The Lyre of Orpheus

by Robertson Davies

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The Lyre of Orpheus

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1770

The Lyre of Orpheus is the final installment of what might become known as Robertson Davies’ Cornish Trilogy, a masterly series of interlocking narrations examining the correspondences between life and art. The central figure in the trilogy, central as exemplar of Davies’ concerns (Darcourt is his key commentator), is Francis Cornish—a mysterious figure whose life as an artist and government agent is detailed in What’s Bred in the Bone (1985), though much of it is summarized here and newly understood. Simon Darcourt’s task is to uncover the secrets of that life and to shape them into a book. He has the support and encouragement of the Cornish Foundation, on whose board he sits. The foundation, under the direction of Arthur Cornish, was established by Francis Cornish’s will to further humane studies and artistic enterprises.

In The Lyre of Orpheus, that charge has led the foundation to supporting the researches and creative efforts of a perverse graduate student, Hulda Schnakenburg, who has been given the opportunity to complete an unfinished opera sketched by the Romantic composer, critic, and author E. T. A. Hoffmann. Not only will the foundation support this research, it will fund a production of the completed opera. Hoffmann’s unfinished business comes to employ the talents of a great number of people in a collaboration that fulfills, in various measures, both the living and the dead In this way, the interaction of past and present—one of Davies’ recurrent concerns—is given a vivid and plausible present action.

The opera—Arthur of Britain; or, the Magnanimous Cuckold—receives its broad story line from the Welshman, Geraint Powell, who is a skilled, ambitious, dedicated artist of the theater. Powell assembles the cast and the other theater professionals who will execute the production. He is just as much a producer as director, even though it is the Cornish Foundation, through Arthur’s risk-taking generosity, that puts up the cash. Arthur heads the round table of the foundation, with his beautiful wife at his side. And Arthur is betrayed by his trusted Geraint—cuckolded just as King Arthur was by Lancelot and Guenevere. The irony of this situation is not lost on the characters themselves. As life imitates art, life also pays the price for it.

As the story of the opera’s completion and movement toward production unfolds, relationships develop that bring about transformations. Most significant among these is the transformation of Hulda Schnakenburg under the tutelage and enchantment of Dr. Gunilla Dahl-Soot (who will conduct the opera at its premiere). Not only does this accomplished woman inspire and discipline Hulda’s genius, but she also brings her a long way toward social refinement, articulateness, and bodily awareness. Their homosexual embrace seems part of an emotional formula—a sorcerer’s magic well-practiced by Dahl- Soot.

Inside of the opera story is the smaller one of Simon Darcourt’s search into missing years in the life of Francis Cornish—the ultimate inspirer of the present doings. Darcourt’s dedication to his task, and his willingness to take risks for the sake of realizing his own destiny, leads him to steal drawings which not only establish the identity of a major Cornish painting but also reveal that a supposed Renaissance painting used in a cosmetics ad is in fact a Cornish rendering of the young Princess Amalie, the firm’s director. Darcourt uses his leverage with this woman to extort more of the hidden facts of Francis’ life. The major painting in question, owned by the princess and previously thought to be the work of an unknown Renaissance master; demonstrates Francis Cornish’s accomplishment and—to Darcourt at least—reveals his inner autobiography. In this case, present...

(This entire section contains 1770 words.)

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occasions restructure the past.

Darcourt’s other mission, of providing a libretto for the opera, succeeds when he adapts lines from the Arthurian writings of Sir Walter Scott (Hoffmann’s contemporary). Once again, the past provides a key to a present problem; once again, the past is put to a new use.

Just as Arthur Cornish proves to be the magnanimous cuckold, so others are glimpsed in mythic illumination. For Davies, we are all time travelers enacting—with greater or lesser consciousness—eternal psychic patterns. Darcourt, so often doing the bidding of others, casts himself as the wise fool.

The Lyre of Orpheus seems less complete in itself than the preceding two works in the trilogy. It seems more programmatic, less enthused, less charged with Davies’ special way of embracing significant bodies of knowledge and our relationship to them. Like its companion novels, it is concerned with Canadian culture and institutions, but less pointedly so. Still, it is a fine achievement—the work of a true giant of modern letters who has once again done well, though he has done better. In the orchestration of the trilogy, The Lyre of Orpheus fairs impressively as an integral part.

For one thing, it completes a spectrum of balances and contrasts among characters. Before Maria was Mrs. Cornish, readers discovered her, in The Rebel Angels (1982), as the radiant Miss Theotoky, a graduate student. There, her struggle with her Gypsy background began Davies’ exploration of the slim difference between lore and learning. Maria’s investigation of a Rabelais manuscript (in the Cornish collection) launches her career well; the temporary disappearance of the manuscript fuels the plot. In The Lyre of Orpheus, Davies has turned the tables: Now the aspirant is the unattractive “Schnak,” and the task is completing the past rather than elucidating it.

