LEON BURNETT: Orphic Reflections

Orpheus sings! With this statement at the start of his Sonnets to Orpheus, Rainer Maria Rilke sets in train a sequence of poems celebrating the mythological figure of Greek antiquity and his beloved companion, Eurydice. More an exclamation than a statement – O Orpheus sings! – Rilke’s words testify to the enduring significance of the magical song of Orpheus. But what kind of song is it that Orpheus sings?

Above all, it’s a seductive song. It has the power to charm, to charm the whole of nature and even what lies beyond the reach of nature in the underworld, yet as with all music it has finally to acknowledge its limits, like those other dark melodies of Ancient Greece on the lips of the Sirens and the Sphinx. The Sirens and the Sphinx, however, are defeated by the cunningness of the male intelligence, whereas Orpheus, in the end, is defeated by the passivity and invisibility of Eurydice.

The myth of Orpheus is as much about transformation as it is about loss. Eurydice is lost to Orpheus because death has transformed her just as death will later transform Orpheus himself into a singing head. Their fates are those of elemental beings: Eurydice is claimed by the fertile earth – in Rilke’s earlier poem “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes” she takes root and her sex is compared to a young flower – and Orpheus, following his dismemberment (or sparagmos, to give it its Greek name), is claimed by the flowing waters as his head floats towards Lesbos, still singing.

The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice with its accentuation of the themes of loss and transformation shares interesting features with what we might call the textual sparagmos and subsequent recovery of voice that occurs in the act of literary translation. The process of translation may be viewed either as transformation or as loss, depending on one’s perspective. In an article I wrote some ten years ago on two poet-translators and contemporaries of Rilke, the Russian Osip Mandelstam and the Hungarian Miklós Radnóti, the latter of whom published in 1943 a collection of translated poetry entitled In Orpheus’ Footsteps, I made use of what I called an “Orphic analogy”.

The article (“Languages (un)twinned”) appeared in Translation and Literature, vol. 12, and was about the paradoxical twinning and un-twinning of languages that is part of the act of literary translation. In it I offered a mythic theory of translation. The following is an extract from the piece:

The process that leads to the recovery of poetic form in another language, that results in what Benjamin calls the afterlife of the original, which, if we adopt the Orphic analogy, involves a state of self-annihilation, may also be understood as an act of untwinning, or differentiation. Yet “self-annihilation” does not capture the entirety of the process of transformation in all its complexity. For in the metamorphosis of the poetic text, annihilation takes place only on the surface (in the change from one language into another), whereas in the depths the essence of the poem (the non-verbal “inner image” or “original” orphic melody in the ur-language) is retained. The interplay between the surface and the depths, between destruction and preservation, has the effect of making the boundaries separating the poem and its translation phantasmal. The (un)twinned poems co-exist.

As soon as a transformation is completed and a new poem comes into being, the old poem, or original text, is forgotten once it is fully embedded in the “afterlife” of the translation. Or, to observe the distinction set out above, what existed on the surface is annihilated, dismembered; but what lay in the depths is retained, remembered. […] The assimilation of the old poem in the new is perceived simultaneously as a twinning and an untwinning of two languages: a twinning in that the essence of what was expressed in the original language still survives in the transformed text and an untwinning in that it is literally left behind. The poems co-exist (un)twinned. [...]

The figure on the brink of self-annihilation is a recurrent one in Modernist writing, embodied on the one hand in the pseudo-Orphic impersonation of a Marlow as he returns from the “heart of darkness” and, on the other hand, in a Young Fate [in Paul Valéry’s poem, “La jeune Parque”] invigorated by the morning-light. In each case, horror is averted at the very last moment. [...] The translation is that which emerges from an inner potentia, or centre of force, that is created through the interaction of two languages. What, directly or indirectly saves the individual, is the resource of language. That resource, when it comes to poetry and its translations, draws upon the “musical” quality Modernist poets called “measure” and Benjamin “harmony”.

Valéry, I also noted, wrote in Idée fixe that “At any given moment in his life each of us is a system of … potential attractions and repulsions, as well as of … inner sensations of force and resistance […] the changing pattern is what we most essentially are.” The backward glance of Orpheus may be seen as a tacit admission that two possibilities existed (Eurydice was following him, Eurydice was not following him). In that moment of hesitation, he acknowledged the existence of two worlds (one which is and one which is not) … and Eurydice was lost to him.

What kind of loss was it? It was the loss of a loved one, a loss of love itself. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice has been regarded alongside those of Romeo and Juliet and Tristan and Isolde, but it is different. The story of Romeo and Juliet appeals to history as witness and the tale of Tristan and Isolde to legend; the former is known through a work of theatrical drama and the latter through a work of chivalric romance. They are confined, as it were, to their specific works, but Orpheus and Eurydice are not: they belong to myth, which is free to spread across genres, even if the preference in this instance, as in Rilke’s sonnets, is for poetry. There is another circumstance, and a most important one, that distinguishes their fates from those of Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Isolde. These other romantic lovers are united by death, whereas Orpheus and Eurydice are divided in death. Twice.

