The Throne of Psyche
Reviewed by Randy Hoyt
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 48:9 (#350) in September 2011.]
Readers of Mythprint might be familiar with Marly Youmans from her two fantasy novels for young adults, Ingledove (2006) and The Curse of the Raven Mocker (2009). I was unacquainted with her work until I came across her most recent book, a slim volume titled The Throne of Psyche (2011) that contains a collection of her poetry. The title poem (“The Throne of Psyche”) is around 420 lines long, while the remaining poems are typically less than forty lines apiece. Gorgeous artwork by Welsh artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins adorns the cover of this well-made paperback from Mercer University Press.
The title poem draws upon the myth of Eros and Psyche from ancient Greek mythology. Psyche herself is the narrator, reflecting back on the events of her story after becoming immortal. Youmans does not have Psyche merely recount the events in chronological order; Psyche’s reflections move back and forth through different moments in the myth. (For example, in the section titled “Two Incidents Of Curiosity,” Psyche recalls both the time she carried the lamp into her marriage bed to see Eros’s face and the time she opened Persephone’s box looking for beauty.) If you do not already know the myth, you will be hard-pressed to piece it together from the poem. Instead, Youmans assumes a shared knowledge of the myth to explore what it means to be human: Psyche, a human being turned goddess, provides a fresh perspective on this question.
Students of the Inklings will no doubt wonder how this poem compares with C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces. Both are retellings of the same myth, written from the first-person perspective of a major character in the story. Both reveal their narrators’ innermost thoughts, expanding on the myth with new motivations and psychological insights. In addition to the difference in length and form, the two authors employ the myth to comment on very different topics: Lewis, the darker side of jealous need-love and the nature of faith; Youmans, the contrast between mortality and immortality.
The two authors handle the details of the original material quite differently. The oldest surviving literary version of the myth is contained in the second-century Latin novel The Golden Ass by Apuleius. We know Lewis read this novel and drew on it as his source for Till We Have Faces, though he took great liberties in altering the original story. Youmans, on the other hand, matches the details very closely. (The only difference I noticed is Youmans’s use of the Greek names like Aphrodite and Eros for Apuleius’s Latin names like Venus and Cupid.) Because Youmans follows the traditional tale so closely, she can rely on the reader’s familiarity with the events; Psyche only needs to allude to them.
The other fifty-three poems in the collection are shorter, typically less than forty lines apiece. They were not originally composed for publication with “The Throne of Psyche”; I believe all have been previously published elsewhere. But they are quite complementary, working well together as a collection. Like the title poem, many are filled with otherworldliness: creatures like dragons, demons, phoenixes, and dryads; characters from various traditions like the Trojan Tithonus or the fairy-tale Snow White; and places like Eden and the Edge of the World. Most of the otherworldliness is employed to consider this world and our existence in it: the inevitably of death (as well as the burden of limitless longevity), the purpose of suffering, our significance in the vastness of space, and the nature of work and art.
The title poem is one of only a few poems in the collection that retell or draw on a familiar myth. Even though many of the creatures and characters have been gathered from various traditions, the stories Youmans tells are primarily her own. I found many of these original narratives quite powerful and compelling, with moments from them now firmly impressed in my imagination: Hephaestus limping through the market, the young girl riding on the dragon through the sky, the woman gazing at the Northern Lights, and the bard toiling and singing alone on the forgotten shore. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in both imaginative fiction and poetry.