July 15 – Happy Birthday, Thomas Bulfinch

Posted on July 15, 2015

Myths and legends and folklore are often seen as a subject for study – they might appear in textbooks, tests, and college coursework – but Thomas Bulfinch collect these sorts of stories, “not as a study, but as a relaxation from study.”

Born in Massachusetts on this date in 1796, back when the United States was a young nation, Bulfinch wanted to create books that would help men and women to understand allusions made to myths by public speakers, poets, and other writers.

What is an allusion?

An allusion is either an indirect reference or a passing reference to something or someone, in an attempt to call to the hearer's (or reader's) mind complex ideas, images, or emotions.

A common sort of allusion is to say something like, “Tom's a total Einstein.” In this case, the speaker is referencing a well know real person, Albert Einstein. In alluding to Einstein in his description of Tom, the speaker tells us that Tom is really, really smart. We probably also get the idea that Tom is a genius, and the sort of genius who is brilliant at math and science, probably, rather than music or art.

Literary allusions often refer to the Bible or Shakespeare. A line in one of my favorite poems, “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost, alludes to a Bible story:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold. 
Her early leaf’s a flower; 
But only so an hour. 
Then leaf subsides to leaf. 
So Eden sank to grief, 
So dawn goes down to day. 
Nothing gold can stay.

The use of the place name “Eden” suggests that Frost is talking about perfection, purity, and idealism changing into something more practical and slightly soiled by mistakes and flaws.

Some allusions – both in everyday speech and in literature – refer to myths other than Bible stories. The Greek myths are perhaps the most famous. Here are a couple of examples:

[Everyday speech]: Opening the door to the frat house was like...well, you know, Pandora's box!

[Literature, from the play Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare:]

Mercutio: Take Cupid's wings and fly higher than the average man.

Romeo: His arrow has pierced me too deeply, so I can't fly high with his cheerful feathers.

Thomas Bullfinch wanted to make sure that men and women understood allusions to the Midas Touch, to Arcady, to the Knights of the Round Table, and so forth, so he made collections of stories in the mid-1800s:

Greek and Roman and Norse myths

Legends of King Arthur

Legends of Charlemagne

Since Bulfinch's collections of myths were especially designed to inform “genteel Americans” about everything they needed to know to quickly understand literary allusions, he made sure that the versions he used were correct. However, he removed what he considered unnecessary sex and violence.

  • To read the King Arthur legends, click through to “Sacred Texts.” 
Still in print, after all these years!

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