“Eros you know the story”: Psyche in five women poets

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  1. 1.

    See especially the description in Aristotle, HA 551a, and Meleager’s epigram (A. P. 5.57): “If you burn too often my soul (psychē), fluttering to the flame, she will flee, Eros: she too, you headstrong boy, has wings.”

  2. 2.

    For a variety of receptions, see the recent volume ed. R. May and S. J. Harrison, Cupid and Psyche: The reception of Apuleius’ Love Story since 1600, Trends in Classics. Pathways of Reception , v. 1, Berlin, 2020. For an overview in European art, see S. Cavicchioli, The Tale of Cupid and Psyche: An Illustrated History, New York, 2002. For a brief overview of the receptions history, see J. H. Gaisser, ‘Cupid and Psyche,’ in A Handbook to the Reception of Classical Mythology, ed. V. Zajko and H. Hoyle, Hoboken, 2017, pp. 337–51. For an overview of the reception in Romantic art and literature, see J. Hagstrum, ‘Eros and Psyche: Some Versions of Romantic Love and Delicacy,’ Critical Inquiry 3, 1977, 521–42.

  3. 3.

    May and Harrison (n. 2 above) reach a similar conclusion, summarizing the appeal of Psyche to women writers as follows (23–4): “Female authors and readers specifically took to the story’s female protagonist Psyche, a feature rare indeed in classical literature, whose experiences became rationalised, inverted, eroticised or allegorised. … Studying Cupid and Psyche and its reception therefore also gives voice to the hitherto voiceless.” They also note that Psyche is less passive in reception over time and that receptions often omit her pregnancy. As we will see, however, pregnancy features significantly in the poems of Nezhukumatathil and Loy.

  4. 4.

    Other 20th and 21st c. poems on the Psyche theme written in English by women that we have considered but not included in the present study are as follows: Beth Allen, “Psyche” (1939); Kathleen Raine, “The Marriage of Psyche” (1952), and “Story’s End” (1987); Joyce Carol Oates, “Cupid and Psyche” (1969); Alicia Ostriker, “Message from the Sleeper at Hell’s Mouth” (1982); Sandra Gilbert, “Psyche” (1984); Pamela Stewart, “Psyche” (1985); Debora Greger, “Psyche and Eros in Florida” (1994); Sandy Solomon, “Psyche” (1996); A.E. Stallings, “Advice to Psyche” (2002) and “Three Poems to Psyche” (2010–2011); and Marly Youmans, “The Throne of Psyche” (2011). See H. Ranger, ‘“I xe.” Psyche and the quest for feminine poetic autonomy in Sylvia Plath’s House of Eros,’ in May, Harrison, Cupid and Psyche (n. 2 above), pp. 357–77 for Psyche in the poems of Sylvia Plath.

  5. 5.

    For more on H.D.’s background in classics, see E. C. Dodd, The Veiled Mirror and the Woman Poet: H.D., Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop, and Louise Glück, Columbia, 1992, p. 33. For a detailed analysis of H.D.’s classicism, see E. Gregory, H.D. and Hellenism: Classic Lines, Cambridge, 1997.

  6. 6.

    Boland’s remarks on learning and translating Latin have been published as ‘The Living Language,’ Classics Ireland, 25, 2018, pp. 81–97. For Boland’s reception of Virgil, see chapter 4 of F. Cox, Sibylline Sisters, New York, 2011.

  7. 7.

    Boland explores this intersection explicitly in ‘Letter to a Young Woman Poet.,’ The American Poetry Review, 26, 1997, pp. 23–6.

  8. 8.

    N. S. Rabinowitz, A. Richlin, Feminist Theory and the Classics, Thinking Gender, New York, 1993, p. 14. For models of classical reception in women writers, see V. Zajko, ‘”What Difference Was Made?” Feminist Models of Reception,’ in A Companion to Classical Receptions, ed. L. Hardwick and C. Stray, Malden; Oxford, 2008, pp. 195–206; E. Theodorakopoulos, ‘Women’s Writing and the Classical Tradition,’ Classical Receptions Journal 4, 2012, 149–62; and the introductions of I. Hurst, Victorian Women Writers and the Classics: The Feminine of Homer, Oxford; New York, 2006, and Fiona Cox, Sibylline Sisters: Virgil's Presence in Contemporary Women's Writing, Oxford; New York, 2011.

