‘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 will examine 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 argue that although the cycle itself dwells on rupture, the use of the classical here signifies McAuley’s hope of restoration and continuity. It will also address the criticism sometimes made of McAuley, that he used myth in his poetry as a ‘protective shield’ to avoid ‘direct ideological attack’ (McCredden 1992). Finally, the chapter will build 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.
Provisional content for The Modern Hercules (Volume 1)