So, I think by virtue of the fact that I often come across poems on social media and the web, I have (broadly speaking) managed to cover predominantly modern poems by living poets. The dead don’t get much play here, except for the recently departed. There’s nothing wrong with that, and that tends to be my focus anyway: what’s happening now, not so much what happened before. That doesn’t mean I pay no attention to the classics or the past, of course I do – without historical context, you will only be seeing part of the picture – it’s just that with very little time on my hands and a modern aesthetic of my own, framed by the times, I don’t go out of my way to seek out those older works.
This week, Rilke’s poem “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes” was suggested to me, and though it has the feel of a flowery ballad, not at all what I seek out in poetry, it nonetheless grabbed me with its beauty, its effortless language. If you’re not familiar with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, here’s a quick primer: Orpheus was a legendary musician whose lament at his wife’s death (Eurydice) was so moving that Zeus granted him permission to go to Hades to see her again. There, his music once again was so great that it moved a god, and Hades said he would relinquish his claim on Eurydice soul and allow her to return to life. The catch? As she followed Orpheus back to the land of the living, he could not turn back, not even once to see her. If he did, she would be gone forever.
The poem begins (as translated by Stephen Mitchell):
That was the deep uncanny mine of souls.
Like veins of silver ore, they silently
moved through its massive darkness. Blood welled up
among the roots, on its way to the world of men,
and in the dark it looked as hard as stone.
Nothing else was red.
Aside from its immediate sombre atmosphere, there is a lilting scale to the language, a soft near rhyme which propels you along. In the first two stanzas, Rilke effortlessly establishes the underworld as a tangible landscape before even introducing his characters:
In front, the slender man in the blue cloak —
mute, impatient, looking straight ahead.
In large, greedy, unchewed bites his walk
devoured the path; his hands hung at his sides,
tight and heavy, out of the failing folds,
no longer conscious of the delicate lyre
which had grown into his left arm, like a slip
of roses grafted onto an olive tree.
“In large, greedy, unchewed bites/ his walk devoured the path.” Fuck that’s good. It says everything you need to know about Orpheus’ state of mind, his desperation to get out of there so he can turn and see his wife, know for sure she’s even there and that this isn’t some cruel trick played by the gods (which, being notorious dicks, they were known to do).
They had to be behind him, but their steps
were ominously soft. If only he could
turn around, just once (but looking back
would ruin this entire work, so near
completion), then he could not fail to see them,
those other two, who followed him so softly:
I love this little passage, especially the parenthesis – I like to think it’s a little meta note on his part, a reminder to himself that he couldn’t stop now when he was midway through the poem, couldn’t go back to edit or rearrange, he had to push on lest it all be for nought. There’s a lesson in that for all of us. And then came the introduction to Eurydice, a shift to her perspective which is where the heart of the poem lies, the depth of the romanticism as well as the meaning, the exploration of death.
A woman so loved that from one lyre there came
more lament than from all lamenting women;
that a whole world of lament arose, in which
all nature reappeared: forest and valley,
road and village, field and stream and animal;
and that around this lament-world, even as
around the other earth, a sun revolved
and a silent star-filled heaven, a lament-
heaven, with its own, disfigured stars —:
So greatly was she loved.
“a sun revolved/and a silent star-filled heaven, a lament-/heaven, with its own, disfigured stars –“. Now there’s a line worth repeating endlessly. The alliteration, carrying the ‘s’ sound without leaning on it too hard; the stunning image of disfigured stars. This is the kind of Poetry with a capital P that people often think of when the subject is brought up, and with good reason, given how much of it was written over the course of hundreds of years. The grandeur of emotion; the discovery anew of the world and nature through grief. With any kind of mass saturation, what follows the initially successful work which captured the imagination of readers is inevitably weaker.
But now she walked beside the graceful god,
her steps constricted by the trailing graveclothes,
uncertain, gentle, and without impatience.
She was deep within herself, like a woman heavy
with child, and did not see the man in front
or the path ascending steeply into life.
Deep within herself. Being dead
filled her beyond fulfillment. Like a fruit
suffused with its own mystery and sweetness,
she was filled with her vast death
I love this idea of being deep within yourself, and I think many people, but especially writers, will be familiar with this sense of falling away from the world. Of being rooted in Self, in the inner world whence your feelings and thoughts come, and not wanting to or not being able to leave it. I also love the idea that with death comes fulfillment, its certainty is so great, there is no room for anything else. Too often afterlives are painted in pictures of endless torment or endless pleasure and neither of those things seems to me to be particularly appealing; as human beings, we abhor sameness, and thanks to the gift of consciousness are always aware that everything is changing around us.
The other option tends to be purgatory, which is another kind of punishment. But here, the afterlife begins and ends in death, such is the totality of it – nothing else is needed. Nonetheless a consciousness remains, an awareness and understanding of the state you exist in. It is, in short, like life: when you occupy it, the fullness of it is bursting within you. Things change around you, and you struggle to retain a grasp on the big picture, constantly assaulted not just by the world itself and the advance of time, but also your memories, everything flitting between your grasping fingers. Here, Eurydice is consumed by the state of her existence, unable to grasp what once was but content also in the now. There is a peace in now for all of us, the living and the dead, if only we could learn to live without greedily wrapping it between before and after.
That was my takeaway, anyway – it’s midnight now, and I’m not sure if I’ve conveyed my meaning well enough, but either way I hope I will have convinced you to read this moving poem about life and love and loss, memory and mortality.
Kat Jenkins Not sure why this poem would lead someone to expect a flowery ballad. That said, it's indeed amazing. It's worth learning German to read it as Rilke wrote it. Stephen Mitchell is a phenomenal translator of Rilke, don't bother with anyone else: but translating any form of literature results in (often obfuscating) compromises.
Kat Jenkins His description of the underworld: Felsen waren da und wesenlose Wälder. Brücken über Leeres und jener große graue blinde Teich, der über seinem fernen Grunde hing wie Regenhimmel über einer Landschaft. That image stops me in my tracks every time: "That great grey blind lake that hung over its distant bottom Like a rainy sky over a landscape."