The cracked tune that Chronos sings: W.B. Yeats, Charles Olson, and the idea of history
Grieve-Carlson, Gary R.
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The idea of history grows out of the mythic personification of absolute memory, Mnemosyne, mother of the Muses, but in the modern West the mythopoeic foundation of history is concealed or denied. Aristotle's carefully-drawn distinction between historiography and other literary genres has persisted, as historiography has sought to establish itself as an objective, philosophical and scientific discipline. In the twentieth century, however, professional historians and literary theorists have begun to point out the problematic nature of historical knowledge, and to question the construction of the field of history. Partly in response to the dissolution of a widely-shared sense of history's meaning, and partly in response to a dissatisfaction with the culture's dominant models of history, many of the twentieth century's strongest poets have articulated in their work sophisticated ideas of history, which challenge the dominant models and illuminate the tensions inhabiting the concept of history. W. B. Yeats and Charles Olson are perhaps the century's most prolific poet-historians; both poets' imaginations span millennia, emplotting human history in provocative and sometimes disturbing ways. Although in many ways Yeats and Olson are very different kinds of poets, each reflecting to some extent modern and postmodern values or world-views, their attitudes toward history prove to be surprisingly complementary. Both tend to mythologize the past by means of archetypes, to valorize certain periods and figures that embody their values, and to condemn the degraded present. Both entangle themselves in political ideas that contradict the archetypal thrust of much of their thinking, and both console themselves with promises of what the future will be like, or with images of imminent possibility. Both present their ideas of history as a challenge to traditional historiography, and Olson's idea is additionally a challenge to Yeats's. However, Olson ends up committing some of the same "errors" he criticizes in Yeats, and both poets end up recapitulating the problems they detect in traditional historiography.
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