Last Updated September 5, 2023.
“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 oncegrown 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, Eurydice describes her skin as reforming, and she mentions the “dirt on my hands” and the thirst she feels as she ascends. In contrast, the “other body” of her underworldly state is a “luminous misty shroud.”
This aural and visual imagery also supports Orpheus’s considerable,...
(This entire section contains 862 words.)
but still incomplete, power—conveyed in both his voice and his gaze. Eurydice has become “used to silence” but is now “listening” to his song. The power of his voice to attach the two is also expressed in simile: “something stretched between us / like a whisper, like a rope.”
Orpheus’s eyes also have power to move Eurydice toward life, but her visual abilities are far more limited.
Before your eyes you held steadythe image of what you wantedme to become: living again.
He can make a real form out of the “hallucination” that she has become. In contrast, she sees little, both in form and color.
I could see only the outlineof your head and shoulders,black against the cave mouth,and so could not see your faceat all, when you turned
and called to me because you hadalready lost me. The lastI saw of you was a dark oval.
Paradoxically, Eurydice’s doubts strengthen the impression that this is a love poem. The uncertainty of emotional commitment gives it a poignant quality. Eurydice regrets Orpheus’s loss of confidence, which causes him to lose her. In the last line, she speaks of his lack of belief in her individual identity, again using an aural reference:
You could not believe I was more than your echo.
Yet she also seems to regret the pain he feels because of her inability to continue with him:
Though I knew how this failurewould hurt you, I had tofold like a gray moth and let go.