Rewriting mythology: the image of Narcissus in the works of Eliot, Brodsky and Akhmatova

Mythology, in virtue of its primordial symbolism, turns out to be an acceptable language for representatives of the ‘new’, modernist literature, describing the eternal models of personal and social behaviour, certain essential laws of the social and natural cosmos. Myth as a symbolic form by definition given by Ernst Cassirer in the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms is the only and total system in terms of which the whole world is perceived. The interaction of literature and myth in the early twentieth century proceeds directly in the form of ‘transfusion’, the use of mythological subjects and images. Many stylizations and variations are created on themes given by myth, ritual or archaic art. 

The modern culture is characterized by a constant use of mythological images in the process of creating works of art. This is due, first of all, to the complication of the picture of the world, when attempts at self-determination in rapidly changing conditions are pushing for the search for meanings in the worldview of ancient people, which contributed to the emergence of Neo-mythologism. This process is aggravated by the philosophical activity of postmodernists and the proclamation of the principle of intertextuality.

The image of Narcissus, often found in literature and possessing a vast aesthetic potential, is born in the era of mytho-syncretism. The image of this mythological hero is inherently ambivalent. He is both the victim and the culprit, the subject and the object of passion. In late antiquity, the myth of Narcissus is frequently used, for example, in Metamorphosis by Ovid, in The Narratives by Konon, and in Pausanias’s Description of Greece. In the rhetorical era, the image of Narcissus, demythologized, acquires a number of emblematic meanings: selfishness as a pursuit of an ethereal, eternally elusive shadow, futility of aspirations, unattainable desires, obsession with reflection, sorrow of unrequited love, fading vanity and the transience of beauty. During this period, narcissism is perceived as a sinful pattern of behaviour, which invariably leads to death.

In the era of romanticism in the semantics of the image of Narcissus, a radical semantic shift takes place, a kind of inversion, as a result of which the negative meaning of the image changes to a positive one. Narcissism becomes the quintessential expression of the culture of Romanticism. Through this motif the problem of the self in life and in art is reflected. Narcissus embodies the creative genius, focused on his self, possessing intellectual and spiritual autonomy. By narcissism is meant the fascination of one’s personality as a beautiful selfish contemplation of the author in the process of creativity, identical with the divine creative potency; the inner essence appears as a mirror of the self. In this image, such concepts as self-immersion, self-absorption, introvertive contemplation of one’s inner world, solipsistic separation of consciousness (Bakhtin) and creative introspection are conjugated. 

In symbolism, there is a radicalization of the inverted significance of the image, which is strengthened in romanticism. This era is marked by the intensification of self-critical tendencies. The image of Narcissus undergoes hyperbolization, acquires a cosmic dimension, there is a kind of ‘hybrid’ of creative and cosmic narcissism.

A special stage in the historical life of the image of Narcissus is connected with the literature of Neo-traditionalism.  The term Neo-traditionalism, serves to denote the totality of artistic phenomena in the culture of the twentieth century, whose reliance on tradition, which is always alive and relevant, is a cultural alternative to avant-gardism. Specific for the Neo-traditionalism literature is the constant use of allusions that involve myth, biblical or traditional texts. Neo-traditionalism is characterized by a heightened sense of responsibility of the artist: responsibility before the language, before the tradition, before the culture. The open consciousness of Neo-traditionalism is open for a dialogue over national, temporary and ideological barriers. For Neo-traditionalism, it is important to feel alive to other cultures and epochs, to realize their creativity as an integral part of the universal culture of mankind. This essay focuses on the specificity of interpretation of the image of Narcissus in the framework of the Neo-traditionalism literature on the material of the poems of Thomas Stearns Eliot, Anna Akhmatova and Joseph Brodsky. It will critically examine how the image of Narcissus is re-actualized and acquires new meanings in the works of the selected writers.

