myth criticism

Myth criticism attempts to bring out the cultural myths underlying literature, and many are indeed apparent in this poem: time, sea, land and sky, control, creation, decay and regeneration. Some need to be developed more fully.


Far from being primitive fictions — about the natural world, some supposed ancestor, or tribal practice — myths are reflections of a profound reality. They dramatically represent our instinctive understandings. Moreover, unlike Freud's concepts, myths are collective and communal, and so bring a sense of wholeness and togetherness to social life. Native peoples, and indeed whole civilizations, have their own mythologies, but there appear to be common images, themes and motives {1} which Jung called "archetypes".{2}

The mythology of the classical world provided themes for some of the world's greatest drama, {3} and similar themes can be traced in Renaissance literature {4} through to modern poetry. {5} Hamlet, for example, is often seen as the reluctant hero who must sacrifice himself to purify a Denmark made diseased by the foul and unnatural murder of its king. {6} Yeats, Pound and Eliot employ the myths of history, rebirth and fulfillment through sacrifice {7}, as do other poets. {8}

Myth criticism continues to draw freely on the psychology of Jung, on social anthropology, on the study of religions {9}, on metaphor and depth psychology, but the archetypal criticism of Northrop Frye has attempted to redefine what criticism is, and what it can be expected to do. {10}

Frye attempted a general theory of literature, which he approached from four perspectives. Rather that justify what were little more than matters of preference (i.e. squabble over the relative merits of authors and their works) scholars should derive principles, structures and laws from the study of literature itself. His first essay in Anatomy of Criticism recognized various levels of realism in literature, an articulation he termed a theory of modes. The second essay put forward a theory of symbols, recognizing five levels ranging from the mundane to the anagogic (the last represented in work of a religious or spiritual nature).

The theory of myths that forms the third essay has possibly been Frye's most influential contribution. He starts by identifying the four seasons — spring, summer, autumn and winter — with the four main plots or 'mythoi' of romance, comedy, tragedy, and irony/satire. These are further broken down into phases. The mythos of winter consists of six phases, the last representing human life in terms of unrelieved bondage: prisons, madhouses, lynching mobs and places of execution. The human figures of this phase are the dispossessed, the destitute and mad-ogres, witches, Baudelaire's black giantess and Pope's Dullness. Frye distinguishes between signs (which point outward to things beyond themselves) and motifs (which are understood inwardly as parts of a verbal structure). Literature is preeminently an autonomous verbal structure where the sign-values are subordinate to the interconnectedness of motifs. The fourth essay proposes a theory of genres, where Frye outlined the differences between the lyric, epic, dramatic work, etc.

Frye's approach was invigorating, but has not been broadly accepted. His categories seem arbitrary, and many works of art do not fit neatly into any category. For all his learning, Frye's focus was on western literature and its classification. So general a view does not help the practising poet with rewriting, or the critic explaining how one piece of literature is better than another, beyond of course understanding the larger picture. Finally, though Frye's own criticism was subtle and illuminating, the approach too easily degenerated into "hunt the symbol" exercises. {11}

But important matters lie behind symbolism. Literature employs words, and the reality behind words has been the central preoccupation of twentieth century philosophy. Linguistic philosophy attempted to explain away the great philosophical dilemmas of existence as the improper use of words. Structuralism described literature as the surface expression of deep anthropological (and often) binary codes. Poststructuralism denied that words could be anything but part of an endless web of yet more words, without final referent or meaning. Postmodernism uses words as flat, media images, without deeper reference.

None of these has been very unconvincing. Words do have great emotional and intellectual power if employed in certain ways, and these ways draw on matters of deep and lasting interest to the human psyche. Mythic criticism (indeed all criticism: Frye makes this point) is subsequent to literature, as history is to action. We cannot clothe with plot and character the skeletal requirements of criticism and expect literature to result. Works of art follow their own devices and grow out of the artist's imagination, only submitting to criticism if they still seem incomplete or unsatisfactory.

But mythic criticism can show the writer where his imagery is coming from, and suggest reasons for its power. Subsequent work — deep thought, reading and endless toying with possibilities — may then turn up further material. Whether that material is useful can only be found by testing it in the poem, a trial and error process of continual adaptation and refinement that may eventually achieve the strengths of the coherence theory of truth: transforming power, internal consistency, simplicity, elegance and fertility.

Published Examples of Myth Criticism

Kenneth Burke. Counter-Statement. 1953.

John Livingston Lowes. The Road to Xanadu. 1927.

Caroline Spurgeon. Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us. 1935.

Northrop Frye. Anatomy of Criticism. 1957.


We start by taking in turn the archetypal themes represented: time, sea, land and sky, control, creation, illness and regeneration. The poem:

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
Seem 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.


