Mythology and the Romantic Tradition in English Poetry

by Douglas Bush
[Harvard University Press, $5.00]
THE general reader, as well as the student and historian of literature, may well be cheered to find a book which is entrancing because rather than in spite of its length, footnotes, bibliography, and University Press imprint. Professor Douglas Bush modestly calls himself ‘a mere historian,’but in Mythology and the Romantic Tradition in English Poetry he again proves himself more than that — a man who makes ‘reading an experience as well as a scholarly pleasure.’ His ‘ewe-lamb of research’ is a nimble but a thorough one, cropping so close the wide fields of English poetry (his first book, Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition in English Poetry, stopped at 1680; ‘this one struggles up to 1935’) that it is hard to see how any scholar could glean a blade thereafter.
Mr. Bush’s thesis can be simply but adequately given in his own words — ‘mythological poetry is alive when myths are re-created, when they carry modern implications, and . . . mythological poetry in which myths are merely retold is, if not dead, at least of a very inferior order.’ It is illumined by a most careful and penetrating study of the mythology influencing and figuring in English poetry of the last three hundred years, major and minor, plus American. Equally exciting are the chapters in which Mr. Bush enables one to rediscover and reëvaluate Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, Arnold, the Pre-Raphaelites. Browning, and Meredith (to mention only some of his detailed studies), and those in which he approaches — on a road no scholar or critic has, to my knowledge, explored before—the modern poets.
The underbrush which envelops the foothills of Parnassus—and of that unnamed smaller hill of scholarship — Mr. Bush partially fagots in the Appendix and partly burns in the footnotes: —
As evidence of scholarly conscientiousness I may say that I once read in all the translations of Ovid made during the period 1550-1800 which are in the British Museum, and even wrote extensive comparative notes on them. My regret for these youthful wild oats is greater than I can express, and the only proof I can give of increased discretion is the resolve to keep my knowledge to myself.’
It is not only, however, the great body of material included in the book that makes it so remarkable. It is the masterly gifts of fresh, lucid, and illuminating analysis of great figures, the firm comments which tie together whole dozens and decades of writers, the vivid thumbnail portraits of the living men who wrote living poetry; the humor, the candor, and the gift of phrasing which make the book delightful to read and important to own.
Warm appreciation of the beautiful, the exciting, and the ordered in literature animates the whole volume. In Shelley’s poem ’The Cloud,’ ‘science becomes ethereal,’says Mr. Bush; and so too one might almost say it does in his book — except in those even more richly compounded parts in which it becomes human.
This is indeed what John Livingston Lowes calls ‘creative scholarship’; and it is the best of all kinds of reading — that which by its own infectious enthusiasm both whets and satisfies the thirst for the best that has been thought and said.