The image of Narcissus in Eliot’s poetry

In the works of Eliot, the myth is one of the main meaning-forming and structure-forming units. In his early poem The Death of Saint Narcissus, the image of Narcissus is not explicitly clarified, but is recreated by the reader in the process of comprehending the meaning of the poem. The name of the Bishop of Jerusalem is allusive to the hero of the ancient myth. With Saint Narcissus there is a series of metamorphoses: his body is consistently transformed into a tree, a fish, a girl and a man: ‘First he was sure that he had been a tree […] / Then he knew that he had been a fish […] / Then he had been a young girl’. These metamorphoses are a response to the transformations described by Empedocles in the poem Purifications: ‘For I was once already boy and girl, / Thicket and bird, and mute fish in the waves’. The hero is in a state of self-absorption: ‘We may not bring It near us with our eyes, We may not grasp It with our human hands’. His love (which in fact is love of self) is self-destructive. Wanderings lead him to love God, in which the hero tries to find salvation. He becomes a ‘dancer to God’. Nonetheless, this transformation of Narcissus is sudden and unmotivated. At first sight, Narcissus goes through the spiritual path from solipsism to dissolution in God, through a series of metamorphoses, but the final transformation is imaginary, since the hero in fact continues to remain in a state of self-immersion. Saint Narcissus is not ready for spiritual healing and regeneration, remaining closed in the sphere of his self. From him remains only the disfigured body: ‘Now he is green, dry and stained / With the shadow in his mouth’. The existence of the hero is death-in-life, martyrdom not in the name of God, but for himself. The paradox of the situation is that the excessive desire to free himself from the fatal solipsistic paradigm, to join the eternal beginning in the world ends with a rebirth-in-death.

The lines ‘Come under the shadow of this gray rock – / Come in under the shadow of this gray rock’, as well as the very image of ‘came out under the rock’, are closely linked with the biblical revival of dry land to eternal paradise life. In the context of this poem arises the image of a modern man, which is according to Eliot like a ‘barren scorched earth’ (such is the ancient Narcissus, a sinful soul, attracted by worldly passions), which even in such worthless, bleak state, can be internally reborn, saved, but only by turning to God and unity with other people.

In Eliot’s poem the image of Narcissus is filled with the universal meaning: a timeless situation arises, it is about every person who is called to realize his role and place in the system of the universe, to find spiritual self-determination. According to Eliot most people are in the borderline between life and death, like the inhabitants of the limbo in Dante’s Divine Comedy, who suffer cruel tortures. The image of Narcissus is contaminated with Eliot’s motif of the prodigal son. Wandering is not a pilgrimage, this is a journey without a spiritual purpose, in the darkness of being, its goal is a subjective desire to assert oneself, inevitably leading to death (primarily spiritual). According to the poet, the man forgets that in darkness, in seeming hopelessness, an inextinguishable light is shining, that existence can be filled with a higher meaning. Sensual nature tempts a person, both spiritually and physically. The man, subordinating his life to earthly desires, is guided by passion. Eliot believes that spiritual values have turned into empty abstractions in the modern world. The history of mankind is perceived as an age-old process of alternation of various forms of death-in-life. Overcoming the viciousness of this vicious circle is not given to man by his sinfulness, his pride, his inability and unwillingness to admit that higher values exist outside his self. The passion manifested in a person’s attempt to regenerate internally only aggravates his suffering. In this context, narcissism is understood as a manifestation of moral blindness.

The causes of the doom and tragedy of the existence of people are rooted in human nature. Eliot believes that the opportunity to approach God is given in humility, in a person’s awareness of his place and role in the system of the universe in relation to God: ‘the only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless’. The man, subordinating his life to earthly desires, condemns himself to the eternal repetition of original sin (which is a manifestation of pride and death of the soul). The sinful beginning displaces from his soul the divine. Striving for power over the world, a person assumes the role of God; this indicates the critical position of Eliot in relation to Romanticism. The poet is convinced that with the advent of Romanticism, literature lost the sensation of original sin. Disregard for higher values leads to the disintegration of inner integrity, retribution becomes inevitable. A person closes in the sphere of his self, alienating from God, the fundamental principle of all things, from the world and from other people. However, the position of man is not hopeless, for each person is more or less capable of self-reinterpretation, self-transcendence, spiritual upheaval and involvement in the common misfortunes of mankind.