Time is introduced immediately — expect and impatient — continues with past days and is then maintained by tense changes (present in stanza 3, past in stanza 4, present in stanza 5, present and future in stanza 6). Time is one of the most fundamental archetypes, and here it appears in typical form, a mystical immersion into cyclical time. But the subject isn't man directly but the buildings he inhabits. More exactly, it is their constituents. Buildings are largely constructed of glass (sand), brick (baked clay) and concrete (aggregate, steel and burnt limestone), all of which are dug out of the earth. In time the buildings will decay, be knocked down, and the rubble dumped to make new fill. Even the land is not everlasting but is ceaselessly worn away by water, which may grind the hardest materials to pebbles but also deposit the pebbles in sea-cliffs or river terraces, where they become sources of aggregate again. Man can only mimic on a small scale what geological processes are doing constantly: eroding the land and remaking it by deposition, metamorphism, and orogenic uplift.

Human life is fleeting, and man's usual victory over mortality is only through reproduction and the achievements of the societies which outlive him. But here the immortality considered is buildings, which are constructed like termite mounds on the land he occupies, and so brought into the ceaseless cycle of geological creation. But the emphasis on "silicate", of which sand is the most familiar example, also suggests deserts, death, spiritual aridity and nihilism. The constituents of the building were created by the pounding of the North Sea, and indeed carry echoes of that creation within them (having much in them / Of the North Sea), but now they are inert, immobilized, can only be released when the buildings are reconstructed.


Equally a symbol of death and regeneration is the sea, which appears in stanza 1 as the heavy surf of the North Sea and again in the last stanza with the great whales that fill with placid but unbearable melodies / Us in the deep hinterlands of incurved glass. What are these hinterlands but a sea of glass that seems to draw us in (deep) and drown us in its impenetrable reflection? The poem, which starts and ends with aspects of the sea, is again cyclical, and in this incarnation the sense of imprisonment in his own creations is even stronger (pleading and flailing, unbearable and deep hinterlands)

Land and Sky

Generally, at least in Aryan mythology, the earth is a mother goddess and the sky a paternal figure. {12} It is therefore striking that the fourth stanza, where the sky (cloudless...afternoons, blue airiness / Spinning around) is clearly evoked, is marked by a change of thought (So perhaps...). We are still with the bureaucrats, but have joined them in their high office block, where they seem out of their element (lightheaded with the blue airiness / Spinning around, and muzzy) and barely able to cope (frail relations and a distant office they cannot get to). The sky theme is not continued, and indeed the bureaucrats themselves are abruptly replaced by the architects (they become attentive, or we do), who introduce the whales and the submarine imagery.


Bureaucrats are unimaginative officials who administer by rule and regulation. Their lives are described here as tough ... distant and intricate. Silicates are complex molecules but do not make up living structures. The bureaucrats are not creating anything (awaiting the post and the department meeting and are indeed settled ... in concrete pallets, appearing like so much paper stock in warehouses.

We are in the world of the dead — Frye's winter myth — and the sense of imprisonment is again strong, although not realized by its inhabitants (Except that these do not know it ... being busy, generally.)


Since architects are creative people, and start their training in art colleges, the title no doubt has some bearing on imaginative processes, with creating something not existing before. But architects are not identified by name, only appearing by default in the "we" of line 23, where they occupy the focus of attention as the bureaucrats fade out. The switch is conscious (they become attentive), for both parties (or we do), but the responsibilities are not seized upon with any confidence. Indeed, the buildings are likened to whales, gentle but doomed creatures, whose plight is all too vivid to their creators (fill with placid but unbearable melodies). What is being indicated?

Mythologies have much to say on creation (since the existence of a world at all requires explanation) but creation is usually seen as only part of the endless cycle of birth and death, building and destruction, appearance and disappearance. As was noted before, there are suggestions of spiritual aridity in the buildings' constituents, and this affliction is extended to the bureaucrats, who perform meaningless, self-centred tasks. The architects are very different, and from the arid world of silicates immediately plunge us into the sea with their talk of whales. But note Aware that some trick of the light or weather / Will dress them as friends, which emphasizes the separateness of whales, their difference from humans. In some undisclosed way we have the suggestion that the architects, and thus the creative process itself, are being dragged into depths where they cannot function. They can hear the placid but unbearable melodies but are powerless to help, being fastened in the deep hinterlands of incurved glass.


Spiritual aridity brings sickness, and almost on cue the light-headedness of stanza 4 brings not elation but neuralgia. And even that complaint is not accessible to treatment, but appears inconsequential (Calling at random like frail relations) and at some remove (a phone / Ringing in a distant office they cannot get to). Indeed the content of lines 18 to 22 seems to valorize into the ether, perhaps emphasized by the word ringing. Subsequently, the imagery becomes more tactile (Divisions, great whales, trick, dress), but no more certain. Something is wrong, but exactly what remains unclear. Awareness has an element of chicanery and dressing up (Aware that some trick of the light or weather / Will dress them as friends) Perhaps it is the very illness itself that creates such a troubling view of the world.


