Myth And Ritual

The discipline of anthropology attracted widespread interest among early twentieth-century writers who believed that 'as it is certain that some study of primitive man furthers our understanding of civilized man, so it is certain that primitive art and poetry help our understanding of civilized art and poetry' (Eliot 1919: 1036). Both Eliot and Pound were interested in the studies of mythology associated with the Scottish anthropologist James Frazer (1854—1941) and the group of English classicists known as the Cambridge Ritualists, which argued that the continuities between different myths and religions (including Christianity) could be explained by tracing them to a common origin in a particular magical or religious ritual. Although their approaches differed (Eliot's, at least initially, was the approach of the scholar, Pound's that of the practitioner or believer), their recognition of the opportunity myth presented to contemporary literature was similar.

In the third year of his doctoral study Eliot took a course on 'A Comparative Study of Various Types of Scientific Method' with the philosopher Josiah Royce (1855—1916). One of the papers he wrote for this class concerned 'The Interpretation of Primitive Ritual' (C. Eliot 1926: viii). Drawing on his reading of Bradley and demonstrating his existential historicist perspective, Eliot criticized anthropological attempts to establish a science of religious ritual. The study of religion, Eliot argued, can yield no objective facts from which to draw meaning or situate a point of origin, because religion is a set of practices that exist within particular historical contexts, and their meaning for their practitioners changes over the course of time (Gray 1982: 109-114). One cannot stand outside history.

However, Eliot's paper concludes that from the study of religious rituals and myths we can know 'what men did at one period and another, and can to some extent see the development of one form out of another', which may produce 'enough cross-sections to interpret a process, if not a purpose'. In this context, Eliot praised Frazer's thirteen-volume compendium of myth and ritual, The Golden Bough (1890-1915, 1936), and ten years later he referred to it as 'a work of no less importance for our time than the complementary work of Freud', and perhaps of 'greater permanence' than Freud's 'because it is a statement of fact which is not involved in the maintenance or fall of any theory of the author's' (Gray 1982: 128-131). What Eliot admired in Frazer's approach was that he juxtaposed descriptions of diverse myths and rituals without subordinating them to his own interpretation. Eliot would use both Frazer's research and his method in The Waste Land.

Pound had also read Frazer, but, characteristically, he was more interested in a marginal figure: the (briefly imagist) poet and popular novelist Allen Upward (1863-1926). In 1913 Pound reviewed Upward's idiosyncratic history of Christianity, The Divine Mystery, as 'the most fascinating book on folk-lore that I have ever opened' (1973: 403). Though he criticized aspects of Frazer's argument, Upward's approach through myth and ritual was indebted to The Golden Bough, and his method was markedly similar: 'it is not a mass of theories', remarked Pound, 'it is this history told in a series of vivid and precise illustrations'. Like Frazer, Upward stressed continuities between periods and cultures, presenting history as a 'stratification', 'a vertical section, for all these stages of emotion and belief are present at the same time in the collective and individual conscience of mankind' (1913: 165; Longenbach 1987: 117). Pound, who had a lifelong interest in the occult, appears to have believed in this form of historical simultaneity rather more literally than Eliot, for in 'Psychology and the Troubadours' (1912) Pound described the enduring relevance of Greek mythology as follows: 'I believe in a sort of permanent basis in humanity [. . .]. I know, I mean, one man who understands Persephone and Demeter, and one who understands the Laurel, and another who has, I should say, met Artemis' (1968: 92). Nevertheless, Upward's influence on Pound's poetry is comparable to Frazer's effect on Eliot's. Pound admires the juxtaposition of diverse historical moments that reveal continuities and patterns without overt intervention by the author.

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