  9. 9.

    On these novels, see (respectively) the essays of C. Schultze and J. H. Gaisser in May, Harrison, Cupid and Psyche (n. 2 above).

  10. 10.

    Psyche as poet contrasts sharply with the male poet John Keats’s use of Psyche as poetry. See R. May, ‘Keats's “Ode to Psyche.” Psyche as Poetry and Inspiration,’ in May, Harrison, Cupid and Psyche, pp. 147–65 (n. 2 above), at p. 163.

  11. 11.

    H.D.’s use of Psyche as a figure for the poet and butterfly in Trilogy and Helen in Egypt is relevant here but also too complex to compare to this poem. See S. Stanford Friedman, Psyche Reborn: The Emergence of H.D., Bloomington, 1981, pp. 9–11 and passim. For H.D. and classical myth more generally, see S. Murnaghan, ‘H.D., Daughter of Heaven: Mythology as Actuality,’ in American Women and Classical Myths, ed. G. Staley, Waco, 2009, pp. 63–84.

  12. 12.

    Dodd, The Veiled Mirror and the Woman Poet (n. 5 above) outlines H.D.’s presence in her classical persona poems. See also Gregory, H.D. and Hellenism (n. 5 above) pp. 148–61 on H.D. and Sappho.

  13. 13.

    C. S. González, ‘“At least I have the flowers of myself”: Revisionist Myth-Making in H.D.’s “Eurydice”,’ Miscelánea: A Journal of English and American Studies 62, 2020, p. 69–89.

  14. 14.

    H.D., Collected Poems, 1912–1944, New York, 1983, pp. 339–40.

  15. 15.

    Ibid., p. 340.

  16. 16.

    Ibid., p. 340.

  17. 17.

    Boland, “Letter” (n. 7 above), p. 23.

  18. 18.

    Ibid., p. 25.

  19. 19.

    The Lost Land, New York, 1998, p. 48.

  20. 20.

    Ibid., p. 46.

  21. 21.

    Ibid., p. 65.

  22. 22.

    Ibid., p. 65.

  23. 23.

    Ibid., p. 65.

  24. 24.

    Ibid., p. 66.

  25. 25.

    Ibid., p. 66.

  26. 26.

    Ibid., p. 66.

  27. 27.

    C. Clutterbuck, ‘Review Article: The Trustworthiness of Treachery,’ Irish University Review 29, 1999, pp. 406–9, at p. 409.

  28. 28.

    E. Farwell, ‘A Sense of Marvel and Astonishment: An Interview with Aimee Nezhukumatathil,’ Tin House, 2018. https://tinhouse.com/a-sense-of-marvel-and-astonishment-an-interview-with-aimee-nezhukumatathil/.

  29. 29.

    A. Nezhukumatathil, Oceanic, Port Townsend, Washington, 2018, p. 49.

  30. 30.

    Ibid., p. 49.

  31. 31.

    Ibid., p. 49.

  32. 32.

    Ibid., p. 50.

  33. 33.

    Ibid., p. 51. Cf. Gabriele D’Annunzio’s epigraph for Psiche giacente, “Da Burne-Jones,” and L. Pasetti, ‘From Psyche to psyche. The interiorisation of Apuleius’ fabella in D’Annunzio, Pascoli, and Savinio,’ in May, Harrison, Cupid and Psyche (n. 2 above), pp. 225–45.

  34. 34.

    Nezhukumatathil, Oceanic, p. 51.

  35. 35.

    Compare Meleager’s poems on the torture of the soul by Eros, A.P. 12.132, 132a, and A.P. 5.97, a poem of Rufinus that imposes upon Eros a condition (provoking reciprocal passion) to prove his divinity.

  36. 36.

    For this Cupid see esp. P.J. Johnson, ‘Constructions of Venus in Ovid’s Metamorphoses V’, Arethusa, 29, 1996, pp. 125–49.

