BMCR 2021.05.07

Cupid and Psyche: the reception of Apuleius’ Love Story since 1600

, , Cupid and Psyche: the reception of Apuleius' Love Story since 1600. Trends in classics - pathways of reception, 1. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2020. Pp. xii, 466. ISBN 9783110641196 $126.99.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This is a collection of essays on the reception history of Apuleius since 1600, published in De Gruyter’s Trends in Classics – Pathways of Reception series. The series, according to the back cover of the present volume, seeks to investigate ‘the “pathways” through which Greek and Roman material has been transmitted, translated, transformed, interpreted, and represented in Postclassical Literature & Culture, Philosophy & Political Theory, Visual & Performing Arts as well as in the film industry’. Remarkably, this first book in the series touches upon all of these pathways in one way or another.

The volume derives from a conference held at Leeds in 2016. It fills a gap in the scholarship by exploring in depth the later reception history of Apuleius. The author’s earlier afterlife, up until 1600, has recently been well-served by two monographs, Julia Haig Gaisser’s The Fortunes of Apuleius and the Golden Ass (Princeton, 2008) and Robert H. F. Carver’s The Protean Ass: The Metamorphoses of Apuleius from Antiquity to the Renaissance (Oxford, 2007). Both scholars also contribute essays to this collection on aspects of Apuleius’ reception not covered in their respective monographs.

First and foremost, the present volume is a valuable contribution to the study of classical reception, whilst individual essays will surely be useful to scholars in a great many different disciplines. The book is divided into sections roughly covering Baroque, Romantic, Fin de siècle, Modernist and contemporary receptions of Apuleius’ fable of Cupid and Psyche. Specific items under discussion include interior decoration, poetry, novels, plays and films. Reading the book in full offers a panoramic view of a rich and versatile tale in its many manifestations. Overall, the volume is well printed and well edited, and contains illustrations wherever they are relevant.

The book begins with an introduction to the Cupid and Psyche tale within the Metamorphoses of Apuleius and provides a useful overview of its afterlife.[1]

The first section of the book is an exploration of Baroque receptions and the influence of La Fontaine’s 1669 version of the story. Tiziana Ragno looks at seventeenth-century libretti while Stephen Harrison takes up the subject of a flurry of Cupid and Psyche adaptations in the 1670s. Christiane Reitz takes us in quite a different direction by looking at a series of French wallpapers based on Cupid and Psyche. The paper focuses our attention on an accompanying notice explicative, demonstrating how French intermediary texts were used to re-fashion Apuleius for a contemporary female audience. Reitz’s discussion is aptly followed by another article on interior decoration in which Jared A. Simard discusses eighteenth-century French salon art. Simard highlights just how ‘rococo’ the story of Psyche had become, and how much adapted to new contexts. Instead of the strange, elusive, disturbing and messy narrative of Apuleius’ original, the Cupid and Psyche adaptations in Simard’s essay are personal, genteel and optimistic. On the whole, this section comes together as a fairly coherent examination of how intertexts build up over time and how they can scarcely be avoided – even if that were desired – once they have accumulated in and around a classical tale. By the eighteenth century, Cupid and Psyche had become intertextually dense with Italian and French interlocutors.

The following section develops this theme but moves us into the Romantic period. A particularly interesting essay is Maeve O’Brien’s look at Mary Tighe’s Psyche. In this poem Tighe conveys her poetic identity as self-consciously female and Irish, interweaving both of these elements into her response to the classical source. Ultimately, O’Brien concludes that by appropriating Apuleius as well as the Irish aisling genre of poetry, Tighe ‘makes her reception of her classical source at once international and Irish’ (p. 114). Next, Robert H. F. Carver looks at Thomas Taylor’s 1795 translation, touching upon how Apuleius’ tale fits into the context of Platonic philosophical thinking from the Romantic period. Linking back to O’Brien’s contribution, Regine May discusses Keats, who in his youth had read and enjoyed Mary Tighe’s Psyche but ultimately rejected it as too sentimental. In May’s analysis, tracing Psyche through Keats’ works becomes a way to explore his poetic self-representation. In three major poems dealing with Psyche, Keats depicts himself as ‘inspired priest and divine admirer of his poetic goddess and inspiration’ (p. 163). Michael Paschalis turns to Walter Scott’s Kenilworth, where he convincingly parallels the situations of Amy Robsart and Psyche. Then, linking back to the philosophical approach of Carver, Zacharias Andreadakis discusses Kierkegaard as an Apuleian reader. This discussion is particularly unexpected and welcome. The philosophical threads in this section of the volume remind us of how the tale has been read with an eye to its philosophical insights since Antiquity. A final essay in this section fills in the Victorian reception history with an examination of Robert Bridges’ Eros and Psyche. Here Luca Ruggeri echoes the arguments of the other contributors: Bridges is constantly ‘in dialogue, and sometimes in competition’ (p. 221) with a range of intertexts, in this case prior English ones.