Eliot’s text acquires a significant semantic depth: a specific historical situation turns into a timeless and universal, the spiritual meaning of which is comprehended by the author and reader of the literary work. Another poem where the image of Narcissus is present is The Whisper of Immortality, where the narcissistic contemplation is folded into a capacious and unexpected image:

Webster was much possessed by death

And saw the skull beneath the skin;

And breastless creatures under ground

Leaned backward with a lipless grin.

Daffodil bulbs instead of balls

Stared from the sockets of the eyes!

He knew that thought clings round dead limbs

Tightening its lusts and luxuries.

The fascination with death is akin to egoistic self-admiration, the sinful desire for self-contemplation and self-affirmation, alienation from the world and God. The daffodil (narcissus), dedicated to the underground deities in ancient mythology, symbolizes death. According to Eliot the desire to satisfy carnal desires invariably leads to dying; ultimate sensuality is only an illusion of the fullness of being, for ‘No contact possible to flesh / Allayed the fever of the bone’. Hypertrophied passion is just as extreme as fixation on thoughts of death: ‘But our lot crawls between dry ribs / To keep our metaphysics warm’. A person immersed in the thought of death, forgets about the destiny of his soul and about life itself. All abstract philosophical searches of a person leads to ‘dry ribs’. However, the flower, which is the traditional emblem of death in youth, can have a radically different meaning, contained in the Book of Isaiah, whom Eliot revered as a poet: ‘The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose’. The poet considers that the man is always open to the path to rebirth, but he must, himself, see and follow this analogue of the procession. Thus, the motif of narcissism arises indirectly, in the process of unfolding the main theme of the poem – the poet’s destiny. For the reader to construct a semantic paradigm, it is necessary to discern a number of logical connectives. The mention of the Narcissus in this context unfolds in the reader’s consciousness in a whole semantic field, in the perspective of which the motifs of death, doom, vanity and frailty are actualized.

It remains an open question whether it is legitimate to assert that the poems The Death of Saint Narcissus and The Whisper of Immortality refers to the role of the poet in the world. In this context it seems appropriate to quote Eliot’s words about Paul Valerie (which for Eliot was the embodiment of the symbolist poet), allowing to identify the modern poet and hero of the ancient myth:

‘It would almost seem that the one object of his curiosity was – himself. He reminds us of Narcissus gazing into the pool, and partakes of the attraction and the mystery of Narcissus, the aloofness and frigidity of that spiritual celibate’

According to romantic views, every artist is Narcissus. In Neo-traditionalism, the poet should not be like Narcissus. To narcissism, Eliot contrasts self-transcendence as salvation from the sinful paradigm of romantic self-indulgence. The self of the poet appears as an unstable identity, insufficient as the basis of absolute experience. No point of view can be self-sufficient, since the life of the soul consists not in contemplating one closed world, but in a painful desire to unite, to a greater or lesser extent, incompatible worlds, and, if possible, by moving from two or more dissonant points of view to the highest point of vision, which will encapsulate and transform all the disparate. Romantic and neo-romantic self-affirmation, self-admiration and hypertrophied desire for originality are contrasted with ‘flight from the self’. Eliot considers that poetry is not an open space for emotion, but an escape from emotion; it’s not an expression of personal feelings, but an escape from them. Eliot criticizes the romantic concept of art, according to which the artist has spiritual autonomy and his creativity is subject only to his own inner voice.  A poet asserting his individuality closes in the sphere of his self, thereby similarly to Narcissus isolating himself from the rest of the world.

In many respects Eliot’s ideas are consonant with the understanding of the phenomenon of narcissism by Bakhtin, whose rethinking of narcissistic self-contemplation is antithetical to the exaltation and admiration of the narcissistic self-abuse characteristic of romantics. According to Bakhtin, the phenomenon of Narcissus is interpreted as an untenable, false and fraught with destructive influence on the inner world of man. The scholar especially emphasizes the ‘exclusiveness’, the ‘unnaturalness’ of such self-contemplation:

‘There can be no doubt, of course, that my own exterior is not part of the concrete, actual horizon of my seeing, except for those rare cases when, like Narcissus, I contemplate my own reflection in the water or in a mirror’

Bakhtin talks about the fundamental difference in the moral qualifications of feelings such as self-love and love for another: ‘I cannot love my fellow being as myself […] I cannot love myself as a fellow being. All I can do is transfer to him all of those actions which I usually perform for my own sake’.. All the spiritual elements of self-love and self-esteem (excluding self-preservation) are usurpation of the place of another, the point of view of the other. According to Bakhtin, a person cannot experience true love for himself. Narcissus, focused only on his own self, completely absorbed in himself, tears his human connections to the outside world, other people and moral values. Such a position is detrimental because a person voluntarily reduces his being to finding himself in the closed space of his inner world. He deprives himself of communication with the other, the prospect of his development as an individual is lost, he condemns himself to the exhaustion of the depths of his soul, which are not replenished and not fed from outside.