Clement Hollier, a minor figure in The Lyre of Orpheus, is Maria’s lover and mentor in The Rebel Angels; he plays something of the role to Maria that Gunilla Dahl-Soot plays to Schnak. Hollier is a man of great sexual attractiveness, but in this dimension he is superseded by Geraint Powell. Another mentor for Maria in The Rebel Angels is John Parlabane, a fallen monk and rebellious philosopher. He is one in a series of corrupt or potentially corrupting mentors—somewhat demonic Merlins—who populate the Cornish novels. In What’s Bred in the Bone, Tancred Saraceni, Francis Cornish’s mentor in the art of restoring paintings, fills this position.

From these figures, it is revealed that art and learning are dangerous, and that they cannot always be achieved in ways that are consistent with the dictates of religious convention. When the Reverend Simon Darcourt resorts to thievery in order to further his biographical researches, the reader has been positioned to understand and accept Darcourt’s action.

In each novel, the principal characters delve into the secrets of past masters. Personal fulfillment comes, in part, through the penetration of another creative sensibility. In The Rebel Angels, Maria pursues Rabelais and the folk wisdom of her ancestors. In What’s Bred in the Bone, Francis Cornish pursues the secrets of the master painters of the Renaissance. Hulda Schnakenburg and others in The Lyre of Orpheus pursue the genius of E. T. A. Hoffmann. Simon Darcourt discovers the remarkable achievement of his deceased friend, Francis Cornish. These explorations are assessed, in the second and third novels, by editorial voices from other realms.

In What’s Bred in the Bone, a dialogue between the Lesser Zadkiel—the recording angel—and the Daimon Maimon reaches into corners of Francis Cornish’s life that remain hidden to Simon Darcourt. In The Lyre of Orpheus, the spirit of E. T. A. Hoffmann, imagined as in a state of limbo because of his unfinished work, hovers above the proceedings and comments on the goings-on.

In the Cornish novels, as in Davies’ earlier Deptford Trilogy, knowledge of the past is a source of power. The splendid performance of the completed Hoffmann opera uses the stage techniques of Hoffmann’s time. Costume ideas are researched in the work of a man who was not only Hoffmann’s contemporary but who was to have done the original libretto. The language of Scott is the basis for the “new” libretto. Nevertheless, the realization of the opera raises questions of authenticity.

Is this work in the manner of Hoffmann, based on Hoffmann’s preliminary notations, finally a Hoffmann opera at all, or is it an “imitation” by Hulda Schnakenburg and associates? Or is it neither of these, but rather some kind of collaboration between the past and the present? Is the Renaissance-style painting by Francis Cornish an imitation? A fake? A great original work of genius? Are the restorations that Francis Cornish accomplished similar in nature to Hulda’s extrapolations? And what about the old violins that Maria’s Gypsy mother restored with horse dung (in The Rebel Angels)? What constitutes authenticity: of self of culture, of artistic creation, of fact? To what extent is Simon Darcourt’s biography of Francis Cornish—a biography which keeps a few secrets—an authentic life?

Davies’ concern with the power of illusion grows, in part, out of his own experience in the theater. A trained actor, a much-produced playwright, an assistant to Tyrone Guthrie, Davies has deep roots in the theater. He has treated the stage in other works, notably Tempest-Tost (1951), and illusory magic plays a central role in parts of the Deptford Trilogy. The heightened theatricality of opera and opera production—an essentially nonrealistic art form—allows Davies a luxury in unveiling the intricacies of art while at the same time relating it to the value of lives significantly lived.

Value, too, is a question that Davies raises with regard to the support of artistic endeavor. Who is to pay for a masterpiece? What sets its price? What honor is due the benefactor or patron who underwrites the artists’ endeavor? What does it mean that institutions—public or private—make art possible? How can the world of business be related to the world of art? Davies’ trilogy involves us in this series of questions, and The Lyre of Orpheus completes the investigation by examining the role of the Cornish Foundation and the behavior of Arthur and Maria Cornish toward the individuals and projects they support.

In the room in which Francis Cornish’s masterpiece, The Marriage at Cana, comes to be publicly displayed, a quotation from the letters of John Keats graces the wall above the picture. Selected by Simon Darcourt, the sentence says much about the vision of Robertson Davies: “A Man’s life of any worth is a continual allegory—and very few eyes can see the Mystery of his life—a life like the scriptures, figurative.” This is true about the painting, about the opera, about the personages that Davies invents, about Davies himself and—if we are so graced—about ourselves.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 67

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