‘The mirror of Greek myth’: James McAuley’s ‘The Hero and the Hydra’
‘The Hero and the Hydra’, a poem cycle by the Australian poet James McAuley (1917–1976), consists of four poems, ‘Prometheus’, ‘The Death of Chiron’, ‘The Ascent of Heracles’, and ‘The Tomb of Heracles’, first published together in McAuley’s collection A Vision of Ceremony (1956). It has been described by critics variously as ‘despairing’ (Coleman, 2000) and ‘anguished’ (Pybus, 1999). McAuley himself called it an attempt ‘to experience imaginatively the crisis in modern civilisation in the mirror of Greek myth’.
This chapter examines the choice of the myth of Heracles and the figures of Prometheus, Io, and Chiron as the vehicles for McAuley’s exploration of the crisis he perceived, and argues that although the cycle itself dwells on rupture, the use of the classical here signifies McAuley’s hope of restoration and continuity. It considers the largely unfavourable response of contemporary critics to the cycle and in particular to McAuley’s use of classical myth. The chapter builds on Cassandra Pybus’ analysis of the poem as McAuley’s response to his time in New Guinea, and McAuley’s essay My New Guinea (1961), to put the poem cycle in the context of a wider literary tradition in Australia (and elsewhere) of viewing Pacific peoples through a classical lens.