Narcissus as a reflection of personal experience

Akhmatova’s poetic language is full of numerous allusions to the most diverse cultural phenomena, including antiquity and folklore. The poetess perceives the myth as an unfolded symbol, and the symbol as a structural element of the myth. 

In ancient Persia, the narcissus was called nargis, which means ‘beautiful eyes’. Mohammed said of this flower: ‘let him who hath two loaves sell one and buy the flower narcissus: for bread is but food for the body, whereas narcissus is food for the soul’. In the poem The Moon at the Zenith, this allusion is implied, as is the reference to the Book of Isaiah, which is similar to Eliot’s:

Everything comes back to me again:

The scorching night and the languor

(As if Asia were raving in her sleep),

The nightingale singing of Khalima,

And the blossoming of Biblical narcissus,

And the invisible blessing

Of wind rustling over the land.

The heroine returns to ‘the blossoming of Biblical narcissus’, perceived no longer as a resurrection in the memory of an individual person, but a prophetic vision illuminated by an ‘invisible blessing’. There is a striking dissociation from the romantic and symbolic interpretation of the image of Narcissus, within the framework of which motifs of selfish narcissism arise: longing for absolute beauty and unattainable desires. Here, Akhmatova, like most poets during the period of the destruction of the symbolist myth of Narcissus, starts from the canonical reading of this image. However, in this poem she is talking about the quiet joy of being, the heroine is characterized by a gracious acceptance of life, a sense of vitality, spirituality of every moment. The situation of the intimate experience of the heroine acquires meaning not in the context of time, but in the context of eternity. Flowers are no longer real, but poetic, adorning the fields of Elysium. Eternal flowering is life itself, filled with a higher meaning, illuminated by divine light, which gives the person the strength to endure the hard time, weather the storm and abandon own sufferings (similar to Saint Narcissus’s experience). Akhmatova follows the path of democratization, the psychologization of mythical image. The situation is first translated from a high ontological plan into a profane and everyday plan, in order to enrich it through additional contexts, to reach a different level of sacredness.

In the poem Awake, the reader can observe the mechanism of the development of the sense of dynamics of the image of Narcissus:

Let time be gone and let space be gone,

I’ve seen it all in the first light of dawn;

On your table, the last

Narcissus, cut glass

And cigar smoke rising pale-blue

Unruffled pool

Which might hold an image of you.

Let time be gone and let space be gone.

You cannot help me – so what can be done…

There is a narcissistic allusion: a water mirror, a mirror image, a painful and unhappy love and a doom to constantly return to the past. The name of the flower suggests the ‘true name’ of the hero,not explicitly spelled out. There is a kind of personification of the floral image, based on homonymy. The reader is also told that the heroine becomes an Echo rejected by Narcissus. The unfortunate nymph, forgives Narcissus and feels compassion for him. According to the ancient myth, Echo is a nymph, devoid of flesh and possessing only a voice. Thus, the reader can correlate the lyrical heroine, her mythological double (Echo) and the poet, who in fact possesses only a voice, since his biographical, especially physical, individuality dissolves in the process of creativity. Like in the case of Saint Narcissus, with the heroine, an inner metamorphosis takes place: her self, who loves and suffers, eventually becomes free from suffering. This is how a ‘self-evasion’ happens. Echo, largely devoid of her individuality, doomed to repeat the words of others, and not whole words, but only their scraps, is an ambivalent image. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Echo does not completely lose her own voice:

‘the boy […] cried out: “Is anyone nearby?” “Nearby,” was Echo’s answering cry. And stupefied, he looks around and shouts: “Come! Come!” —and she calls out, “Come! Come!” to him who’d called. Then he turns round and, seeing no one, calls again: “Why do you flee from me?” And the reply repeats the final sounds of his outcry’ 

That is how the situation of the intimate experience of the heroine is transformed into a myth-like, universal situation of universal existence, in which both time and space are away. Thus, thanks to the comparative analysis of the texts united by the supporting corpus of mythology underlying them, the reader can trace the development of Akhmatova’s creative thought (similar to Eliot’s), which is striving to find the most authentic image of the poet’s figure.

