Critical Inquiry 3 (3):521-542 (1977)

The millennial interest in the fable told by Apuleius in The Golden Ass has produced periods of intense preoccupation. Of these uses of the legend none is more interesting, varied, and profound—none possesses greater implications for contemporary life and manners—than the obsessive concern of pre-Romantic and Romantic writers and artists. Hellenistic, Roman, and early Christian culture had produced at least twenty surviving statues of Psyche alone, some seven Christian sarcophagi that used the legend, and a set of mosaics on a Christian ceiling in Rome from the early fourth century;1 and of course to late antiquity belongs the distinction of having produced the seminal telling of the tale by Apuleius in about A. D. 125. But what we possess from that remote time is thin and lacks the power to engage the modern spirit. The allegorizing and erotic responses made in the Renaissance, Mannerist, and Baroque culture produced monuments of painting that the later period cannot rival; but the impregnation of literature by the legend was slight, and the intellectual or moral content was often only a perfunctory and dutiful addendum. The revival of the story in the aesthetic movement of the late Victorians and early moderns has its examples of beauty, particularly in Rodin and in the lush harmonies and occasionally piercing melodies of César Franck's Psyché, a tone poem for chorus and orchestra; but the long retellings by Morris, Bridges, and John Jay Chapman oppress with luxuriant sweetness and remain of interest only as period pieces. · 1. See Elizabeth Hazelton Haight, Apuleius and His Influence , p. 164, and Maxime Collignon, "Essai sur les monuments grecs et romains . . . ," in Bibliothèque des écoles françaises d'Athène et de Rome , fasc. 2, pp. 285-446, esp. pp. 364, 436-38. Jean H. Hagstrum, John C. Shaffer Professor of English and Humanities at Northwestern University, is currently preparing a book on the theme of love in European literature and art from the mid-seventeenth century through the Romantic period. He is the author of books and articles on Blake and Samuel Johnson, and of The Sister Arts, a study of the relations of poetry and painting from antiquity through the eighteenth century
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