“This Tart Fable”: Daphne and Apollo in modern women’s poetry

“How this tart fable instructs and mocks...”

“How this tart fable instructs and mocks...”

My chapter explores the continuing vitality of classical myth in contemporary poetry.   Contemporary women poets offer us a serious, engaged and formally satisfying feminist classicism through which the past is revealed as a constant presence.  To Eavan Boland the figures of myth appeal directly, “crying remember us”; for Jorie Graham they offer a more equivocal invitation “not to touch/to touch  . . . for the farewell of it/and the further replication”.


Ovid’s version of the Daphne myth, often mediated through earlier literature and through visual art, figures in contemporary English-language poetry in complex ways.   My paper seeks to account for the continuing vitality of the myth and in particular to explore how the story of Daphne and Apollo provides an insight into women’s experience as subjects and makers of poems.   I trace a tradition of women’s writing that goes beyond the irony and nostalgia of Modernism and recognises women’s physical, emotional and intellectual experience at the heart of myth: in the ambiguous relationships of desire and flight, movement and stasis, female body and natural landscape.   Anne Sexton finds an uncomfortable but rightful habitation in “This Honorable House of the Laurel Tree”.   Metamorphosis, as theme and method, offers the power to transform and be transformed, but it is also dangerous, a cautionary tale which, in Sylvia Plath’s words, both “instructs and mocks”.   

In the two poets I concentrate on—Jorie Graham and Eavan Boland—classical myth, as allusion or persona, mutes the sense of an intrusively autobiographical speaker, even as it enables an individual lyric voice to be heard.  Metamorphosis is rendered as authentic and continuing experience: as shape and story.  The myth of Daphne promises horror and reassurance, doom and solace; we remain unsure, in Ovid’s words, “gratentur consolenturne” —whether to congratulate or console.   Daphne’s transformation is monstrous, but may also be regenerative, as Boland discovers in “The Women”: “who fled the hot breath of the god pursuing,/who ran from the split hoof and the thick lips/and fell and grieved and healed into myth”.   Boland records the “shape-shifting instabilities” of her life (as poet, mother, suburban housewife) and acknowledges the allure of self-transformation, but her poetry resists any process that might monumentalise women and fix them in time or place.  She is also alert to the political and material conditions in which myths are made and used; they do not exist “Outside History”.  In an Irish garden where, it might seem, “The laurel hedge was nothing but itself”, the poet still discerns the shadow and gesture of “wounded presences”.

Jorie Graham’s “Self-Portrait as Apollo and Daphne” adopts the mirroring techniques of self-portraiture to confront the conditions of the poet’s own subjectivity; can there be a gaze that holds without distorting, “untouched, untransformed”?    Her other Daphne poems attempt to construct a re-formed self which is both attentive and assenting, a model of self-abnegation which is also a triumph of eloquence: “Bend low to your high office./Lean back/for the leafing-over”.

Contemporary women’s poetry draws on classical myth with ingenuity and precision.  It is discovering a new voice, in which shape-shifting finds its formal correlative in linguistic and metrical transformations and in the creative tension between the poem rooted in the page and poised in flight.

Published in Laughing With Medusa: Classical Myth and Feminist Thought, ed. Miriam Leonard and Vanda Zajko (OUP, 2006), pp. 381-98.