Eurydice the muse

Edward_Poynter_-_Orpheus_and_Eurydice

The great love story of Orpheus and Eurydice has been told many times.  It is a classic love tragedy and we see echoes of it in works like Romeo & Juliet.  Orpheus is given a magical lyre by his father Apollo and can charm the world with his music, bending anyone to his will.  When the love of his life, Eurydice, dies and goes to the underworld Orpheus descends to Hades and begs permission to bring his love back to life.  Hades and Persephone, charmed by his Lyre, agree to her return.  But Orpheus must lead her out without glancing back.  Unable to hear her footsteps his resolve breaks at the last moment and she is sucked back to the underworld.

HMS Eurydice was a British Navy ship which sank off the Isle of Wight on March 24th 1878, and represents one of the greatest peacetime disasters of the Royal Navy with the loss of 317 of the crew of 319.  The ship had one literary quirk being designed by Admiral George Eliot (not the writer).  Gerard Manley Hopkins, who returned to poetry with the “Wreck of the Deutchland” in 1875 at the direction of his superior was happy to pen “The Loss of the Eurydice” in 1878 to mark this event.

Eurydice continues to be a muse and her fate has become a theme for female poets.  The tale told from the perspective of Eurydice is of a woman escaping a relationship where Orpheus, with his magic lyre, held all the power.  In the painting by Poynter above Eurydice does not seem to be a willing participant.  Hades has been her liberation from Orpheus.  Eurydice becomes a symbol for women the world over who are escaping abusive relationships.

I give you two poems below, one from H.D. and another from Margaret Atwood.  I could also add Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive  “Go, walk out the door, don’t turn around now, you’re not welcome anymore”.

Eurydice; by H. D.

I

So you have swept me back,
I who could have walked with the live souls
above the earth,
I who could have slept among the live flowers
at last;

so for your arrogance
and your ruthlessness
I am swept back
where dead lichens drip
dead cinders upon moss of ash;

so for your arrogance
I am broken at last,
I who had lived unconscious,
who was almost forgot;

if you had let me wait
I had grown from listlessness
into peace,
if you had let me rest with the dead,
I had forgot you
and the past.

II

Here only flame upon flame
and black among the red sparks,
streaks of black and light
grown colourless;

why did you turn back,
that hell should be reinhabited
of myself thus
swept into nothingness?

why did you glance back?
why did you hesitate for that moment?
why did you bend your face
caught with the flame of the upper earth,
above my face?

what was it that crossed my face
with the light from yours
and your glance?
what was it you saw in my face?
the light of your own face,
the fire of your own presence?

What had my face to offer
but reflex of the earth,
hyacinth colour
caught from the raw fissure in the rock
where the light struck,
and the colour of azure crocuses
and the bright surface of gold crocuses
and of the wind-flower,
swift in its veins as lightning
and as white.

III

Saffron from the fringe of the earth,
wild saffron that has bent
over the sharp edge of earth,
all the flowers that cut through the earth,
all, all the flowers are lost;

everything is lost,
everything is crossed with black,
black upon black
and worse than black,
this colourless light.

IV

Fringe upon fringe
of blue crocuses,
crocuses, walled against blue of themselves,
blue of that upper earth,
blue of the depth upon depth of flowers,
lost;

flowers,
if I could have taken once my breath of them,
enough of them,
more than earth,
even than of the upper earth,
had passed with me
beneath the earth;

if I could have caught up from the earth,
the whole of the flowers of the earth,
if once I could have breathed into myself
the very golden crocuses
and the red,
and the very golden hearts of the first saffron,
the whole of the golden mass,
the whole of the great fragrance,
I could have dared the loss.

V

So for your arrogance
and your ruthlessness
I have lost the earth
and the flowers of the earth,
and the live souls above the earth,
and you who passed across the light
and reached
ruthless;

you who have your own light,
who are to yourself a presence,
who need no presence;

yet for all your arrogance
and your glance,
I tell you this:

such loss is no loss,
such terror, such coils and strands and pitfalls
of blackness,
such terror
is no loss;

hell is no worse than your earth
above the earth,
hell is no worse,
no, nor your flowers
nor your veins of light
nor your presence,
a loss;

my hell is no worse than yours
though you pass among the flowers and speak
with the spirits above earth.