  37. 37.

    Nezhukumatathil, Oceanic (n. 29 above), p. 52.

  38. 38.

    Ibid., p. 52.

  39. 39.

    On the violence and colonial symbolism of pinning butterflies, see S. Groneveld, ‘Unsettling the Environment: The Violence of Language in Angela Rawlings’ Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists’, Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, 44, 2013, pp. 137–58, at pp. 149–50.

  40. 40.

    A. Nezhukumatathil, ‘Psyche Considers an Archipelago’, Waxwing Literary Journal: American Writers & International Voices, 2016. http://waxwingmag.org/items/issue10/4_Nezhukumatathil-Psyche-Considers-an-Archipelago.php.

  41. 41.


  42. 42.


  43. 43.


  44. 44.


  45. 45.

    Nezhukumatathil’s overt revision also confers agency to her as poet. In an interview with Tin House, she describes her work in Oceanic as “a deeper reach into what it meant to be a woman who contains multitudes,” referring to her various identities as an Asian American, woman, mother, partner, etc. After noting that high schoolers still express their astonishment that she could be a poet and Asian American, she explains how her overt self-identification factors into the book: “I’m not interested in defining myself as much as I am sharing tenderness and vulnerability in a poem, an encouragement in a world that insists on the quick and disposable. I want readers to really sit, really think about words and beauty and what brings you joy and wonder and how you can also reflect on past hurts but use that as a strength in facing the future.” (E. Farwell, ‘A Sense of Marvel and Astonishment,’ n. 28 above).

  46. 46.

    It is impossible to do justice to the full poem here, especially since it already defies description. “[F]rozen … epigrams” (Y. Winters, ‘Mina Loy,’ The Dial, 80, 1926, pp. 496–499, at p. 498) or “scraps of anguished sentiment and disconnected bits of narrative, relics of an obsolete culture floating on the page” (M. Shreiber, K. Tuma, Mina Loy: Woman and Poet, Modern Poets Series, Orono; London, 1998, p. 89) are useful in getting partly there.

  47. 47.

    Shreiber, Tuma, Mina Loy (n. 46 above), p. 91.

  48. 48.

    R. B. DuPlessis, ‘“Seismic Orgasm”: Sexual Intercourse and Narrative Meaning in Mina Loy,’ in Shreiber, Tuma, Mina Loy: Woman and Poet (n. 46 above), pp. 45–74, at p. 64.

  49. 49.

    V. Kouidis, Mina Loy: American Modernist Poet, Baton Rouge, 1980, pp. 76–7 lays out more similarities and differences, particularly the quest to know the loved one in poems XII–XVI. Kouidis and others in modernist studies often depend on Neumann’s psychoanalytic reading of Apuleius. Like Kouidis, we read the poems out of order. See also E. M. Selinger, ‘Love in the Time of Melancholia,’ in Mina Loy: Woman and Poet (n. 46 above), pp. 19–43, at pp. 39–40. Beyond Apuleius and Sappho, Propertius and Ovid are cited as classical influences, particularly due to their “ironic philosophy of love” by J. Powell, ‘Basil Bunting and Mina Loy,’ Chicago Review, 37, 1990, pp. 6–25, at p. 13.

  50. 50.

    M. Loy, The Lost Lunar Baedeker: Poems of Mina Loy, New York, 1996, p. 53.

  51. 51.

    For some other views of the first poem, see the essays of E. M. Selinger, J. Twitchell-Waas, and R. B. DuPlessis in Shreiber, Tuma, Mina Loy: Woman and Poet, (n. 46 above), as well as P. Nicholls, Modernisms: A Literary Guide, Berkeley, 1995, pp. 220–2 and T. Prescott, Poetic Salvage: Reading Mina Loy, Lewisburg, 2017, pp. 62–5.

  52. 52.

    Shreiber, Tuma, Mina Loy: Woman and Poet (n. 46 above), p. 91.

  53. 53.

