The Reception Of Myth In English Romanticism Anthony John Harding
Reviewed by Mary Anne Perkins
(The Coleridge Bulletin New Series No 11, Spring 1998 pp 61-63)
This book is written with the combination of subtlety, eclat and penetration which those familiar with Anthony Harding’s work have come to expect. Both directly and indirectly, it successfully makes the case for a revival of myth criticism. Analysing examples of the mythography of four writers (Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley) Harding shows us the sophistication of their particular insights into the relationship between myth and the perceived universal realities of freedom, nature, history, reason, and the divine.
These four English Romantics use myth to enable poetic and prophetic utterance and to reveal its nature (Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’), to confront the historical through the poetic (Keats’ ‘The Fall of Hyperion’), to explore the dynamic and shifting relationships of the internal and external worlds of human experience. The book contains especially revealing comparisons, for example, between Coleridge’s and Shelley’s interpretations of the Prometheus myth. One question which this study brings to mind, however, is whether the reception of myth in Romanticism can be adequately understood in isolation from its wider European influence: to take only the most obvious examples: the Romantic revival of the work of G.B. Vico, Creuzer’s work on myth and symbolism, and the philosophies of Romanticism and idealism in which the creative will or act begins to collapse any previously accepted division between the-world-as-it-is and the act of language and thought which shapes, even constitutes, it.
The extent of the influence of these developments on each of the four writers varied enormously. While they permeated Coleridge’s
attitude to, and use of, mythology at every level the same cannot be said, for example, of Keats.
Of course, there have been studies of myth which have ranged more widely than this one with less psychological depth; moreover Anthony Harding does at times make reference to related philosophical issues (for example, to Coleridge’s criticism of Fichte’s ‘boastful and hyperstoic hostility to NATURE’) and to the emerging science of European hermeneutics. However, the self-imposed limitation suggested by the title prevents discussion of the enormous impact upon Romantic mythography and interpretation of, for example, Fichte’s and Schleiermacher’s insight into the inescapability of the creative act in all perception which makes all knowledge in a sense both mythology and ideology.
Coleridge was only one of those who saw that this necessity could itself be transformed by a deliberate affirmation of will. The fecundity of this perception would lead eventually not only to the various directions of existentialism but to Nietzsche’s ‘Ja-sagender’. It has significance for any analysis of Romanticism and mythology. Rather than being driven by a hidden and unselfcritical agendum, for example, Coleridge consciously and deliberately affirmed in his own work an increasingly common acceptance that all such interpretation, all such creation, of myth is informed and driven by a primary act of will. The myth, in its own historicity, becomes, like the individual him/herself, both determined and free; not only a vehicle of ideology or its expression but itself creative of ideas, perceptions, interpretive schema. In the example given by Harding, the Ancient Mariner’s ‘radical indeterminancy’ (50) is simply the plight of human nature, yet in the light of the psychological components of Romantic philosophies it is, at the same time, an ideology; one which, following through the desire for truth in polarity and paradox, commits itself to challenge the ideological. Harding himself appears to point in this direction when
he finds that ‘The Rime’ asks of its readers ‘a new awareness of the process of interpretation itself (59).
The myth-making and myth-interpretation of the Romantics anticipates some of the dominant issues of twentieth century criticism which itself often fails to do justice to the subtle inclusion of oppositions within European Romantic perceptions. The very approach of this study, with its depth of philosophical and psychological insight, seems to beg further development in the direction of European sources.
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