“Orpheus” is one of three of Margaret Atwood’s poems that interpret and expand the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. In this iteration of the story, Atwood makes Eurydice the first-person speaker. Eurydice also uses the second person as she directly addresses Orpheus, her husband. The question of voice is complicated, however, by the fact that the speaker is not alive and the addressee is not present. Although there are differences among the many recorded versions of the myth, Atwood’s is distinct in conveying Eurydice’s hesitation about returning to life and the possibility of her not loving Orpheus.
The poem is written in free verse in stanzas of varying length. While most stanzas are four to eight lines long, the last stanza consists of a single line (and a single sentence). Atwood uses numerous visual images, which are conveyed in simple diction that generally approximates speech. The figures of speech, primarily similes and metaphors, are also appropriate to normal conversation.
The poem is set in the underworld after Orpheus has turned to look back. In the myth, Hades, the king of the Underworld, has expressly prohibited the young man from taking that backward glance. In Atwood’s version, Eurydice is speaking not as a deceased human woman but as a pale vestige of her former self.
The interplay between the senses and the spirit takes center stage in the poem. The primary senses referred to are sight and hearing—appropriate both because Eurydice is already dead and lacking bodily substance when Orpheus comes to find her and because Orpheus himself has a divine gift for making music. The visual terms, many of which refer to color, emphasize the differences between Eurydice’s ethereal quality and Orpheus’s living being, while the aural qualities are appropriate to a musician and singer.
Atwood’s interpretation calls into question one of the basic elements of the myth: the deep love the couple is presumed to share. Eurydice sounds dubious about the positive value of this emotion: “love you might call it.” Instead, she suggests an attachment that is more like that of an owner to a pet. She says that Orpheus has brought his “old leash” when he comes to find her. This metaphor raises the image of her being tied up like a dog. Her next phrase indicates that this tether is his voice, that of a living person: “your flesh voice.”
It is unclear, however, if Eurydice loved Orpheus during life but has lost that feeling in death. In the first stanza, she expresses her awareness of separation from the mortal world. Orpheus wants her to move into
... the green light that had once
grown fangs and killed me.
She presents the world as a place of danger that has taken her life. In the Greek myth, Eurydice dies of a snake bite; here, “green” is associated not only with living foliage but with the snake. In contrast to the “green” outside world in the first stanza, Eurydice is “like a gray moth” when she is held back in the underworld.
The transition that she would have undergone—that she has, in fact, already begun when Orpheus looks back—is concrete and sensory. In the underworld, she lacks feelings and is numb, as Atwood emphasizes with a simile : “like an arm gone to sleep.” On her way to the outer world,...
(The entire section is 862 words.)