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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Narcissus Englished : a study of the Book of Thel, Alastor, and Endymion Harder, Bernhard David


The origin of the story of Narcissus is unknown, and the circumstances of his death are uncertain, but the most popular version of the tale as told by Ovid has been read, translated, explained, moralized and disputed by innumerable writers and alluded to by many more. Renaissance writers in England, such as Golding, Edwards and Sandys, were interested in first introducing the myth into their own language and then, in explaining its meanings, lessons and moralizations. Later poets paraphrased their translations, often adding their own point of view or else using only the skeleton structure of the myth for their own poetic purposes. The simple story of a youth who died by a pool after falling hopelessly in love with his own reflection acquired a significance and immortality worthy of a Greek god. The Eighteenth Century writers, who were less interested in the gods than their predecessors had been, almost completely ignored Narcissus in their poetry, but later poets such as Blake, Shelley and Keats revived him once again and transformed the faded youth into a Romantic. In The Book of Thel Blake explores the consequences of self-love, and anticipates the fuller development of this theme in The Four Zoas. He uses the archetypal pattern of the Narcissus myth for portraying the fading Thel, who refuses to enter the state of Generation because she is afraid of the voice of experience that she meets in her own grave when she descends into the underworld. Her sterile separation from her Spectre is similar to the unconsummated relationship between Narcissus and Echo. Thel fleeing from her grave escapes back to non-existence, fading by the river like Narcissus and Echo. An understanding of the function of the Narcissus story in Shelley's poem, Alastor, is indispensable to an interpretation of this controversial poem. Shelley's allusions to the myth are faithful to the Ovidian version of Narcissus as a youth who sighs away his life after seeing his own shadow in a well. Shelley associates the Poet's quest with the Narcissus myth by generally paralleling the narrative structure of Ovid's story, and by employing much of its imagery. Chapter II argues that Shelley's poem is both unified and consistent when it is interpreted in terms of the Narcissus theme. Keats primarily uses the popular myth of Endymion and Cynthia in his poem, Endymion, but also includes other myths in the manner of the Renaissance epyllion. The most significant addition to the main myth is the story of Narcissus as a comment on the nature of Endymion's quest. Keats pictures the hero at the well, viewing the reflection of the vision, in order to establish the specific parallel to Ovid's story. Endymion, however, unlike Narcissus or the Poet in Alastor, recognizes his illusion and proceeds towards accepting his responsibility to his kingdom and to the Echo figures in the poem. The analysis concludes with a comparison of the specific handling of the Narcissus myth in the three poems in terms of the various versions of the myth, the treatment of the metamorphosis of Narcissus Into a flower, and the development of the theme of self-love. The thesis establishes the significance of the Narcissus myth in The Book of Thel, Alastor and Endymion, and evaluates Blake's, Shelley's and Keats's contribution to the attempts of the Renaissance writers to introduce the Ovidian story into English literature.

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