Ancient Myths * Analysis * Modern Interpretations of Ancient Myths * Analysis * Images

Go Loudly, Pentheus (Raine) - Bacchus (Emerson) - Bacchus (Caravaggio)

1. "Go Loudly, Pentheus" - Kathleen Raine
Analysis by Cara Ballard

The gods and goddesses of Greek mythology have been a staple in written texts for thousands of years, whether in the myths surrounding their divine greatness or as allusions in other works of literature. Some deities even merit works solely about them and the legends surrounding them, such as the ancient god of wine, Dionysos. In her poem, “Go Loudly, Pentheus,” Kathleen Raine takes on the voice of the god in order to present her own vision of how Dionysos would respond to Pentheus, the king whom he tricked because of their clashing viewpoints. Through the poem, published in 1988, Raine reveals to readers the same attitude Dionysos displays throughout various myths. But why did she choose this particular Dionysos myth as the subject of her poem? And how does the characterization of both Dionysos and Pentheus within the poem help us better understand these ancient figures? By alluding to various happenings from myth within her poem, Raine allows today’s readers a chance to comprehend yesterday’s myths and offers them a careful warning about their own lives.

One of the most obvious questions one has when examining any form of art concerns motive. In the instance of “Go Loudly, Pentheus,” this is no different, and readers might wonder why exactly Raine chose to use Euripides’ Bacchae as the basis for her poem. One likely reason is that it is one of the most classic and famous stories about Dionysos, and it displays many of his well-known traits, including his conniving trickery and constant quest to quench his followers’ thirst for ecstasy and madness. When this thirst is questioned in Bacchae – and ultimately judged as something wrong and unworthy of recognition – Dionysos decides to inflict madness with even more gusto and make the naysayers eat their words. As is his usual way, however, Dionysos does not exhibit outright power and exact immediate revenge. Always the trickster, Dionysos instead devises cunning plots to humiliate those who defy him and executes them slowly but surely, increasing his victims’ madness as the plots progress.

Such madness is clearly displayed within the poem as Raine exposes readers to that which makes Dionysos tick, including his aforementioned affinity for careful plots and tricks. In lines 3-4, she writes, “to find the taste, the marrow of the hour / and twist it like a snake into a phrase.” This mention of a snake is no doubt alluding to Dionysos’ decision to turn Cadmus and his wife into snakes in Bacchae, which shows that Raine clearly understood the god’s ability to thinks things through rather than act rashly and punish impulsively.

That is not to say Dionysos did not punish, however, because he most certainly did – quite painfully, as a matter of fact – which Raine also references in line 8: “I give you back in blood the thing you ask.” This vivid assertion alludes to the impending punishment awaiting Pentheus, who asked that Dionysos not be honored or recognized. Cadmus later reprimands those who, following Pentheus’ commands, “do not consider [Dionysos] a god” and “did not revere the god” (Bacchae). Because of this, Raine’s poem clearly contends that Pentheus will soon be encountering blood – his own – instead of the silence he demanded.

As for Pentheus, the titular character of the poem, Raine seems to present him as a two-faced leader who will ultimately be punished for his hypocrisy. Twice she has Dionysos speak of the mask Pentheus wears, first in lines 6-7: “and smiles with anger in a lying mask / behind your back,” and again in lines 17-18: “Go loudly, grin behind your mask as dead as I will make you in a ringing glade.” Not only does this remind readers of Dionysos’ bitterness and eagerness to exact careful revenge upon Pentheus, but it also makes them question Pentheus’ character as well. Because Raine wants us to believe that Pentheus wears a mask, we must assume he is hiding from something – but what is he hiding and from whom is he hiding it? Because of the harsh language used – “a lying mask” and “mask as dead / as I will make you” – one could easily conclude that Dionysos believes Pentheus is a liar and a hypocrite, condemning the god and his followers when he ends up partaking in Dionysian pleasures himself, and must thus be punished for the mask of deception he wears.

