Literary Criticism Reading Response #6

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Meg Sinnott

Literary Criticism

Reading Response #6

Literature written by women arguably adheres to stricter critical stipulations than works written by men, simply on the basis of gender. In response to decades of oppression and condemning stereotypes, numerous female writers include some sort of reminiscent address to sexism as a defiance mechanism. Adrienne Rich and Helene Cixous are two female writers whom exhibit this strategy, and encourage other females to adopt a similar strategy. Rich’s article, “When Dead We Awaken,” advises female writers to connect lived experiences with poetry, and in doing so, revise the past with the present. Responding to an early T.S. Eliot article, Rich’s subversion of Eliot’s points exemplifies exactly her goal for women: defy the previously accepted notion of literary standards and revise with the incorporation of female identity. Cixous’ “The Laugh of Medusa,” correlates with Rich’s points by encouraging women to seek inspiration within the female body, rather than the past’s dictation of what constitutes literary greatness. Applicable to Eavan Boland’s poem, “Tirade of the Epic Muse,” the poem’s revision of the traditional connotation of epic poetry elicits a modern and transformed revelation on the definition of an epic muse to reverse criticism of the domesticated woman.

The poem explicitly addresses the literary style of epic poetry and the muse character implemented throughout the epic genre. An epic’s composition includes a rather serious subject, generally war, in which a hero or heroic characteristics resolve a problem. The muse character’s description appears goddess-like, and often inspired artwork and literature. Possessing a certain degree of knowledge, the muse offers insight to epic heroes and functions as an assistant of sorts. “Tirade of the Epic Muse” alludes to Penelope and her role in Homer’s The Odyssey. A daughter of Icarus, and wife of war enthusiast, Odysseus, the poem’s war references and characterization of Penelope very clearly evoke the epic’s plot. Penelope’s reputation as symbol of fidelity, formed from her astute faith to her husband during a period of twenty years while he fought in the Trojan War. A beautiful woman, appealing to many men, Penelope agreed to marry another man as soon as she finished constructing a burial shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes. However, Penelope longed for Odysseus, so to lengthen the process she deconstructed sections of the shroud every night for three years. Penelope’s devotion to her husband requires a giving up of her own womanly desires, and thus her role as a wife demeans to a mere accessory, rather than a self-sufficient individual. A muse’s responsibility to provide assistance to the hero appears in Penelope, thus depicting her as muse-like. Boland seeks to revise the epic genre’s characterization of women as demeaned, mechanized accessories, whose desires and capabilities are limited to pleasing the desires of men.

Language and metaphors assist in Boland’s revision through the use of sewing metaphors. A primarily assumed women’s hobby, the use of sewing language to describe violence feminizes the male-infused epic tradition. Penelope’s actions to preserve her marriage while her husband chose war receive ridicule, “you wove their wars,” “spooling newer wars,” and “loom and shuttle, dressed to kill.” These descriptors imply the war support and doting attention evoked from Penelope for her husband’s sake creates an interwoven, complex situation, similar to her sewn burial shroud. Becoming just as single-mindedly focused as soldiers at war, Penelope begins to deconstruct into a lesser version of woman. Penelope’s incessant focus on preserving her long-separated marriage becomes obsessive and destructive; the epic’s characterization of a woman as somewhat desperate and dependent provokes Boland’s desire for revision. Penelope abandons her womanly pride and ignores potential for a better life by attending direfully to the shroud. Yielding to a machine-like persona, epics portray women as insubstantial and controllable. In striving to fulfill her husband’s needs, [the muse] “Staunched his blood, unbandanging your thread.” Essentially used by mankind, she continually sacrifices elements of herself for the necessity of men’s wars. The epic’s portrayal of women as eager assistants, yet insufficient independents signifies the regressing effect epic poetry places on female characters; an “unbandaging” of women’s self-regards. By drawing attention to Penelope’s faults, Boland seeks to awaken women to the faulted epic characterization; therefore reshape the perception of womanhood in the present from the past’s version.

