the sea. And there is the land, and buildings constructed on and with that land. A contrast emerges between the changing and the permanent, the fluid and the rule-constructed, the feminine and the masculine. But this is too obvious to be worth dwelling on, and the poem emphasizes the constant interplay between the two. The sea erodes the land, grinding the rock to sand and pebbles, and by doing so provides materials by which the land may be built upon and preserved.

By the second stanza, the poem is moving on to consider the detritus of erosion, the aggregate which has something of the stormy North Sea in its make-up (past days, overcast and glinting) and something of the land, most notably the metal silicates that compose most rock. Lines 9-10 transfer the toughness and intricate skeleton of rock minerals to the sterile activities of bureaucrats in faceless office blocks. Is this acceptable, this intellectual conceit (part of the silicate of tough lives...)? Jungians would see it as a projection of the repressed and troublesome contents of the unconscious to a supposed exterior reality. It's hardly a fair picture of bureaucrats, who do more than wait for the post and departmental meetings. Moreover, whose unconscious are we now considering — the sea's, the land's, the architects' or the "you" referred to in the first line (As you'd expect)? The poem is very unclear. Traditional criticism and textural analysis (which would be consulted at this point) do not help much. The poems simply remarks that the bureaucrats seem lost in their busy routines (Except that these do not know it, at least / Do not seem to, being busy, generally.) The conceit is not developed, but left hanging in the air.

Perhaps that is only natural. The conceit is a tenuous one. But the matter returns to press us for an answer in stanzas three and four. A long, floating, rather tenuous description of the light-headedness caused by occupying these high office blocks is anchored to a "they" or "we" in line 23 (That they become attentive, or we do ) The "they" must relate to the bureaucrats, who are becoming aware, or at least attentive. But aware of or attentive to what — their surroundings, the aggregate make-up of the buildings, their tough, intricate lives? Before the matter is resolved the "they" switches to "we", and this "we" is involved in the construction business: probably as architects, to judge from the poem's title.

And these architects have nothing to say on the earlier intellectual conceit, but develop another. They talk of constructing these webs of buildings, compare these buildings to whales (Caulked like great whales about us), and then view the buildings as endangered creatures whose sonic calls to each other (placid but unbearable melodies) reach out to fill the architects' thoughts. The deep hinterlands of incurved glass (presumably the office complexes) are now plunged into a submarine environment, or possibly we are so plunged if we recall the poem's first line. What does this mean?

Again it seems a transference, an acting out of the contents of the unconscious as though they were objective reality. Why consider the office blocks as whales? Because they are constructed of marine elements? Because they hide their inner structures to all but the architects? Because they are beautiful, inoffensive and doomed to extinction? These and other interpretations are possible, but the poem gives nothing away, ending only in a melancholy strangeness. What is being escaped from (unbearable melodies)?

Perhaps we should return to the beginning of the poem. The buildings are impatient, we are told, and are composed of materials that as cliffs are burdensome, underwritten as / It were with past days. They are heavy with a past that is cyclic: tides, storms, a continual grinding away of the rock into pebbles, erosion of the land and then a building of these pebbles into shingle and cliffed extensions of the land. But there is no sense of continuity in this, no joy in the endless fecundity of the natural world. On the contrary, both here (hoarse roar, burdensome, obdurate) and at the end of the poem (pleading and flailing, unbearable) the tone is subdued and stoical. What is being escaped from is human mortality: this is Dover Beach without the sustaining fidelity of love.

So we see the point of the first conceit. One aspect of the land, its tough silicate minerals, is projected onto bureaucrats to give them (and by extension all humankind) a durability and structure they would not otherwise possess. And the conceit is not continued because it is not believed in. The architects see further (on those cloudless, almost vacuumed afternoons) and realize that their creations are alien (though dressed as friends) and alienating (hinterlands of incurved glass), so that permanence is not desirable. It would be better (the second conceit) if buildings were as inoffensive and appealing as whales, which follow their hidden courses through the world. But of course the architects don't believe that, and have already realized that human affections are something different (these / Divisions persisting), though often ineffective (Calling at random like frail relations). The second conceit fades out into sonic music because it has already been discounted (indeed what we talk about).