Raine elaborates on Pentheus’ hypocrisy in her poem, describing his despicable action of ascending up a tree to see the maenads (female followers of Dionysos) in lines 9-12: “And while you climb the mountain like a child, / expecting pleasures and a pretty dance, / I’ll screw your trouble into a spring wild / and deadly in the hidden trap of chance.” Though the poem describes a mountain, it is clear that Raine is referring to Pentheus in the tree, as he certainly hoped to see “pleasures and a pretty dance” by observing the forbidden maenads. Raine’s choice of language here also seems strangely modern, one could argue, for the use of the word “screw” followed by “your” is very phonetically similar to the phrase “screw you” – a euphemistic insult that Dionysos would not hesitate using (and an action he did not hesitate implementing) upon his foe.

This is of course all well and good, but what place does ancient Greek mythology have in poetry written in the 1980’s anyway? It is actually more relevant than one might first assume. As the god of wine, Dionysos was basically the ultimate “party boy,” as we might call him nowadays, encouraging drunken antics and sexual ecstasy, among other things. In numerous tales, he reigned as the lord of all excess, inflicting madness and chaos wherever he went, such as when he encountered the Tyrsenian pirates. In addition to encouraging his followers to succumb to excess, Dionysos himself constantly indulged in his own power, seemingly getting drunk off his own intoxicating presence. What all of this adds up to, one could argue, is a very similar environment to that of the Eighties. As an era of excess, the Eighties was a time for many people to indulge in the luxuries of the decade. The booming American economy produced an abundance of “yuppies” (young urban professionals) who prospered in both business and society – not unlike Pentheus himself – while others were jumping into the world of casual sex, drugs, big hair and big fashion. So perhaps it is not all that unusual that Raine focused on a deity who was being chastised by the yuppyish Pentheus for the same outlandish antics many were participating in during the 80’s. By taking on the voice of Dionysos, her message gains a double meaning: one that specifically addresses the god’s rivalry with Pentheus in ancient myth, and another that addresses the luxurious lifestyles of the 1980’s, both of which ultimately criticize the “unseeing eye” (Raine, line 24) of those close-minded individuals opposed to such indulgences.

Through her poem, “Go Loudly, Pentheus,” Kathleen Raine presents modern day readers with an alternative interpretation of an ancient Greek god. By personifying the god Dionysos, Raine is able to offer a poem from a first person narrative standpoint that gives great insight into the deity’s character. Raine herself could possibly even be interpreted as speaking from a maenad’s perspective, as she is a female defending and praising the great god Dionysos with the utmost cleverness and devotion. Through the poem, readers not only are reminded of Dionysos’ clever trickery and deception, but they are also able to see the joy he takes in doling out punishment with careful patience. It is not unjust punishment, however, for the poem also clearly displays the mask of hypocrisy Pentheus wears. In line after line, Dionysos’ qualities are confirmed, and readers are also reminded of Euripides’ ancient drama about the people of an indulgent Greek society. Such a society, though, is not altogether unlike the time period in which the poem was written. By pairing Dionysos, the god of wine and ecstasy, with the excess of the Eighties, Raine is able to offer a subtle commentary not only on the god and his dispute with Pentheus but also on the lavish luxuries of her time. She also presents a clear warning that perhaps everyone should be a bit more open-minded and start to see with their “unseeing eye” (line 24) – or else be prepared to watch Dionysos “take joy in the sour blood... into your ignorant ears” (lines 19-20).

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2. "Bacchus" - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Analysis by Amanda Piell

The legacy of Dionysos does not remain locked in antiquity. Rather, his influence continues to reign even into the modern era, leaving an impact on all of Western culture. Renowned American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson is a perfect example. In his tribute to the god entitled “Bacchus,” Emerson praises the god, claiming that his immense powers over wine and pleasure leave an intoxicating influence on poets everywhere. This takes Dionysos’ legacy in the myths as a bringer of wine, and thus pleasure, to the next level. By analyzing the themes in Emerson’s “Bacchus,” reviewing their relation to Dionysian myth, and finally comparing these themes to what is typical in Emerson’s works, the influence of Dionysos throughout time becomes more apparent.

