Friday, November 19, 2010

Orpheus & Eurydice (Georgics, IV. 453-526)

My dilettantish enthusiasm for the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice was spontaneously generated last week by my reading the death of Orpheus in The Metamorphoses.  So this week I'm informally comparing Virgil's resplendent tragic version in the Georgics  (76 lines) with Ovid's longer, more baroque and embellished version (105 lines in Book X and yet more about Orpheus's death in Book XI). Virgil's Georgics was published first in 29 B.C. and Ovid's Metamorphoses not till 8 A.D.  Ovid cleverly feeds on and alludes to Virgil's solemn, more abbreviated poem, even borrowing vocabulary.  Both versions are gorgeous, but different in emphasis. Virgil's Orpheus is a hero who weeps under a cliff for seven months after his wife's death. Ovid's delivers a long rhetorical somehow insincere-sounding speech in the underworld to persuade Persephone to free Eurydice, and, after she dies again, remains a widower but bitterly has gay love affairs.  

In Virgil's version, when Orpheus goes singing in the underworld to free Eurydice,  "Death's house itself and the bottom of Tartarus and the Eumenides with their hair entwined with blue snakes were stunned."  The verb is stupere, "were struck senseless, astounded, stupefied, stopped."  In Ovid, Ixion's wheel stupuit, "was struck, stopped."  The wheel in Virgil constitit "stood still," a less ostentatious verb.

Virgil has some sympathy for Orpheus. 

Cum subita incautam dementia cepit amantem

"When sudden madness caught the incautious lover..."

Note the synchysis, the sudden madness that captures him incautam (incautious).

But Virgil also sympathizes with Eurydice.  She says (literally):
"Who killed both you and miserable me, Orpheus, what madness?  Behold, the cruel fates call me back and sleep hides my failing eyes."  She refers to his madness not as insania but as furor: rage, madness, fury, passion.  Virgil, who calls it dementia ("down from mind), emphasizes insanity, madness. Eurydice's life is ruined by insania/furor.

In Ovid all is rhetorical, charming, and witty.  Eurydice says nothing but "goodbye."

Iamque iterum moriens non est coniuge quicquam
Questa suo (quid enim nisi se quereretur amatam?)

"And now dying again she did not complain of her husband (for what was there to complain except that she was loved?)..."

Salman Rushdie in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, his novelistic telling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, refers to Virgil's version.  

"Virgil's treatment of the Orpheus story is extraordinary:  he tells it in seventy-six blazing lines, writing with all the stops pulled dout, and then, in a perfunctory thirty lines more, he allows Aristaeus to perform his expiatory ritual sacrifice, and that's the end of the poem, no more need to worry about those foolish doomed lovers."

In the end I'm not sure which myth I prefer.


  1. Ovid was enormously popular in the Renaissance. My feeling is today those people who would read both authors would probably (like Rushdie appears to) prefer Virgil. We like the Gluck opera; I have retained a memory of hearing Janet Baker since this extraordinarily moving aria as Orpheus, with that line: what shall I do without my wife?

    But then there's Carol Ann Duffy's "The Big O:"

    Girls, I was dead and down
    in the Underworld, a shade,
    a shadow of my former self, nowhen.
    It was a place where language stopped,
    a black full stop, a black hole
    where words had to come to an end.
    And end they did there,
    last words,
    famous or not.
    It suited me down to the ground.
    So imagine me there,
    out of this world,
    then picture my face in that place
    of Eternal Repose,
    in the one place you'd think a girl would be safe
    from the kind of a man
    who follows her round
    writing poems,
    hovers about
    while she reads them,
    calls her His Muse,
    and once sulked for a night and a day
    because she remarked on his weakness for abstract nouns.
    Just picture my face
    when I heard -
    Ye Gods -
    a familiar knock-knock-knock at Death's door.

    Big O.
    Larger than life.
    With his lyre
    and a poem to pitch, with me as the prize.

    Things were different back then.
    For the men, verse-wise,
    Big O was the boy. Legendary.
    The blurb on the back of his books claimed
    that animals,
    aardvark to zebra,
    flocked to his side when he sang,
    fish leapt in their shoals
    at the sound of his voice,
    even the mute, sullen stones at his feet
    wept wee, silver tears.

    Bollocks. (I'd done all the typing myself,
    I should know.)
    And given my time all over again,
    rest assured that I'd rather speak for myself
    than be Dearest, Beloved, Dark Lady, White Goddess, etc., etc.

    In fact, girls, I'd rather be dead.

    But the Gods are like publishers, usually male,
    and what you doubtless know of my tale
    is the deal.

    Orpheus strutted his stuff.

    The bloodless ghosts were in tears.
    Sisyphus sat on his rock for the first time in years.
    Tantalus was permitted a couple of beers.

    The woman in question could scarcely believe her ears.

    Like it or not,
    I must follow him back to our life -
    Eurydice, Orpheus' wife -
    to be trapped in his images, metaphors, similes,
    octaves and sextets, quatrains and couplets,
    elegies, limericks, villanelles,
    histories, myths . . .

    He'd been told that he mustn't look back
    or turn round,
    but walk steadily upwards,
    myself right behind him,
    out of the Underworld
    into the upper air that for me was the past.
    He'd been warned
    that one look would lose me
    for ever and ever.

    So we walked, we walked.
    Nobody talked.

    Girls, forget what you've read.
    It happened like this -
    I did everything in my power
    to make him look back.
    What did I have to do, I said,
    to make him see we were through?
    I was dead. Deceased.
    I was Resting in Peace. Passe. Late.
    Past my sell-by date .. .
    I stretched out my hand
    to touch him once
    on the back of his neck.
    Please let me stay.
    But already the light had saddened from purple to grey.

    It was an uphill schlep
    from death to life
    and with every step
    I willed him to turn.
    I was thinking of filching the poem
    out of his cloak,
    when inspiration finally struck.
    I stopped, thrilled.
    He was a yard in front.
    My voice shook when I spoke -
    "Orpheus, your poem's a masterpiece.
    I'd love to hear it again .. ."

    He was smiling modestly
    when he turned,
    when he turned and he looked at me.

    What else?
    I noticed he hadn't shaved.
    I waved once and was gone.

    The dead are so talented.
    The living walk by the edge of a vast lake
    near the wise, drowned silence of the dead.

    (from _The World's Wife_)

  2. What a great poem! Thank you so much. I haven't read Carol Ann Duffy.

    Virgil or Ovid? They're so different. Few read The Georgics anymore. Most of the myths come down to us through Ovid, but Duffy's does have a Virgilian ring: Eurydice speaks for herserlf.