Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Margaret Atwood's poem "Eurydice" is, of course, inspired by the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The latter has died and gone to the underworld, while the former, Eurydice's grieving husband, is eventually allowed to descend to see his wife one more time. Orpheus is known for his beautiful skill at playing the lyre, and using this talent, he is able to persuade Hades, king of the underworld, to allow Eurydice to come back with him to the world of the living. The only requirement is that Orpheus cannot look back while Eurydice follows him out of the underworld, or she will have to stay with Hades. It seems an easy enough task, but near the end of the journey, Orpheus thinks he no longer hears his wife behind him and turns around. He sees his wife's shade go back to the underworld, and he must return to the earth of the living alone.
The poem is addressed to Eurydice, as seen in the first stanza, when the speaker says,
He is here, come down to look for you.
The first stanza of the poem indicates that Orpheus's song tempts Eurydice to return to him, surely something about her husband that was attractive and pleasant. However, the speaker implies that their marriage may have not been that happy. The song is about both "joy and suffering equally," and is "a promise: / that things will be different up there / than they were last time." This suggests that the marriage was not completely fulfilling for Eurydice and that perhaps she won't want to return to it, even if Hades does allow her to leave.
The second stanza indicates that Eurydice feels a kind of satisfying "emptiness" in the underworld that may be preferable to the range of emotions experienced by the living, "the noise and flesh of the surface." This stanza reverses expectations in several ways. For one, it might be assumed that a deceased spouse would want to be reunited with their partner, but Eurydice's feelings on the matter appear to be complex. Secondly, the afterlife might seem to be appealing only when it is paradisiacal or utopian; for Eurydice, though, it is the "nothing" that calls her.
The third stanza simply states that Eurydice is now "used to" her existence in the Underworld and doesn't have a desire to change her circumstances. The world is "blanched" and "dim," and Hades doesn't speak to her when he passes, but still, she finds it attractive—or, at the very least, has adjusted.
"The other one" of the fourth stanza is Orpheus, her husband. He is "different." The speaker says Eurydice "almost remember[s]" him, so it's as if the dead have only faint recollections of the living, even of those who were closest to them in life, such as a spouse. The speaker recognizes that Orpheus loves his late wife, but Atwood breaks the stanza to continue with the idea that he doesn't truly love her "as [she is] now." The image of Eurydice as a shade is dominated by its minimalism, by its lack: of color, of movement, of feeling.
The meditation on Orpheus's expectations and desires continues into the sixth stanza, in which the speaker says,
He wants you to be what he calls real.He wants you to stop light.
Not only does he have expectations for Eurydice to be what she once was, he has expectations for how he will feel, how he will transform:
He wants to feel himself thickeninglike a treetrunk or a haunchand see blood on his eyelids when he closes them, and...
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the sun beating.
This figurative language indicates that Eurydice will—at least, Orpheus hopes—bring him back to life in a sense. His life will be fuller, more meaningful. He will again enjoy the world around him instead of mourning his loss.
In the next two stanzas, Eurydice realizes that she does still love and know her husband, unexpectedly. The speaker says she knew this as soon as she died and knows it still now, in the underworld: "that you love him anywhere." When the speaker uses a metaphor to compare Eurydice's love to a seed that she "had forgotten" she has in her hand, we understand that their love could not die, even when they are separated by death. Their reunion is looking more hopeful than readers may have anticipated when the poem began.
The last two stanzas seem to indicate that Orpheus and Eurydice may actually be on the journey back to the world of mortals now. Orpheus is "almost too far," which suggests danger and the fact that nothing will ever be the same. Eurydice tries to warn him to leave the underworld, to show him that "it's dark here." She cannot, however, mitigate his desire, which is depicted by his hunger:
... he wants to be fed againby you.
This is an interesting phrase, as it indicates that he is feeding on her, perhaps parasitically. This is not a typically romantic image of love: instead, it suggests the amount he takes from her in the relationship. The poem ends with the notion that Eurydice will not, cannot earn freedom through her husband. This is where Atwood's poem develops the subtly feminist edge that is introduced early in the poem. By its end, the poem is a quiet, nuanced look into the possible thoughts of Eurydice and her ambivalence toward Orpheus as he journeys to bring her back to life from the underworld.