According to Euripides, Dionysos “gives to mortals the vine that puts an end to grief” (Bacchae, 770). This is the foundation upon which all Dionysian myths relating to wine are based. Similarly, Bernard J. Paris writes in his article, “Emerson’s ‘Bacchus’” in the June 1962 issue of Modern Language Quarterly, “Bacchus…functions in his traditional dual role as both the god of wine and the god of poetry; and Bacchus’ dual role, as well as a long tradition of inebriated poets, justifies poetically the metaphorical connection which Emerson makes between intoxication and inspiration” (150). This dual role of the god of wine draws a parallel between intoxication and poetic inspiration, comparing the pleasures caused by the godly gift of poetry to the pleasures caused by the drinking of wine, another godly gift to mortals. In his poem, “Bacchus,” Emerson writes, “That I intoxicated,/And by the draught assimilated,/may float at pleasure through all natures/The bird-language rightly spell,/And which roses say so well” (lines 21-25). The lines themselves have a dual meaning, much like the god that they are a tribute to. On the surface the poet says that by drinking wine, the gift of Dionysos, he can become intoxicated, giving him a floating feeling of pleasure, but also the lines can mean that by experiencing the intoxicating feeling of inspiration, he can bring pleasure to himself and to others by writing poetry. This is shown by the many references in lines 24-25 about speaking and the use of language. Here Emerson is saying that under the influence of the intoxicating feeling of inspiration, he is given this wonderful gift of words, so that he can use the “bird-language” to communicate, not only his own pleasure in this experience, but also the pleasure of everything in nature from the birds to the roses. By feeling this inspiration, given to him through the god Dionysos through the gift of wine, he is able to give all of nature a voice through the language of poetry.

This idea of wine relieving people from their grief and bringing them pleasure, as well as wine’s incorporation with song and dance is alluded to in the Greek myths about Dionysos as well. In Greek Lyric II The Anacreontea, it is written, “Let us be merry and drink and sing of Bakkhos [Dionysos], the inventor of the choral dance, the lover of all songs, leading the same life as the Erotes (Loves), the darling of Kythere [Aphrodite as goddess of pleasure]; thanks to him Methe (Drunkenness) was brought forth, the Kharis (Grace) was born, Lupa (Pain) takes rest and Ania (Trouble) goes to sleep” (Fragment 38). Emerson reinforces this idea by alluding to the music that is associated with wine and Dionysos in lines 36-37 in which he writes, “Wine which Music is,/Music and wine are one.” Here Emerson not only relates wine to music, but also refers to its ability to “unlock” the inspiration within the poets mind in lines 38-44, which state: “That I, drinking this,/Shall hear far Chaos talk with me;/Kings unborn shall walk with me;/And the poor grass shall plot and plan/What it will do when it is man./Quickened so, will I unlock/Every crypt of every rock.” Without wine, the poet struggles to create his art, trapped within his everyday sorrows and pain, thus referring to the “unlocking” of his ideas. Once the poet becomes intoxicated, however, his inspiration is “unlocked” and he can put his troubles to rest and write. Furthermore, the intoxication, and thus Dionysos, has a stronger effect than just that of bringing poetic inspiration to Emerson. According to Paris, “the poem grows in intensity, following a pattern of increasing intoxication, to a climax in the concluding section (51-67)” (150). On the surface, this shows how the more intoxicated a person is, the more pleasure they are feel; just as the more inspired a poet is, the more pleasurable of a poem he can write, but the power of Dionysos and his gift of intoxication go even further than that in Emerson’s poem.

