On poetic reinterpretations of myth, and the artistic challenge of talking about national and global tragedies.
Set in 18th century France, the 2019 film “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” portrays the doomed love story of an artist, Marianne, and a woman named Heloise whose wedding portrait she has been hired to paint. During one scene, Heloise reads aloud the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and the two disagree on how to interpret Orpheus’s decision to turn back and gaze at Eurydice, thus causing her to die a second death.
To Heloise, Orpheus has made the “lover’s choice.” Overcome by his passion, he must see her again, even though he has been instructed not to. Marianne disagrees, saying that “he chooses the memory of her, that’s why he turns. He doesn’t make the lover’s choice, but the poet’s.”
Suddenly intrigued by this dichotomy of the characters’ reactions, I sought out other poetic interpretations of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. In the essay “Poetry and Dismemberment: Three Versions of Orpheus,” David Brooks explores the “poet’s choice” a bit more deeply:
I wonder if these are not some of the things encoded or puzzled over in the story of Orpheus’ turning: that it might not have been for love, but might have been a conscious choice between art and domestic comfort, connubial bliss – that Orpheus, foreseeing the possible loss of what had made his song so intense, chose instead to lose his Eurydice a second time. Chose art. And, of course, eventually paid an artist’s price.
Certainly it can be said that suffering is romanticized in the case of creative pursuits. The aches that move us to write may eventually bring about joy, catharsis, and community, but more importantly, hurting can make us feel as if we really do have something honest and valuable to say. When a choice arises between romantic love and love for one’s art, can the desire for interpersonal bonding outweigh an almost addictive reliance on self-sabotage and prolonged pain? Do we ever even have that choice at all?
“Orpheus” by Margaret Atwood chooses the interpretation of Eurydice as muse.
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.
This sense of detached ownership, Eurydice appearing as a spectral body doubly grounded below the earth and within her lover’s song, places her at Orpheus’s whim. She is embodied as the music, and so her form is in flux. New skin forms as a result of Orpheus’s mention of her. But she does not end that way, a woman shallowly loved and cast away for the sake of artistic vision. Despite centering Orpheus in the title, Atwood uses the text of the poem to afford Eurydice greater agency and awareness.
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.
Here, it is unclear whether or not Orpheus knows that he has already lost Eurydice before performing the act that banishes her back to Hades. He may believe, while turning, that he is making the lover’s choice, his feeling’s intensity making him forgivably impatient and foolish. Eurydice challenges this, at least within the private monologue that Atwood offers in her voice.
Orpheus’s inability to successfully rescue Eurydice and bring her back to life is the failure that the myth most plainly describes, but there is also his failure in losing her adoration. The effortlessly captivating legend, capable of beguiling animals and humans alike with his songs, ultimately could not charm the woman he wanted the most. He could not see her as anything more than tragic inspiration, and this proved a downfall for them both.
H.D.’s “Eurydice” sees the eponymous character similarly scorned, horrified by the selfishness of Orpheus’s final decision. In Section II of the poem, she questions him.
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?
This Eurydice feels that Orpheus has disrupted her peace, entering her place of rest only to fail at his singular duty— a duty which he himself has decided is the right one.
In the fifth section of the poem, she confronts him again, consistent repetition of words and phrases driving the mirrored duality of their intertwined fates.
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;
The true tragedy here is not Eurydice’s first death, but her second. The first one, an unfortunate snakebite, was a natural enough cause, delivering her into a restful final state. Orpheus’s murder of her drives her deeply into anger. But satisfyingly, through this anger, she does achieve a rebirth.
The seventh and final portion of the poem confirms this.
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.
Despite Orpheus’s futile attempt at delivering her, she is able to become saved in her own right. Without the flowers coaxed into life from the music of his lyre, she tends to flowers of her own making, her spirit becoming immortal by its own volition. These feminist retellings of Eurydice’s side of the story are powerful reclamations. She asserts herself, not to him, but to the all-encompassing dark. Going beyond Orpheus’s cultivation and control of life, she chooses what to do, then, with her death.
I am intrigued by the ways in which these poets sympathize with Eurydice when we can be, too, as single-minded as Orpheus, brimming with the hope of expression and sacrificing anything in our paths to achieve it. This is not to imply that the interpretations I mentioned are disingenuous, but I want to say a bit more on the responsibility that is necessary when creating art that involves other people.
How many of us have our own Eurydices, appearing beautifully in the lush breaths of our work while seething with anger or pain in a place that the work accidentally or purposely obscures? In this space of creation, I can dictate the causes of my pain. Narratives can end how and where I want them to end, and I can construct a litany of new beginnings that have no existing counterpart in the real world. This is a power that must be dealt with thoughtfully.
In the essay I mentioned before, David Brooks recalls “being on several occasions deeply disturbed by the way one or another of them [writers] exploited the confidences and sufferings of those closest to them.” I also encounter this struggle when trying to write poetry that confronts the violence of our society, wanting to treat tragedies with due respect while feeling a strong internal pull to just say something, anything, to convey my care. No art is apolitical, so why am I not shouting or mourning or demanding change in every verse? This voice, I am told, is important. How can I best use it?
It’s an interesting conundrum. My chosen course of action at the moment is to decenter myself as much as possible. A mourning country doesn’t need a slew of rushed, cliche poems in the wake of every misfortune just because we are too selfish to find some better way of speaking up. But at the same time, all of us deserve a place to put our anger, our disgust, our growing sadness.
I don’t want poems in response to [insert tragedy, we’ve got a lot to choose from right now] to be written off as hollow examples of virtue signaling. The point I tried to make in my newsletter issue about the use of Black imagination in poems is that there is very real healing that comes from engaging with tragedy. Invoking the names and experiences of those whose lives were prematurely ended by a system that never intended to protect them is powerful. It’s necessary.
My discomfort comes in when audiences ask artists to exploit and capitalize on situations of violence, to turn away from the stages of grief and get cracking on some new creative project that will tell us what we all already know: that things need to change. I am reminded again of Hanif Abdurraqib’s “How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This?” series. Today, I am thinking specifically of the gross tweets aimed at Quinta Brunson, creator of the show Abbott Elementary, demanding her to include a school shooting plot line in the next season (which also speaks to the constant expectation of Black women to lead the cause and educate everyone else, regardless of what their personal or creative objectives actually are).
I’m not usually one to include a call to action, but I want to offer some suggestions here. Follow and engage with women, trans and queer people, racial and ethnic minorities, disabled people— but don’t expect them to make their trauma the sole source or product of their creativity. Do not be disappointed when we write a poem about flowers, or a workplace comedy, or a love song instead.
One of my favorite verses on the new Kendrick Lamar record comes from a track called “Savior.” I’m including it here because it illustrates my point, and I’m not quite sure how else to end this piece when so much more could and should be discussed.
Kendrick made you think about it, but he is not your savior. Cole made you feel empowered, but he is not your savior. Future said, “Get a money counter,” but he is not your savior. ‘Bron made you give his flowers, but he is not your savior. He is not your savior.