    Met. 5.23: Sed dum bono tanto percita saucia mente fluctuat, lucerna illa, sive perfidia pessima sive invidia noxia sive quod tale corpus contingere et quasi basiare et ipse gestiebat, evomuit de summa luminis sui stillam ferventis olei super umerum dei dexterum. Hem audax et temeraria lucerna et amoris vile ministerium, ipsum ignis totius deum aduris, cum te scilicet amator aliquis, ut diutius cupitis etiam nocte potiretur, primus invenerit. (“But while she was carried away by so much delight and moved by her wounded heart, that lamp, whether by treachery most evil or the poison of envy or because it, too, desired to touch such a body and “kiss” it, spat out from its spout a drop of burning oil upon the right shoulder of the god. Feh, you rash and reckless lamp, worthless handmaid of love, you burn the very master of such fire, even though you must have been invented by some lover seeking to prolong his desires even at night!”) For more on Loy’s interest in lamps, see J. G. Lein, ‘Shades of Meaning: Mina Loy’s Poetics of Luminous Opacity,’ Modernism/modernity, 18, 2011, pp. 617-29. For the abject personification of the lamp in Apuleius, see S. Sabnis, ‘Invisible Slaves, Visible Lamps: A Metaphor in Apuleius,’ Arethusa, 45, 2012, pp. 79–108.

  54. 54.

    Lein, ‘Shades of Meaning’ (n. 53 above), p. 617.

  55. 55.

    Loy, The Lost Lunar Baedeker (n. 50 above), p. 56.

  56. 56.

    Met. 5.22: Per umeros volatilis dei pinnae roscidae micanti flore candicant et quamvis alis quiescentibus extimae plumulae tenellae ac delicatae tremule resultantes inquieta lasciviunt (“Upon the shoulders of the winged god dewy plumage glows with glittering splendor and, though his wings are at rest, at the tips downy and delicate feathers frolic restlessly with little vibrations”).

  57. 57.

    DuPlessis, ‘“Seismic Orgasm”’ (n. 48 above), pp. 56–7.

  58. 58.

    Loy, The Lost Lunar Baedeker (n. 50 above), p. 54.

  59. 59.

    Cf. E. B. White, Transatlantic Avant-Gardes: Little Magazines and Localist Modernism, Edinburgh Studies in Transatlantic Literatures, Edinburgh, 2013, p. 31: “The ‘birth’ process specifically links sexual reproduction with printing. By using bloody newsprint to decorate these butterfly wings (which symbiotically mimic the shape of a newspaper), Loy also links the business of printing to the biology of camouflage and sexual display.”

  60. 60.

    Loy, The Lost Lunar Baedeker (n. 50 above), p. 54.

  61. 61.

    Ibid., p. 61.

  62. 62.

    Ibid., p. 68.

  63. 63.

    Nicholls, Modernisms: A Literary Guide (n. 51 above), p. 222. See also L. Scuriatti, Mina Loy’s Critical Modernism, Gainesville, 2019, p. 159: “This verse has almost unanimously been read by scholars as a response and endorsement of Marinetti’s antisentimental and antitraditional stance concerning the depiction of love in literature in its elevated an aestheticized form, as the obligatory subject of art, and the most important goal of life.”

  64. 64.

    Met. 6.25: Sic captivae puellae delira et temulenta illa narrabat anicula; sed astans ego non procul dolebam mehercules quod pugillares et stilum non habebam qui tam bellam fabellam praenotarem (“So was the story told by that deranged and drunk old bag to the captive girl. For my part, standing not too far off I was aggrieved, by Hercules, that I did not have tablets and pen to record such a pretty little tale”).

  65. 65.

    Shreiber reads this poem in relation to the aborted pregnancy in those previous: “In the absence of a child, Love is nothing more than an occasion for self-reflexive textual production. Priggish ‘Pig Cupid’ is a literary hack” (Shreiber, Tuma, Mina Loy (n. 46 above), p. 105).

  66. 66.

    For more on Glück’s reception of classics, see Dodd, The Veiled Mirror and the Woman Poet (n. 3 above), L. E. Doherty, ‘The Figure of Penelope in Twentieth-Century Poetry by American Women,’ in American Women and Classical Myths, ed. G. Staley, Waco, 2009, pp. 181–205, and L. McMahon, ‘The Sexual Swamp: Female Erotics and the Masculine Art,’ The Southern Review, 28, 1992, pp. 333–52.

