Poetry from the 20th Century

These modern poems explore Eurydice’s side of the tale more. They imagine what it was like in the underworld and the effect it had on Eurydice making her appear more complex and pitiable.

Margaret Atwood’s “Eurydice”

This is written in the second person and it is addressing Eurydice. The speaker tells her that Orpheus has come back to get her. Here is an excerpt:

You would rather have gone on feeling nothing,
emptiness and silence; the stagnant peace
of the deepest sea, which is easier
than the noise and flesh of the surface.

You are used to these blanched dim corridors,
you are used to the king
who passes you without speaking.

The other one is different
and you almost remember him.
He says he is singing to you
because he loves you,

not as you are now,
so chilled and minimal: moving and still
both, like a white curtain blowing
in the draft from a half-opened window
beside a chair on which nobody sits.

In this section of the poem it is apparent that Eurydice has actually become used to the underworld. It as if it has changed her in some irreparable way. She no longer remembers Orpheus, or loving him. This differs from Ovid’s version because it explains what the underworld did to Eurydice. In Metamorphoses there is no way to discern what has happened to Eurydice or if she has changed at all. Because of her blankness, Atwood is able to give her own interpretation of the woman and in doing so provides better insight into Eurydice’s character.

Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes”

Rilke’s poem tells the Orpheus and Eurydice tale from the point when Orpheus is leaving the underworld with Hermes and Eurydicce following behind. Here is the description of Eurydice:

She was in herself. And her being-dead
filled her with abundance.
As a fruit with sweetness and darkness,
so she was full with her vast death,
that was so new, she comprehended nothing.

She was in a new virginity
and untouchable: her sex was closed
like a young flower at twilight,
and her hands had been weaned so far
from marriage that even the slight god’s
endlessly gentle touch, as he led,
hurt her like too great an intimacy.

She was no longer that blonde woman,
sometimes touched on in the poet’s songs,
no longer the wide bed’s scent and island,
and that man’s possession no longer.

She was already loosened like long hair,
given out like fallen rain,
shared out like a hundredfold supply.

She was already root.

And when suddenly
the god stopped her and, with anguish in his cry,
uttered the words: ‘He has turned round’ –
she comprehended nothing and said softly: ‘Who?’

The poem shows that Eurydice has not only become accustomed to her new situation, but also seems to have taken on a new sort of “life.” She is described as almost being renewed or reborn in death. And with this renewal she no longer remembers her old life and why she is leaving her new one. This makes it appear that it is inevitable that Eurydice must return to death. It takes the original story and reinterprets it so that it is fate that Eurydice remain dead, that it was wrong and futile for Orpheus to go looking for Eurydice.