Orpheus occupies a strange space between god and mortal. He was the son of divinities yet not himself divine. He descended to hell and returned, yet he eventually died at the hands of mortal women. His head was ripped from his body, yet it never stopped singing. He symbolizes the paradoxical vulnerability of the artist and immortality of the art.
Orpheus was the greatest musician of antiquity. Talent ran in the family; he was the son of Apollo, god of light and music, and of Calliope, the eldest and most distinguished of the muses. (An alternate version has him the son of Thracian king Oeagrus.)
Orpheus was one of the Argonauts who accompanied Jason on his voyage to seek the Golden Fleece. When the sailors were tempted to throw themselves overboard in response to the sirens' deadly song, Orpheus saved them, playing his lyre so beautifully that no one listened to the girls.
On their wedding day, Orpheus's bride Eurydice stepped on a poisonous snake and died. Orpheus traveled down to the underworld to plead for her life. He sang his love before the thrones of hell. According to Bulfinch:
As he sang these tender strains, the very ghosts shed tears. Tantalus, in spite of his thirst, stopped for a moment his efforts for water, Ixion's wheel stood still, the vulture ceased to tear the giant's liver, the Daughters of Danaus rested from their task of drawing water in a sieve, and Sisyphus sat on his rock to listen. Then for the first time, it is said, the cheeks of the Furies were wet with tears. Proserpine herself could not resist, and Pluto himself gave way.
Eurydice was allowed to return to earth with her husband, on one condition: that he not turn around and look at her until they reached the surface. You can pretty much guess what happens next. For more on this, and on the beautiful Mark Morris production of Gluck's opera, see this earlier post.
Like most artists, bad luck in love was good for Orpheus's art. After Eurydice returned to hell for good, Orpheus shunned the company of women, taking up with young boys instead, and he spent most of his time wandering through the woods playing sad, sad songs. Most critics consider this Orpheus's best period, although surviving recordings are marred by the audible weeping of the recording engineers.
The career of this great performer was cut short by one of the worst audiences in history, The Maenads. These intoxicated female worshipers of Dionysus came upon Orpheus in the woods one day. Jealous of his preference for boys and scornful of his allegiance to orderly Apollo, the Maenads hurled rocks and stones at him. The rocks and stones refused to hurt him, since they were so moved by his music. So the women attacked Orpheus with their bare hands and mouths, rending him limb from limb. His severed head floated away down the stream, still singing.
We can all relate to Orpheus, those of us who try to make art, sleep with boys, bargain with death, or spend time alone without being harassed by drunks. It's no surprise that so many poems have been written about him.
I've been talking to my writing students about the anxiety of influence, about being scared to do something because it's already been done well by someone else. I've been telling them not to worry so much; there is always room for another excellent work in the world. So it inspired me to see this poem by Fergus Allen in a recent Harper's. He doesn't mind throwing his hat into the ring with Rilke and the rest. It might be tempting to think that Orpheus has been done to death, but there is always room for resurrection.
ORPHEUS by Fergus Allen (from Harper's magazine)
Crammed into packing cases, wrapped in plastic,
the limbs of dismembered masculine deities
are out of sight and do not call for tears.
Screaming and bitching fill the olive grove
and everyone is high on triviality.
The offered lips, the immaculate skin-
so you prefer the smell of own-sex sweat
to that of lion, do you? Well, so be it,
but I am dazzled by other illusions,
vision shifted into another clef.
Serial ism occupies my thoughts
and I foresee the ivy-berry trance
in which the raving maenads will disjoint me
because I've wept too hotly and too long.
So let it be done quickly, while I dance,
my remains serving to fatten the kites,
while my bare head floats singing down the
You will be one of the caring and sensitive;
there will be many prizes to be won
and enough testicled slaves in the field.
Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus by John William Waterhouse
SONNET TO ORPHEUS 2.13 by Rainer Maria Rilke, tr. H. Landman
Be ahead of all parting, as if it were
behind you, like the winter you just weathered.
Because among the winters there is one so endless winter,
that, overwintering it, your heart recovers altogether.
Be always dead in Eurydice - rise up singing,
rise up praising, once again concerned with purer matters.
Be here, among the dwindling, in the realm of leaning,
be a ringing glass, that in sounding swiftly shatters.
Be - but still know non-being's conditions,
the infinite foundation of your innermost vibration,
so you fulfill it fully in this only time around.
To all the used-up, silent stale provisions
of abundant nature, the unsayable summation,
count yourself in joyously and cancel out the count.