We then turn to the fin de siècle and psychological perspectives on the tale. Lucia Pasetti explores how the figure of Psyche ‘is spiritualized as well as eroticized’, in keeping with the ‘decadent culture’ of the fin de siècle (p. 225). Pasetti argues that there is then a major turning point in the tale’s afterlife with the avant-garde writer Alberto Savinio, whose deconstruction of such responses to Psyche turns us toward the Freudian, and psychological, rather than the spiritual. Christoph Leidl, who sadly passed away before publication, returns us to visual adaptations of the myth, surveying some illustrated books. A highlight of the volume is Geoffrey C. Benson’s contribution. Benson asks us not to neglect the Freudian and Jungian responses to the tale of Cupid and Psyche, arguing that ‘at the dawn of this era of ‘Deep Classics’ it is important to consider all the different strata that have built up ‘over’ Cupid and Psyche, especially the strata that have been ignored’ (p. 274). This seems a salient point, in keeping with other articles that look at the intertextuality the tale accrued over the centuries. Benson’s subsequent discussion of a much neglected and derided psychoanalytic analysis of Cupid and Psyche by Franz Riklin proves that there is much to be gained from uncovering such neglected strata. As Benson suggests at the end of his piece, Riklin’s reading offers us new pathways for our own readings of the tale, particularly those that ‘draw attention to its darker tones’ (p. 286). Concluding the section, Clemence Schultze then looks at the novels of Charlotte M. Yonge and Sylvia Townsend Warner, which take rather different approaches to their source text. Yonge uses Apuleius to write a Bildungsroman allegorising the Christian soul’s progress by means of endurance and obedience, whereas Warner allegorises the soul’s progress by means of self-asssertion, self-knowledge and discernment in handling others.

The following section deals with modernism and the twentieth century, beginning with Julia Haig Gaisser’s article on Eudora Welty’s novella The Robber Bridegroom. This is an analysis of a less explicit use of the myth, and Gaisser argues that we should understand the novella in the light of Apuleius as well as the Grimm brothers. This is a good example of how later receptions of the classical tale overlap with receptions of fairy tales. It also gives us the transportation of Apuleius to Mississipi, showing just how far-reaching his influence has been. Friedemann Drews returns us somewhat to philosophy, this time C. S. Lewis’ ‘Christian-Platonic metamorphosis’ of Apuleius in Till We Have Faces. Lewis had stated that his work used Apuleius as a source but not as an influence or model. Drews challenges Lewis’ assertion, arguing that they have a great deal in common ‘as a whole’ (p. 323). Where Drews grapples with an author’s explicit views on Apuelius, in the next essay Vernon L. Provencal takes on the task of reading Apuleius where there is no hard proof of his presence. Nevertheless, Provencal’s discussion of Cupid and Psyche in William Faulkner’s The Reivers is interested in ‘the lens of the reader’ (p. 341) rather than knowledge of direct authorial acquaintance with a source-text. Provencal argues for two strands, one burlesque and one idealistic, in Faulkner’s modern reimagining of the Cupid and Psyche myth, and views the reception of the myth as elevating both the original and the modern rewriting to ‘universal paradigms’ (p. 353). Holly Ranger’s contribution on Sylvia Plath reminds us of O’Brien’s essay on Mary Tighe by looking at how a female poet uses the myth to explore her own identity. This compelling essay easily demonstrates how Plath used the Latin work to claim a place within the classical tradition for women.

The final portion of the book is dedicated to ‘New Audiences’ and begins with Lisa Maurice’s survey of adaptations for children. This is very much a descriptive overview, but it nicely opens the door for further analysis of this topic. Hendrik Müller looks at 21st century stage adaptations and adopts an approach similar to Maurice’s, largely just surveying the existing material but conclusively proving that the myth is alive and well. We get a more detailed discussion of a modern response in Janice Siegel’s essay on the 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth. Although this is not entirely convincing in proving a direct connection between the two works, it nevertheless offers some insights into the film and its mythical undertones. The book concludes with Paula James’ article on the cinematic adaptations of Beauty and the Beast (particularly the Cocteau and Disney versions), which are surely the most famous modern equivalents to the classical fable. This article is less a discussion of the parallels between Apuleius and Beauty and the Beast, however, and more a general exploration of ‘modern anxieties and desires’ (p. 449) and how they might map onto Cupid and Psyche. There is certainly merit to such a nebulous and exploratory conclusive article. It leaves us with an open ending, wondering about the many pathways this tale might still take.