The cyclic nature of building is clear enough in the first half of the poem, but where is the complementary response to decay and destruction? Mythologies emphasize that life grows from death, that lives, societies, artistic creations all have their growth, flowering, seeding, winter and rebirth. Where do we find this in the poem? It seems not to exist, which may account for the melancholy of the last stanza, and the uncomfortable imprisonment of the last line.

Conclusions: Suggestions

How do we pull all this together? The indications are intriguing but not going in one direction, or anywhere at all. Can that be the subject of the poem — a perplexing sense of otherness, a vague feeling that much is wrong with modern life, that neither the bureaucrats or the architects have either control over their lives in any meaningful way, or belong to a larger process of life-enhancement and renewal? The poem is a sort of modern Waste Land, much less ambitious than Eliot's and limited to an aspect of the natural world.

If that is so, then a good deal needs to be resolved if the piece is to work as a traditional poem, notably:

  • the storm imagery of stanza 2: where does this fit in?

  • the office situation of stanza 5: should this remain so nebulous?

  • the identity of the reader referred to by "you", "we" and "us". Who is being buttonholed in this way? If they are different, should this not be made clearer?

  • the status of the deep hinterlands with which the poem concludes. In what sense is the reader imprisoned in this incurved glass?

  • the incompleteness of the cycle. Where is the regeneration?

  • Of course, if the poem is not traditional but Postmodernist in intention, then none of these recommendations apply. Its arbitrary and fragmented nature may very well be an apt copy of modern life itself.

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. Joseph Campbell's The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (1959), and Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough (1922).
2. Maud Bodkin's Archetypal Patterns in Poetry (1934).
3. Gilbert Murray's Euripides and his Age (1913), and Francis Cornford's Origin of Attic Comedy (1914).
4. Gilbert Murray's The Classical Tradition in Poetry (1927), and Francis Fergusson's The Idea of a Theater (1949).
5. Lillian Feder's Ancient Myth in Modern Poetry (1971).
6. Philip Wheelright's The Burning Fountain (1954), and Giorgio de Santillana and Herta von Dechend's Hamlet's Mill (1969).
7. Daniel Hoffman's Barbarous Knowledge: Myth in the Poetry of Yeats, Graves and Muir (1967), Hugh Kenner's The Poetry of Ezra Pound (1951), and George Williamson's A Reader's Guide to T. S. Eliot (1966).
8. Feder 1971.
9. Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane (1959).
10. Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism (1957).
11. pp. 344-349 in David Daiches's Critical Approaches to Literature (1981).
12. Campbell 1959.

Internet Resources

1. Paganism and Myths of Creation: A Ritual of Transformation. Walter Wright Arthen. Nov. 2002. Creation myths in different cultures.
2. Joseph Campbell Foundation. Continues the work of this popular researcher into mythology.
3. Mything Links. Kathleen Jenks. Extensive links to mythologies, fairy tales, sacred art and traditions.
4. The Psychological in the Neighborhood of Thought and Poetry: The Uncanny Logos of the Psyche. Michael P. Sipiora. Heidegger, Jung and Freud in the writing of poetry.
4. Jungian, Archetypal, Imaginal, and Depth Psychology. 1995. Helpful synopsis.
5. 7. 8. C.G. Jung. Very full site devoted to life and work of Carl Jung.
6. Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961). Kelley L. Ross. 2002. Jung's works from a Friesian philosophical perspective.
7. 11. C.G. Jung Institute of Boston. Useful resources on links page.
8. Jung Reading List. Tom Davis. 2000.
. Good bibliography, but not online.
9. Jungian, Archetypal, Imaginal, and Depth Psychology. 1995. Brief account of differences.
10. 15. Depth Psychology. Selected articles on Jungian and depth psychology.
11. Quantum Physics, Depth Psychology, and Beyond. Thomas J. McFarlane. Jun. 2000. Larger correspondences between Jungian psychology and quantum physics.
12. Northrop Frye. 1999. Introduction and link.
13. Northrop Frye: Polemical Introduction. Short excerpts from his writings.
14. 21. Anatomy of Criticism by Frye, Northrop. 1957. Selection of quotes from the work.
15. The Legacy of Northrop Frye by Alvin A.Lee and Robert Denham (eds.) 1995. Extended book review.
16. Northrop Frye Centre. Promotes interest and research into the critic's work.
17. Substantive & Essentialist Definitions of Religion.



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.