In the last two stanzas, the muse no longer characterizes as a woman, but rather a sewing machine. The sewing metaphors appear in an “epic” fashion; the muse’s sewing-like actions symbolize the complex and intentional actions inherent in war. “You triggered thread/ you aimed the silk. You made the dead.” A muse’s purpose in epic poetry derives from offering knowledge and attentiveness to the hero, therefore attending to self-interests, specifically of female individuality, prioritize low. Penelope’s support of her husband’s war interests and a woman’s assistance to man are described as “menial,” yet “making the dead,” implies the severity of her actions; she is just as responsible for war casualties as soldiers. The Odyssey implies Penelope’s actions and preservation of fidelity as honorable, yet Boland shifts this notion by implying Penelope’s role as an accessory to be equated with the nature of warriors. Unaware of the damage she has self-inflicted by devolving to nothing more than a tool, her obliviousness correlates with the mindless killing intrinsic in war. “Fingers fixed, a fuselage/ Action-bar, sear and hammer;” Boland’s language in the last two stanzas holds Penelope accountable for present warfare because of her “weaving” in past wars. Becoming as soulless as war-obsessed men, the Penelope’s evolution into a machine signifies the denial of womanly traits, such as nurturing and compassion. An epic’s war focus reduces female characters to an inhumane existence, and the harsh, feminized war language indicates Boland’s variance.

Epic poetry portrays the duties of muses as noble and necessary for the hero’s success. Yet the empowering capabilities inherent in female individuality are used to help men rather than empower women in epic poetry. Penelope sacrifices empowerment by dedicating her attention to a man’s shroud and adhering to her husband’s demands. Boland ridicules epics for Penelope’s actions, characterizing her as rather undeveloped-her desires revolve solely around pleasing her husband. Transforming from a woman to a sewing machine, Boland asserts that in surrendering womanhood and female empowerment for the sake of mankind results in degradation and a death of sorts. An epic’s glamorization and glorifying portrayal of war often concludes with a hero’s triumph, yet the muse’s fate remains unacknowledged. Her role is remembered as a loyal accessory, and her controlled, manipulated traits seal the muse’s fate as unimportant. Boland memorializes the muses’ demise from woman to mere tool ignored in epic plots due to the overshadowing of heroic death.

Eavan Boland’s reasons for subverting the role of women in epic poetry are inspired from a multitude of reasons, and in agreeing with Helene Cixous’s plight that women should write from bodily experience, Boland embodies the speaker in “Tirade of the Epic Muse.” The subject matter presented in the poem appeals to the “bodily” concept on the most basic level by using the female character of Penelope and Boland’s career as a female poet. Responding to the narrow characterization of women in poetry apparent in the aged epic style, Boland embraces the opportunity to abandon the negative, restricting traits of womanhood and illustrate a modernized edition in her works. A source of inspiration for artists, muses become objectified and valued as a creation rather than for female innateness, perpetuating the notion of women as mere accessories to men rather than individuals. Boland writes, “My muse. My sister,” to establish a relationship between the conditions of the past and the present. The muse becomes recognizable as a fellow woman rather than an accessory or machine through Boland’s familial reference. Aligning with Adrienne Rich’s regards to the past, Boland’s inspired revision exists because epic poetry’s muse portrayal continues to haunt modern women in literature. By ridiculing epics for the muse’s passivity and subjugated nature, Boland urges women to be figures of inspiration simply from embracing femininity, rather than striving for men’s standard of greatness. Boland also seeks to revise the role of women from being minor accompaniments to a greater power in epic poetry, to individualized, independent sources of power in her writing and in modern literature. “Tirade of the Epic Muse” exemplifies Boland’s goal by recognizing the muse’s fall rather than the hero’s.