For a collection of essays originating in a conference, the book tells a pleasantly coherent narrative. The only area where it is obvious that there is a certain amount of luck involved in the topics covered is in the unfortunate absence of an essay dealing directly with the connection between Apuleius and the development of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale.

Reading this collection, we get a strong sense of how this story has persisted to the present day but also why. What strikes the reader is just how un-Apuleian the inventions of these later interpreters are at times. The malleability of the tale emerges as one of the recurrent ideas of the volume, and this may be due to its ‘universal’ themes of the soul’s development and the nature of love. However, it is also its idiosyncracy that commends the tale to later readers. An example of this is that it is a rare example of a classical work that deals with a female central figure and it is partly this that makes it such rich fodder for re-imagining. This should not be overstated – the story of Psyche is by no means the only female-centred classical tale (popular examples include the stories of Dido and Persephone). However, some contributors here do effectively emphasise the feminine nature of Apuleius’ tale and it does indeed seem that this served as part of its appeal for later interpreters.

The overall impression given by this excellent collection is that the story of Cupid and Psyche is elusive and enigmatic wherever it goes. On the other hand, it is constantly made familiar, amassing intertexts that make new meanings spring to life, and make old meanings vibrant again and again.

Authors and titles

Regine May and Stephen Harrison, Introduction

I. Baroque and the Influence of La Fontaine
Tiziano Ragno, ‘Del soffrir degli affanni è dolce il fine’. Ancient myth and comic drama in G.F. Fusconi’s libretto (with G.F. Loredano and P. Michiel) for F. Cavalli, Amore innamorato (1642)
Stephen Harrison, Apuleius at the court of Louis XIV. Psyché (1671, 1678) and its English version (1675)
Christiane Reitz, How to use a wallpaper, Psyché et Cupidon – notice explicative
Jared A. Simard, Psyche in the salon. French interior decoration in the eighteenth century

II. Romanticism and Philosophy
Maeve O’Brien, ‘Pensive pleasures’ in prose and poetry. Apuleius, Mary Tighe and eighteenth-century Ireland
Robert. H. F. Carver, The Platonic Ass: Thomas Taylor’s Cupid and Psyche in Context (1795-1822)
Regine May, Keats’s ‘Ode to Psyche’: Psyche as poetry and inspiration
Michael Paschalis, Sir Walter Scott’s Kenilworth and Apuleius’ tale of Cupid and Psyche
Zacharias Andreadakis, Kierkegaard as a reader of Apuleius’ Metamorphoses
Luca Ruggeri, Robert Bridges’ Eros and Psyche and its models

III. Fin de Siècle and Psychology
Lucia Pasetti, From Psyche to psyche. The interiorisation of Apuleius’ fabella in D’Annunzio, Pascoli, and Savinio
Christoph Leidl, Between Symbolism and Popular Culture. Cupid and Psyche in Fin de siècle Book illustration
Geoffrey C. Benson, Psyche the psychotic. Cupid and Psyche in Dr. Franz Riklin’s Wishfulfilment and Symbolism in Fairy Tales
Clemence Schultze, Psyche and Cupid in the Novels of Charlotte M. Yonge and Sylvia Townsend Warner

IV. Twentieth Century and Modernism
Julia Haig Gaisser, Eudora Welty’s The Robber Bridegroom. Cupid and Psyche on the Natchez Trace
Friedemann Drews, Cupid & Psyche and C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces. A Christian-Platonic metamorphosis
Vernon L. Provencal, Faulkner’s reception(s) of Apuleius’ Cupid and Psyche in The Reivers
Holly Ranger, ‘I have tried to be blind in love’. Psyche and the quest for feminine poetic autonomy in Sylvia Plath’s House of Eros

V. New Audiences
Lisa Maurice, Cupid and Psyche for children
Hendrik Müller, Cupid and Psyche on stage in the 21st century
Janice Siegel, Undertones of Apuleius’ Cupid and Psyche in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth
Paula James, Beauty and the Beast as a myth and metaphor in the contemporary world. Looking forward with Apuleius’ fable of Cupid and Psyche
List of figures


[1] I should note a misleading sentence in the Introduction. On p. 10-11, May and Harrison discuss the Christian allegorisation of Cupid and Psyche, stating that ‘[t]his allegorisation was facilitated by the story’s early separation from the rest of the novel, first evidenced in Fulgentius’. This seems to me to imply that the story’s separation from the rest of the novel is first evidenced in Fulgentius. In fact, it is first evidenced in Martianus Capella, who certainly wrote before Fulgentius. It would have been better to say ‘this allegorisation, first evidenced in Fulgentius, was facilitated by the story’s early separation from the rest of the novel’.