The image of Narcissus in Akhmatova’s poems is also interfaced with the symbolism of marriage. Thus, the mention of narcissus is found in the poem Long years I waited for him in vain: ‘And the white narcissus on the table’; also in the poem If the moonlight terror overflows: And not the marriage flight if butterflies / Over the bed of snow – white narcissus / In that sixteenth year… / But the forever frozen circles dance / Of cypresses above your grave’. This is an example of how Akhmatova uses the image of Narcissus in a different context, thus re-actualizing the image of Narcissus. Cypresses symbolize death, and narcissus, on the contrary, the charm of life, conjugal ties and rebirth. ‘Over the bed of snow – white narcissus’ is not a shroud, but a veil, a wedding garment. At the same time, the ‘sixteenth year’ explicitly refers to Brodsky’s ‘rhyme of years’, to the mythological repetition of everything that makes up the very essence of life.

Re-actualization of the image of Narcissus

Brodsky’s appeal to various mythological themes is closely connected with his personal preferences, the events of his life and the surrounding cultural environment. In the poem Einem alten architekten in Rom (To an Old Architect in Rome), the reader can see the opposition of two worlds: the world of the ruins of ancient Greek culture with its mythological images and the real world of modern people, train passengers who ventures to replace themselves with amalgam: 

High ruins on the hills bend down and peer

Into the mirror of the streetcar’s windows.

The leaves of grass are trembling timidly.

Acanthi, nimbi, doves (both male and female),

Atlantes, cupids, lions, nymphs, all hide

Their stumps behind their backs, plainly embarrassed.

Narcissus could not hope to find a pool

More clear than that retreating streetcar window,

Behind which passengers have formed a wall,

Risking amalgamation for a moment.

The paradox is that the ancient Greek culture, even in the form of ruins, is perceived as a phenomenon much more unique, and all these mythological images seem much more alive than people behind the glass. Passengers of the train are perceived as a faceless mass, while the ruins are able to experience real feelings and show emotions. Perhaps this attitude to reality is dictated by the processes taking place in society, when any manifestation of individuality that transcends the dominant ideology was prosecuted and cruelly punished by the ruling bodies. 

The image of Narcissus, like in Eliot’s and Akhmatova’s poems, is inextricably linked with the theme of death and self-knowledge. If the mythical Narcissus admires his reflection in the watersurface of the stream, then Brodsky’s hint at the myth of Narcissus arises from contact with any reflecting surface (mirrors, car windows, the iris of the eye etc.). Brodsky already knew Freud’s reasoning about narcissism, and he could analyze not only the immediate content of the myth about Narcissus, but also his interpretation. This is indicated by an excerpt from the poem On Washerwoman Bridge: ‘this morning on our bridge / a narcissistic fisherman, / forgetting his cork float, stares goggle-eyed / at his unsteady river image’. In this poem, it is not so much about narcissism, as about self-study, about recognizing the self through immersion in the reflection, it is in this that the danger of death is seen, since the inner world of every person, his subconscious, hides only his guided threats, which sometimes turn out to be much more real dangers of the outside world.

A similar refraction is given to the image of Narcissus in Brodsky’s poem Verses on the Death of T.S. Eliot:

The days he leaves to us will not declare

A bankruptcy of Muses. Poetry

Is orphaned, yet it breeds within the glass

Of lonely days, each echoing each, that swim

To distance. It will splash against the eye,

Sink into lymph, like some Aeolian nymph,

A narcissistic friend. But in the rhyme

Of years the voice of poetry stands plain.