In the beginning of the poem, Emerson states a desire for a wine “which never grew/In the belly of the grape” (lines 1-2), but rather a wine that “feels the acrid juice/Of Styx and Erebus” (lines 8-9) and “whose ample leaves and tendrils curled/Among the silver hills of heaven” (lines 15-16). This describes how upon first drinking the wine, Emerson can become connected from the earth where the grapes physically grow, down into the Underworld where Styx and Erebus are the root of the wine, and up into heaven where the leaves are. Here, the power of Dionysos is so great that even just a small amount of his wine is enough to intoxicate you and connect you to this greater spiritual world. As the poem goes on and he becomes more intoxicated, his is given the gift of language to communicate on behalf of all of nature (lines 21-25). By the time he reaches this section of lines 36-44, he is so intoxicated that “Chaos [will] talk with [him],” meaning that his inspiration is giving him the power of creation, seeing as that Chaos is the thing from which everything is created in most creation myths. This creative ability that he now has due to the intoxicating power of Dionysos is so great that it not only gives him the ability to create poetry, but it allows him to in a sense give life, as the pleasure felt by those indirectly touched by Dionysos through him is a life-giving force. His creative ability gives him the opportunity to inspire others, giving him the chance to have “Kings unborn…walk with [him]” (line 40). These kings will walk with him because they were inspired by his work, and thus indirectly inspired by Dionysos. In addition, the imagery of these great kings to come walking with him, gives the impression that Emerson, through his intoxicated and inspiring poetry, is given an exalted place among the gods, as the phrase “walking with” puts Emerson and the kings as equals, and many kings in classical mythology are considered “godlike.”

Emerson then goes on to say “Pour, Bacchus! the remembering wine;/Retrieve the loss of men and mine!/Vine for vine be antidote,/And the grape requite the lote!/Haste to cure the old despair” (Bacchus lines 51-55). This again suggests Dionysos (and wine’s) ability to help people “remember” what pleasure is and how to cure their despair. In this final climactic stage of intoxication, Emerson declares wine (and poetry) the “antidote” to human suffering, in a sense implying that Dionysos’ power is the ultimate reliever of pain. Overall, Emerson’s work “Bacchus,” is immensely characteristic in the tradition of Dionysian stories, in that it describes the value of wine and pleasure to the human spirit.

Emerson even wrote of this “wine” of inspiration and its intoxicating powers in his other works. In his essay “Circles,” Emerson writes, “But some Petrarch or Ariosto, filled with the new wine of his imagination, writes me an ode or a brisk romance, fully of daring thought and action. He smites and arouses me with his shrill tones, breaks up my whole chain of habits, and I open my eye on my own possibilities” (quoted in Paris, 151). This is much like the concluding section of the poem “Bacchus,” in which Paris describes the poet’s power as having “reach[ed] its climax as he postulates his ability, under the influence of divine intoxication, to restore to man his lost knowledge of ideal truth” (151). This holds true to the mythic tradition of Dionysos. Athenaeus wrote in Deipnosophistae, “wine revealeth the heart of man.” This is the knot that ties together Dionysian myth to Emerson’s “Bacchus.” It again shows that wine can intoxicate people, giving them a sense of physical pleasure, but on a much deeper level, the intoxicating powers of Dionysos (in other words, the inspiration unleashed by this godly drink) bring out not only physical pleasures, but spiritual pleasures and human truths.

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3. Bacchus - Caravaggio
Analysis by Bryan Roush

Caravaggio’s Bacchus is a great example of how a myth can evolve from one period to the next and still interest today’s culture. The painting captures all the feelings and images that come to mind when we think of Dionysos “The God of Wine” even though it seems very different from what the old Greek and Roman stories told about Dionysos. . Exploring how the Dionysos myth changed over time and why Caravaggio chose to paint about Dionysos can also gives us a better understanding and interpretation of the Bacchus painting.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio painted Bacchus in the late 1500’s . Caravaggio was inspired to paint on very different subjects than what was being painted on at the time. Caravaggio painted more realistic paintings of religious symbols such as St. Mattew and St. John the Baptist. His work mirrored that of Baroque which had emphasis using oil canvases and certain types of lighting. Caravaggio moved to Rome early in his career and started painting not only Religious themes but also secular themes such as the Roman God’s. He received much criticism for painting such religious and secular figures and. Bacchus is one of these. Although Caravaggio painted the idea of Dionysos it does reflect all the tales about him in Greek and Roman culture (Michael John Angel).