VI

Against the black
I have more fervour
than you in all the splendour of that place,
against the blackness
and the stark grey
I have more light;

and the flowers,
if I should tell you,
you would turn from your own fit paths
toward hell,
turn again and glance back
and I would sink into a place
even more terrible than this.

VII

At least I have the flowers of myself,
and my thoughts, no god
can take that;
I have the fervour of myself for a presence
and my own spirit for light;

and my spirit with its loss
knows this;
though small against the black,
small against the formless rocks,
hell must break before I am lost;

before I am lost,
hell must open like a red rose
for the dead to pass.

-o0o-
Orpheus (1); by Margaret Atwood

You walked in front of me,
pulling me back out
to the green light that had once
grown fangs and killed me.

I was obedient, but
numb, like an arm
gone to sleep; the return
to time was not my choice.

By then I was used to silence.
Though something stretched between us
like a whisper, like a rope:
my former name,
drawn tight.
You had your old leash
with you, love you might call it,
and your flesh voice.

Before your eyes you held steady
the image of what you wanted
me to become: living again.
It was this hope of yours that kept me following.

I was your hallucination, listening
and floral, and you were singing me:
already new skin was forming on me
within the luminous misty shroud
of my other body; already
there was dirt on my hands and I was thirsty.

I could see only the outline
of your head and shoulders,
black against the cave mouth,
and so could not see your face
at all, when you turned

and called to me because you had
already lost me. The last
I saw of you was a dark oval.
Though I knew how this failure
would hurt you, I had to
fold like a gray moth and let go.

You could not believe I was more than your echo.

From Apollo to Pavlova flieth the swan.

Cygnus

When Apollo entered the world, sacred swans circled the island seven times for it was the seventh day of the month. At once Zeus lavished many gifts upon his son including a golden miter, a chariot drawn by swans, and a lyre since legend has it at birth Apollo said, “Dear to me shall be the lyre and bow, and in oracles I shall reveal to men the inexorable will of Zeus.”

Apollo is the Greek God of music and poetry, arts and archery amongst other things.  Swans were held to be sacred to him.  The most common swan in Europe was the mute swan, not quite mute, but not a renowned singer.  But legend held it that at the moment of death the Swan, finding itself moving closer to an afterlife with Apollo, would erupt into a beautiful funeral song.

So it is that we give the term swan song to a final performance.  One last great moment before retiring to anonymity.

The wild swan’s death-hymn took the soul
Of that waste place with joy
Hidden in sorrow: at first to the ear
The warble was low, and full and clear; …
But anon her awful jubilant voice,
With a music strange and manifold,
Flow’d forth on a carol free and bold;

The words of the Poet Laureate of Britain and Ireland, Alfed Lord Tennyson above inspired the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns to write Le cygne which is the central theme to the ballet, The Dying Swan which was performed by Anna Pavlova from 1905.  The Russian ballerina toured Australia and New Zealand in the 1920’s and sparked off a 90 year row between the two nations.  The argument was over which country invented the eponymous Pavlova dessert.  Oxford English Dictionary ruled in 2010 that based on analysis of cookbooks the dish originated in New Zealand.

And so to Gernald Stern, who celebrates his birthday today, sharing it with another great American poet; Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Swan Song; by Gerald Stern

A bunch of old snakeheads down by the pond
carrying on the swan tradition — hissing
inside their white bodies, raising and lowering their heads
like ostriches, regretting only the sad ritual
that forced them to waddle back into the water
after their life under the rocks, wishing they could lie again
in the sun

and dream of spreading their terrifying wings;
wishing, this time, they could sail through the sky like
horses,
their tails rigid, their white manes fluttering,
their mouths open, their sharp teeth flashing,
drops of mercy pouring from their eyes,
bolts of wisdom from their foreheads.