Brodsky is alien to the mystical attitude to poetry, he believes that poetry is the accelerator of consciousness, and it is from this that the poet becomes addicted, and that ‘the voice of the Muse is the voice of the language’. However, in Brodsky’s works there is an indirect indication that poetry can act as a kind of bridge between two worlds. The correlation of creativity with the mythological images of the afterlife, the mention of Narcissus as a symbol of self-knowledge through the passage of the line of death, an appeal to the images of the muses in reasoning about poetry also confirm this connection. The line ‘Poetry is orphaned, yet it breeds within the glass’ expresses Brodsky’s philosophical idea that things store memories of everyone who touched them. However, the poet’s self-awareness changes in emigration, the process of cognition of oneself reaches a new level, it seems as if it was possible not just to look in the mirror, but to be on its back side. Exile in some way becomes like death and allows to see what was previously only guessed in the wavering reflection. Here, the image of Narcissus reflects the past. Once in the reflected world, the poet acquires the ability to be impartial when all the answers are already found and understood. Indeed, this is also associated with the process of growing up, with the accumulation of life experience. However, the correlation of the water surface with the surface of the eyes allows the reader to see the relationship between what used to be a mirror and the soul of the poet capable of bringing back to the world all that is reflected in it.

Of special note is the reference to the unnamed name of the ‘Aeolian nymph’, which is ‘friend’ to Narcissus. This nymph is Echo, and like in Akhmatova’s poem Awake, Echo personifies the reflection of sound, and Narcissus indicates the reflection of the visible (as evidence by the said ‘eye’). Echo is a kind of double of Narcissus, since the acoustic echo effect is similar to the optical reflection effect. Thus, Narcissus, being the counterpart of the ‘rhyme-forming’ nymph, is similar to poetry itself. In the context of Brodsky’s poem, ‘Aeolian nymph’ is compared and rhymed with ‘rhyme’. As is known, Pushkin invented a new myth about the birth of Rhyme, absent in antiquity. In the poem Rhyme, Rhyme’s parents turn out to be Apollo and Echo, in contrast to the poem Rhyme, sonorous friend…, where the mythological heroine is the daughter of Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. Thus, a multilevel double paradigm is built: not only is the rhyme based on consonance between words, on the reflection of one word in another, but poetry itself is akin to the echo effect, since the voice of one poet is reflected in the other. That is how, there is the polyphony of the ‘bulging catalogue’; communication occurs in a great time of culture. In the ‘catalogue’, one section echoes with another, internal matches are found:

With neither grimace nor maliciousness

Death chooses from its bulging catalogue

The poet, not his words, however strong,

But just – unfailingly – the poet’s self.

[…]

It was not God, but only time, mere time

That called him.

Echo and Narcissus, timeless images from the world cultural context, refer to the dialectic of death and transformation. These images serve to deploy the main theme of the poem – poet and death, time and eternity.

Conclusion

The above observations allow to make a number of generalizations about the specifics of the allusive actualization of the image of Narcissus, which is especially vividly represented in the Neo-traditionalism literature. The image correlates with the paradigm of the artistic word, which in the culture of Neo-traditionalism is a kind of synergy of thought and feeling, a special feeling of thought. ‘Foggy’ romantic inspiration, the pursuit of originality, eccentricity, subjective arbitrariness in the interpretation of traditional motifs contrasts emotional restraint, harmony, deep respect for tradition, endowed with new values and perspectives that do not allow cliché, facelessness and banality. The poet’s purpose is to find the word of universal sound, to develop the language, to enrich the meaning of words, to reveal the manifold possibilities lurking in the word. Characteristic to Neo-traditionalism is not the distortion of the meanings accumulated by the motif sphere in the history of the existence of literary works, not a pile of depleted dead meanings, but replenishment, productive rethinking, a holistic perception of the living literary past, harmonization of chaos, reliance on the principle of re-actualization, which is to give new life to the traditional motif. Eliot, Brodsky and Akhmatova preserve the general cultural memory associated with the category of conscience, combining temporary strata and mentality, the memory of an individual and the memory of generations. The appeal to the mythological image allows the reader to better understand the poet’s thoughts and experiences, which are sometimes not fully realized by him. Mythological images enrich modern art creativity and at the same time are enriched due to the introduction of new meanings of a developing culture in them.

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