The painting style used by Caravaggio in Bacchus is called Baroque. This style of painting modified Dionysos’ look to more a subtle and dramatic one. Baroque style painting is basically trying to make the object or person dramatic, contrasted and/or have some sort of movement within the picture (Wikipedia). The Baroque element is seen very well in the Bacchus painting since the background is not lit and the emphasis is obviously on Dionysos. The movement in the picture is seen in the way Dionysos is posed and ready to shift towards someone if they come to talk to him. The painting is also dramatic in the fact that it shows Dionysos as a strong and powerful figure by not only the way he is sitting but by the way his face looks. As described before Dionysos seems very seductive and looks like he is hiding something, this adds to the look of him having power. He thinks that whoever is looking at him he can have them sit down and have a glass of wine with him. At the time Baroque art was very new and became a fad in Italy and around Europe.

Looking at the portrait in comparison to the tales of Dionysos, the portrait of Dionysos is very relaxed. This interpretation of Dionysos comes across as a very debonair and suave form of a God. The one common element that has stayed with the idea of Dionysos is the object of wine. In the portrait it almost seems that the wine Dionysos has is more in control than he is. Continuing with the wine theme, the portrait has grapes and wine spread throughout the picture. This shows that the idea of wine has lasted over the time from when the Greeks started telling tales of Dionysos.

The interpretation also offers us humanistic view of a god. The way Caravaggio painted the picture it seems that Bacchus is on a more human level then on a level with that such as a Divinity. In the portrait Bacchus looks not only seductive but also more human. The way Dionysos is sitting is the way a possibly hardworking God would relax. With the pitcher of wine sitting to his right and the plate of fruit, the scene seems very inviting. The portrait shows a warm side of Dionysos, one that wants company and enjoys having a party.

This picture also shows a laid back and younger side of Dionysos. In any stories Dionysos seems to have experience and trickery most likely through experience. The age of this Dionysos depicted in the Caravaggio picture makes him look like he has almost reached puberty. This can be seen by how his face is still rounded and how he still seems to have some baby fat around him, even though his right arm seems to have muscle.

The setting for this picture seems more intimate rather than a big party atmosphere. Although the elements for a party are still in the picture, such as wine and food, the place that is painted is not an ideal place for a big party. It is possible that the picture may depict and after party of sorts or maybe Dionysos’ personal house/temple. Also the amount of food that is in the picture is not only for Dionysos, it also for a guest, presumably the viewer of the art.

Even though all of these are examples of how the portrait is very similar to the ancient idea of Dionysos, the old Greek version of Dionysos does not seem to be depicted here. One such example of this is in the Euripides play Bacchus, of course also known as Dionysos. Dionysos torments King Pentheus for not believing in the rituals that his followers perform. For King Pentheus’ actions Bacchus plays around with Pentheus until the point where he becomes insane to the point where he wears women’s clothing and his face is ripped off.

Another story which involves Dionysus’ trickery and cleverness is when he recaptured the Theban Kingdom. The story says that since Dionysos did not want to take the kingdom by force he told the King of the city that they should have a celebration. What the Theban King did not know was that Dionysos was bringing all of his soldiers, who were all dressed as women so they could invade the city. Dionysos’ plan worked and he retook his kingdom.

Dionysos also messed with the Pirates who tried to capture him. On the ship that the pirates attempted to capture Dionysos on, he made a bear which scared all of the crew of the pirate ship to jump overboard. When the crew jumped overboard they all became dolphins and Dionysos seemed quite pleased with himself. This clever and mean-minded side of Bacchus/Dionysos is not seen in the portrait done by Caravaggio. As you can see these are some elements that do not match up with the painting, even though overall the idea of Dionysos is well depicted.

As we can see myths can be easily transformed and used in different works and arts. Caravaggio’s interpretation of Dionysos is a good variation on a long standing myth. With a better understanding of the myth of Dionysos we can see more into Caravaggio’s Bacchus and see how the myth has changed and not changed over time.

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Last updated 23 October 05 - -

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