Analysis: Symbols of the Personal Unconscious

The poem is certainly very convoluted, perhaps unnecessarily so, but suppose the above were indeed what we'd been trying to say. How well does the vocabulary support the conception? We distinguish symbols representing the animus from those of the anima: —

The Architects

But, as you'd expect, they are very
Impatient, the buildings, having much in them
Of the heavy surf of the North Sea, flurrying
The grit, lifting the pebbles, flinging them
With a hoarse roar against the aggregate

They are composed of — the cliffs higher of course,
More burdensome, underwritten as
It were with past days overcast
And glinting, obdurate, part of the
Silicate of tough lives, distant and intricate

As the whirring bureaucrats let in
And settled with coffee in the concrete pallets,
Awaiting the post and the department meeting —
Except that these do not know it, at least do not
Seems to, being busy, generally.

So perhaps it is only on those cloudless, almost
Vacuumed afternoons with tier upon tier
Of concrete like rib—bones packed above them,
And they light-headed with the blue airiness
Spinning around, and muzzy, a neuralgia

Calling at random like frail relations, a phone
Ringing in a distant office they cannot get to,
That they become attentive, or we do — these
Divisions persisting, indeed what we talk about,
We, constructing these webs of buildings which,

Caulked like great whales about us, are always
Aware that some trick of the light or weather
Will dress them as friends, pleading and flailing
And fill with placid but unbearable melodies
Us in deep hinterlands of incurved glass.


The first thing we note is the preponderance of animus, male symbols. Only surf, webs, pleading and flailing, incurved and possibly vacuumed are feminine — the latter more on Freudian terms. And that, in a poem dealing so much with the sea, the cyclic nature of life, and with balance of land and sea, seems a fault. Certainly these webs of buildings is an unfortunate mixture of anima and animus, and indeed makes little sense on other grounds.

But what is important in Jungian theory is not the symbols as such, but the extent they are faced, understood and accommodated by the individual. To complicate matters, the poem has two individuals and a convoluted line of reasoning. Let's start with the reader addressed in the opening line. He is told about the buildings, the aggregates they are composed of, and the actions of the North Sea. Almost throughout, the imagery is drivingly energetic and aggressive. Where is the anima side? It hardly exists until the last stanza, where the reader is perhaps reintroduced with "Us".

Take the architects, who appear with the "we" in line 23. Their imagery is predominantly feminine. Does this answer the overwhelming masculine imagery before? Only if we merge the reader and the architects into one, the same persona, which makes little sense.

Analysis suggests that the personae of the poem need looking at — the reader, the bureaucrats and the architects, particularly the jump from "they" to "we" in line 23. But a larger question is the balance between the energetic masculine first three stanzas and the melancholic final stanza. There is an sense of compression, of the aggressive objectivity not being faced and absorbed by its shadow.

Conclusions: Suggested Corrections

  • Correct the imbalance between the objective stanzas 1-3 and the reflective stanza 6.

  • Resolve ambiguities with personae.

  • Make the argument less convoluted.

  • Make matters clearer in stanza 5, particularly the "they" and "we" of line 23.

  • Replace "webs" in line 25 and rewrite line 30 to make the imagery more consistent and intelligible.

Some of the shortcomings have been corrected in a new version, now entitled Office Workers.

This and other pages in the Literary Criticism section are now available as a free pdf ebook from Ocaso Press entitled 'Ten Approaches to Literary Criticism'.


1. Chapter 17 of David Daiches's Critical Approaches to Literature (1982)

2. Clifton Snider's Jungian Theory: Its Literary Application and a Discussion of 'The Member of the Wedding' in Joseph Natoli's (Ed.) Psychological Perspectives on Literature: Freudian Dissidents and Non-Freudians (1984).

3. Chapter 5 in Elizabeth Wright's Psychoanalytic Criticism: Theory in Practice.

4. Chapter 3 of Wilfred Guerin at al.'s A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature (1979).

Internet Resources

1. C. G. Jung: Literature. http://www.cgjungpage.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=category&sectionid=2&id=57&Itemid=40. Several literary articles on site devoted to Jung.
2. Archetypal Theory And Criticism. Carol Schreier Rupprecht. 1997. http://www.press.jhu.edu/books/hopkins_guide_to_literary_theory/. Brief article with references.
3. Introduction to Modern Literary Theory. Kristi Siegel. Jan. 2003. http://www.kristisiegel.com/theory.htm#Archetypal/Myth%20Criticism Short account, references and websites. NNA
4. A Brief Outline of Jungian Psychology. Clifton Snider. 2002. http://www.csulb.edu/~csnider/jungian.outline.html. Summary, with listing of the author's (online) critical articles.
5. C. G. Jung: Literature. http://www.cgjungpage.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=category&sectionid=2&id=57&Itemid=40. Several literary articles on site devoted to Jung.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    |     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.