  67. 67.

    A. Douglas, L. Glück, ‘Descending Figure: An Interview with Louise Glück,’ Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, 6, 1981, pp. 116–25, at p. 119.

  68. 68.

    D. Morris, ‘Dedicated to Hunger: A Poetics of Desire,’ in The  Poetry of Louise Gluck: A Thematic Introduction, Columbia, 2006, pp. 36–59, at p. 36.

  69. 69.

    Douglas, Glück, ‘Descending Figure’ (n. 67 above), p. 119.

  70. 70.

    Morris, ‘Dedicated to Hunger’ (n. 68 above), p. 37.

  71. 71.

    Douglas, Glück, ‘Descending Figure’ (n. 67 above), p. 119.

  72. 72.

    L. Glück, The First Four Books of Poems, New York, 1995, p. 189.

  73. 73.

    Ibid., p. 189.

  74. 74.

    ‘Dedicated to Hunger’ (n. 68 above), p. 56. Elsewhere, in “The Mountain,” she describes her writing production as Sisyphean as the poet consistently rolls a boulder of a hill, believing the summit to be “that place where he will live forever,/a place about to be/transformed by his burden” (Glück, The First Four Books of Poems (n. 72 above), p. 194). The poet’s desire for “attainment” drives the work, though it can never come. She concludes:

    with every breath,

    I am standing at the top of the mountain.

    Both my hands are free. And the rock has added

    height to the mountain.

    This clever twist on the Sisyphus story where even though the boulder stays put, the labor continues, signals the elusiveness of the Absolute for Glück. Recognizing this futility, Glück maintains a controlled distance from which she can examine such higher concepts without pretending to be at peace with them.

  75. 75.

    Glück, The First Four Books of Poems (n. 72 above), p. 133. See McMahon, ‘The Sexual Swamp: Female Erotics and the Masculine Art’ (n. 66 above) for a Freudian reading of Glück’s poetry.

  76. 76.

    Glück, The First Four Books of Poems (n. 72 above), p. 133.

  77. 77.

    Morris, ‘Dedicated to Hunger’ (n. 69 above), p. 40. In the preceding section of “Dedication to Hunger,” appropriately titled “Eros,” Glück muses, “To be male, always/to go to women/and be taken back / into the pierced flesh” (The First Four Books of Poems (n. 72 above), p. 132).

  78. 78.

    L. Glück, ‘The Dreamer and the Watcher,’ in Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry, Hopewell, 1994, pp. 99–106, at p. 102.

  79. 79.

    Ibid., pp. 101–2.

  80. 80.

    The First Four Books of Poems (n. 72 above), p. 178.

  81. 81.

    Ibid., p. 178.

  82. 82.

    Ibid., p. 180.

  83. 83.

    Glück, ‘The Dreamer and the Watcher’ (n. 78 above), p. 104.

  84. 84.

    The First Four Books of Poems (n. 72 above), p. 180.

  85. 85.

    Ibid., p. 180.

  86. 86.

    Ibid., p. 180.

  87. 87.

    Glück, ‘The Dreamer and the Watcher’ (n. 78 above), p. 104.

  88. 88.

    R.C. Potter and S. Hobson, The Salt Companion to Mina Loy. Cambridge, 2010.


This project was supported by a Ruby-Lankford Grant for Faculty-Student Collaborative Research in the Humanities. We thank the anonymous reviewers for their suggestions. We also acknowledge Angie Beiriger, Jae Choi, Hayley Curtis, Lily de la Fuente, Daniel Landau, Beth Platte, and Cayden Price for their assistance leading up to this project. We dedicate this article to students and faculty in the Department of Greek, Latin, and Ancient Mediterranean Studies at Reed College who have had to listen to us talk about Psyche for far too long.

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Correspondence to Sonia Sabnis.

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McNeel, E., Sabnis, S. “Eros you know the story”: Psyche in five women poets. Int class trad (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12138-021-00598-z

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