Acknowledging domesticity’s ubiquitous presence, the line in the concluding stanza, “In my kitchen, in my epic/ wretch, find peace;” illustrates the poem’s shift from the past to the present, as well as Boland’s insertion of her bodily experience in to the revision process. The kitchen functioning as an epic’s modernized setting depicts the scene as a war-zone, yet instead of a man’s battleground, women fight to redefine and reshape female roles. The kitchen’s domestically-associated environment often receives a negative rep because for centuries women have been defined by expectation for domestic adherence. However, in putting to rest the muse’s role, Boland implies that domesticity functions as a source of empowerment rather than inhibition. Despite domesticity linking women in ways that often create stereotypes, Boland encourages women to own domesticity as part of feminine characterization rather than seek to deny this trait from female identity as Penelope did for the burial shroud and her husband. Formerly assistant to the hero, the muse’s order to “find peace,” implies that her role no longer necessitates existence, modern women don’t need to use accessories to succeed. The used, assistant position to a war figurehead belongs in the past’s version of epic literature. Instead, the woman must rely on herself to become her own version of a hero, indicating Boland’s purported revision for women in literature. A frequently implemented subject amongst epic poetry exists in the form of war and destruction. Used to describe the kitchen, Boland establishes binary opposition to imply that despite the muse’s manipulation from men and destruction from war, modernized women will not befall the same predicament of the muse in her writing. The author’s role as wife, mother, and writer contribute to the poem’s appeal and successful revision, as female bodily experience influences Boland to depict women as realistic and mortal, rather than epic poetry’s goddess-like, inhumane characterizations. Boland portrays women as capable of defying the “war-zone” and inhibiting stereotypes associated with domesticity, creating a valued and empowering revision muse-like Penelope’s character.

In addition to writing from female bodily experiences, Cixous also deigns to eliminate the concept of the “angel in the house” from literature. Depicted as passive, obedient, and content in obliging male demands, the muse befits the “angelic” description in the epic genre. Boland supports Cixous’ point by transforming the muse into a machine, therefore exemplifying the negative, stripping effects wrought from being used by men. The speaker critiques the Penelope, “You won’t notice my machines. How they mist and wink/ But how they’ll know you for their own!” Representing a modern, reformed take on female identity, the speaker berates epics for the muse’s characterized obliviousness. Failing to realize her transformation into a vehicle for manipulation, Boland’s accusation of the muse’s faults rather than praise disband from the “angel in the house” concept. The “they” Boland insinuates symbolizes the other soulless, mechanistic muse women whom lost the sense and value of female identity in striving for servitude. By including these other fallen women, Boland’s intention to blame epics for a woman’s negative portrayal rather than the muse, demonstrate her desire to unite women against the negative perceptions of femininity perpetuated by aged literature.

Many argue the past’s ability to teach lessons, provide insight, and regard certain events with glorifying nostalgia, specifically when applied to literature. Adrienne Rich and Helene Cixous present very different approaches to literature’s former regards of the past, suggesting the past be forgotten altogether as Cixous mandates, or learn from the past so as to improve the present, as Rich prefers. Both cases encourage female writers to gain inspiration from present experiences, specifically on the basis of experiences strictly innate to women. Women writers, whom often are subjected to sexist criticism based on past precedents, revising the past emerges as a satisfactory alternative. Eavan Boland’s poem, “Tirade for the Epic Muse” connotes the longstanding tradition of epic poetry and the character of the muse through language and allusion. However, Boland follows Rich and Cixous’ theories and revises the past by criticizing epic poetry’s depiction of muse-like character Penelope, to reshape the muse’s role as more than an accessory to men. Supplementing several of Cixous’ points to revise from bodily experience, Boland complies with Rich’s ideas of the past be using the mistakenly, degrading version of a muse to inspire a more evolved characterization for modern literature. Penelope exemplifies the narrow, degrading portrayal of women in literature, and Boland revises this notion by encouraging women to embrace female individuality and embrace the challenges from womanhood and domesticity rather than be controlled and degraded by men’s expectations, as epics have implied in the past.

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