Five Ages

Jen Webb, Paul Munden, Paul Hetherington, Cassandra Atherton, Oz (Paul) Hardwick

Research output: Textual Creative WorksPoem/s


This year we have turned to an ancient myth to produce five sets of poems based on Hesiod’s ‘The Five Ages’ of what is widely translated as ‘Man’ (Hesiod 2006 [c.700 BCE]). Hesiod’s pattern of history is represented almost exclusively in terms of men’s experiences. In the few lines committed to the Five Ages (lines 109–201), there is no mention of women in the Golden Age; the idea of mother is mentioned in the Silver Age; nothing in the Bronze Age; a passing reference to ‘rich-haired Helen’ in the Heroic Age sequence; and at the end of the Iron Age, the goddesses Aidos and Nemesis ‘forsake mankind to join the company of the deathless gods’. It’s a history of men, but not one that celebrates the male of the species, and a similar vision emerges across the ancient texts, with Ovid (2001 [c.8 CE]: Book 1.89– 150) reiterating Hesiod’s account in his Metamorphoses. He similarly characterises history’s patterns in terms of four metals of diminishing value and increasing hardness: gold, silver, bronze and iron. Other world cultures too focus on men rather than women; and again depict the pattern of history as one of change and decline (Cairns 1971). For philologist David Adams Leeming, this is the standard script. ‘Many creation myths’, he writes, ‘regardless of basic type, tell the story of the failed creation or the fall of humanity’ (2010: 2). We—male humans, at least—begin history in the company of the gods. Then, through violence, venality or impiety, we end by slugging it out in a disenchanted world of diminishing peace, wisdom and justice. This bleak philosophy of human progress as decline (Archembauld 1966) is countered by a far more optimistic view that begins, arguably, with the European Enlightenment. Thomas Huxley’s Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature (1863), for instance, includes a frontispiece that presents a sequence of skeletons who move across the page, changing from ‘primitive’ to ‘sophisticated’. A different but related graphic appears in the much-parodied March of Progress, Rudolph Zallinger’s 1965 visual argument that traces a steady ‘improvement’ in humans: from hunched ape through clumsy Neanderthal to sophisticated, and vertical, modern man. As James Shreeve observes, the effect of this graphic is that ‘You watch humanity unfold like a flower, each ancestor the ripened promise of the one that came before’ (1995: 13): a sense of improvability that lives on in a Steven Pinker-style insistence that history just keeps getting better (Pinker et al. 2016). Poetry enters the story not only because that is where it starts, with Hesiod et al., but also because poetry is an artform committed to world-making. It is not poetry’s responsibility to make an argument for one or other story of origin, or to lay out a philosophy of history, but poetry is an art practice that is imbued with the capacity to report on, and represent, the world. In his Der Meridian, Paul Celan discussed poetry and world, and writes, ‘the poem is born dark: the result of a radical individuation, it is born as a piece of language, as far as language manages to be world, is loaded with world’ (in Joris 2005: 5). It is the world-weight of language that we five poets have explored in this sequence of poems. From the dreams of gold and its affordances, through to the monstrous masculinity of iron-men, the sequences explore ways of seeing and being that interrupt the notion of progress of history. The poets’ perspectives align with Roland Barthes’ definition of myth—that it is ‘a type of speech’ (Barthes 1972: 107, emphasis in original)—and picks various paths through such questions as: what speech?; what is spoken?; and, who speaks.
Original languageEnglish
Typeprose poetry
Media of outputbook
PublisherRecent Work Press
Number of pages164
Place of PublicationCanberra
ISBN (Print)9780645180831
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2021


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