Eurydice, or so we are told by Rilke, accepts her death as a new virginity. Hades accommodates her; she is resigned to her loss. Orpheus is not that way inclined and his loss is thereby doubled. He loses his wife and he loses interest in his art. Even if he does not lose his art entirely, its force is diminished and he loses his power over nature, which cannot save him from the fury of the Maenads. His head carries on singing to the end, but only after it has been separated from his heart.

Crucial to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is the moment when Orpheus looks back on his return from the Underworld and loses his wife. Could this moment, however, be a case of wishful thinking or even wilful distortion? After all, transformation is the soul of myth. Instead of an unquestioning acceptance of the canonical version, then, I propose that we should at least entertain the possibility that Orpheus lost Eurydice because he didn’t look back. His journey had been so full of wonder, so full of strange sights and creatures, three-headed dogs and the like, that this poor mortal, a mere human albeit a poet and therefore especially responsive (too responsive?) to nature, living and dead, nature morte as the French say, still life, that he simply forgot why he had ventured into Hades.

In Orphic literature, Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, is regarded ambivalently (“For thine the task according to thy will,/ Life to produce, and all that lives to kill” in Thomas Taylor’s translation of The Initiations of Orpheus). She has even been considered the mother of the Furies, and with good reason, for she has the power to cause oblivion. Theognis, in one of his poems, refers to her as “Persephone who impairs the mind of mortals and brings them forgetfulness”. Orpheus, then, in unfamiliar surroundings simply forgot about Eurydice and mythmakers have attempted ever since Virgil composed his Georgics to cover the traces of this lapse by asserting the opposite, namely that she was too much in his mind and so he looked back. In support of a reversal of the canonical account, one may cite instances elsewhere in mythology of how a true state of affairs is expressed – or suppressed – by a statement to the contrary. The Furies, for example, are referred to as the Eumenides, the Kindly Ones.

Another approach to the issue is to look at a parallel story in Japanese mythology of the descent into the underworld by a husband (Izanagi) in quest of his dead wife (Izanami). In this story, despite the bewildering paraphernalia of the supernatural, there are certain details that ring true. It is so dark in Yomi (the Japanese equivalent of Hades) that Izanagi is unable to see his wife clearly as he implores her to come back with him to the world of the living. She informs him that she will seek permission to return (for, like Persephone, she has eaten the food of the underworld) and forbids him to look at her. After waiting a long time for a response, Izanagi, carrying a burning torch and disregarding the prohibition against setting his eyes on her, seeks out the sleeping Izanami, but he is horrified to find a decomposing corpse and flees without stopping, as we may safely conjecture, to look back at his wife. Izanami had been awakened, however, and sends the hags of Yomi in pursuit of him. Izanagi barely manages to reach the mouth of the cave that leads out into the everyday world and to roll a massive boulder across the opening before his wife arrives at the other side of the rock, threatening him with dire consequences. They have a slanging match, but Izanagi escapes safely, while Izanami remains with the dead.

This simplified (and severely curtailed) account of the unsuccessful recovery of a beloved spouse offers an ur-scenario that has at least as much credibility as the one embodied in the tradition that presents Orpheus as having lost Eurydice by virtue of his failure to obey an injunction not to look back, a tradition which may be traced to Roman times, and is not encountered before the poetry of Virgil and Ovid. Indeed, in one earlier Greek version, the name of Orpheus’ wife was not Eurydice, meaning “wide justice”, first used by Moschus in the second century before the Christian era, but Agriope, which may be translated as “fierce watcher”. Combine this aspect of the Eurydice figure with the frenzied homicide of the Thracian Maenads and you have a composite female threat to Orpheus that is on a par with the pursuit of Izanagi by the menacing Izanami and her horde of hags.

Details of the darkness of the underworld and the decomposition of the dead body in the Japanese version are more plausible in the circumstances and they lend a sense of realism to the story being told, but, to revert to an earlier comparison, it may be that our western sensibilities prefer to have the bitter-sweet romances of Tristan and Isolde, of Romeo and Juliet, and of Orpheus and Eurydice to counterbalance the current craze for rampant vampires. In choosing not to look back to darker times, we are thus able to accommodate a poignant image that is more to our liking, a nymph for the new millennium, and not return empty handed as Orpheus did.



Dr Leon Burnett is former Director of the Centre for Myth Studies at the University of Essex (2008-2014). His research and publications are mainly in Comparative Literature and Mythology. He was the main editor of the British Comparative Literature Association’s house journal, New Comparison, for eight years (1992-2000) and, more recently, he has co-edited three books: The Art of Accommodation: Literary Translation in Russia (2013), Myth, Literature, and the Unconscious (2013), and Translating Myth (2016).




    […] Leon Burnett (reader at University of Essex, writer, translator) discussed his interest in the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and made some suggestions for revisions of the popular version. (To read Leon’s text, click here: Orphic Reflectionss […]


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