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.

Lefort disaster

Lefort wreck

Wreck of the Lefort by Ivan Alvazovsky

On this day in 1857 the Russian ship of the line Lefort was lost in a squall en route from Tallinn to St Petersburg. She went down with 756 crew, 53 wives and 17 children.  Press reported that there was 1 survivor.

Rated for 84 guns she carried 95 which would make her top heavy.  The board of enquiry noted that her cargo was not balanced properly so she did not have enough ballast low down in the hull to help the ship right herself.  When the squall struck she leaned hard over.  There was speculation that the gun ports were open to provide ventilation, in which case they would have allowed the water to flood in as she heeled.  This is exactly how the Mary Rose is thought to have floundered.

A shipping disaster in a far away sea a long time ago comes sharply into focus when your own son is travelling on a ferry on the very anniversary en route from Helsinki to Tallinn, through the same waters, with a storm warning in place.

Excerpt from “The Loss Of The Eurydice”; by Gerard Manley Hopkins

9

Too proud, too proud, what a press she bore!
Royal, and all her royals wore.
Sharp with her, shorten sail!
Too late; lost; gone with the gale.

10

This was that fell capsize,
As half she had righted and hoped to rise
Death teeming in by her portholes
Raced down decks, round messes of mortals.

11

Then a lurch forward, frigate and men;
‘All hands for themselves’ the cry ran then;
But she who had housed them thither
Was around them, bound them or wound them with her.

 

John Ashbery RIP

John Ashbery

I joked on his last birthday, at the age of 90, how frustrating it must be for the greatest living poet in the USA to share a birthday with Gerard Manley Hopkins.  Sadly Ashbery passed away yesterday, and to add insult to injury he bought the farm on the anniversary of the death of none other than E.E.Cummings.

The beauty for Ashbery was to be so exalted in his lifetime.  His genius was well recognized and celebrated.  Students of poetry will be unraveling his work for centuries to come.  For today we can empathise that if life is a dream this dream has ended and yet has not.

Life is a Dream; by John Ashbery

A talent for self-realization
will get you only as far as the vacant lot
next to the lumber yard, where they have rollcall.
My name begins with an A,
so is one of the first to be read off.
I am wondering where to stand – could that group of three
or four others be the beginning of the line?

Before I have the chance to find out, a rodent-like
man pushes at my shoulders. “It’s that way,” he hisses. “Didn’t they teach you
anything at school? That a photograph
of anything can be real, or maybe not? The corner of the stove,
a cloud of midges at dusk-time.”

I know I’ll have a chance to learn more
later on. Waiting is what’s called for, meanwhile.
It’s true that life can be anything, but certain things
definitely aren’t it. This gloved hand,
for instance, that glides
so securely into mine, as though it intends to stay.

 

Happy Birthday Gerard Manley Hopkins

PeterRabbit8

It must be rough to be a poet of the scale and stature of John Ashbery, to have won every award worth winning, to rise to the very height of your profession and then to find each year that your birthday is best remembered for a master of your craft who died before you were born.  Hopkins was born on this day in 1844 and died in 1889.  Ashbery was born in 1927 and celebrates his birthday under a weight of Hopkins credits.

If that’s not bad enough Beatrix Potter was also born on this day in 1866 which is why Peter Rabbit gets the picture credit.  As a gardener of course I am no friend of Peter Rabbit, nasty large eared rat with a short tail that he is.  I’m with the Farmer on this one.

I love Hopkins because I think he was one of the first writers who grasped the song of word, how the word itself can craft the poem.  James Joyce brought this understanding to prose but Hopkins gave it to Poetry.  The power of words has increasingly been recognized in fields of study such as neurolinguistic programming and nominative determinism.  This poem is an excellent example of how he plays with the word sounds to capture the echo of birdsong through the wood.

The Woodlark; by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Teevo cheevo cheevio chee:
O where, what can tháat be?
Weedio-weedio: there again!
So tiny a trickle of sóng-strain;
and all round not to be found
for brier, bough, furrow, or gréen ground
before or behind or far or at hand
either left either right
anywhere in the súnlight.
well, after all! Ah but hark—
‘I am the little wóodlark.
. . . . . . . .
To-day the sky is two and two
with white strokes and strains of the blue
. . . . . . . .
Round a ring, around a ring
and while I sail (must listen) I sing
. . . . . . . .
The skylark is my cousin and he
is known to men more than me
. . . . . . . .
…when the cry within
says Go on then I go on
till the longing is less and the good gone

Tut down drop, if it says Stop,
to the all-a-leaf of the tréetop
and after that off the bough
. . . . . . . .
I ám so véry, O soó very glad
that I dó thínk there is not to be had…
. . . . . . . .
The blue wheat-acre is underneath
and the braided ear breaks out of the sheath,
the ear in milk, lush the sash,
and crush-silk poppies aflash,
the blood-gush blade-gash
flame-rash rudred
bud shelling or broad-shed
tatter-tassel-tangled and dingle-a-dangled
dandy-hung dainty head.
. . . . . . . .
And down … the furrow dry
sunspurge and oxeye
and laced-leaved lovely
foam-tuft fumitory
. . . . . . . .
Through the velvety wind V-winged
to the nest’s nook I balance and buoy
with a sweet joy of a sweet joy,
sweet, of a sweet, of a sweet joy
of a sweet—a sweet—sweet—joy.’

For the love of poetry?

Leaving Certificate Exam, English literature paper is sat today in Ireland.  All those lucky students are now scanning their notes for the last time to remember the nugget that will land them an extra few points.  Have you tended your garden of knowledge well?  What was it that Iago said about Virtue and Figs?

“Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens to the which our wills are gardeners.”             Othello, Shakespeare

Each year students in their tens of thousands play dice with the poetry syllabus.  They are given eight poets to study.  Eight wonderful poets with beautiful rich compositions.  Eight leading lights to brighten the dark corridors of your existence.  What do students do?  Study all eight?  No way.  They play dice, and gamble on how few they can study and land a question they can answer.

This year the poets are Paul Durcan, Elizabeth Bishop, T.S. Eliot, Eavan Boland, Sylvia Plath, John Donne, John Keats and Gerard Manley Hopkins.  Durcan, Bishop and Eliot came up last year, so unlikely to resurface.

There is usually a woman, so Plath is hot favourite.  There is always an Irish poet, so Boland is a favourite.  Fingernails are being chewed to the quick as the minutes tick by!  What do those mermaids have to do with the musical “Cats”?  Oh God, my teacher told me this……………..

 

The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock; by T.S. Eliot

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;

Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair —
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin —
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?

And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?

 

And how should I begin?
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? …
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep … tired … or it malingers,

 

Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it towards some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,

Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all.”
And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—

And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—

Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind?   Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.