Orpheus and Eurydice, by Czeslaw Milosz —or: Milosz Journeys to the Underworld and Back

There is a tendency to romanticize the idea of a great artist’s valediction. But there is no law stating that a master’s final work must be a masterpiece.  The last poem in W. H. Auden’s Collected Poems (2007) is “On Architecture”, a wonderful poem by any standard, but not “The Shield of Achilles” or “In Memory of William Butler Yeats”. The last word from Saul Bellow, the greatest American novelist after Faulkner, was Ravelstein, enjoyable but decidedly minor.  Pablo Picasso’s last paintings are haunting, beautiful in their way, evoking a florid eroticism and a horror at death, but they lack the ferocity of vision and layers of formal coherence which gave him the authority to stand beside the greatest artists in history.

But once in a while, proximity to death seems to lift an artist to a place beyond where he or she has ever been. The artist, at life’s end, stands blinking in a new, preternatural light, and – call it grace – accesses the capacity to make us blink as well. These are the latitudes inhabited by Verdi’s Falstaff, Mozart’s Requiem, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and —Milosz’s “Orpheus and Eurydice”.

The story of Orpheus, the greatest musician in the world, braving Hades to sing for the release of his beloved Eurydice, fatally snake-bitten on their wedding day, and of their ascent together, allowed on the famous condition that he neither speak to nor look at her before once again attaining the upper world, has held the Western imagination like no other Greek myth, save, possibly, Oedipus. In fact, the whole adventure of Western art, at least since the Renaissance, could be conceived as an “Orphic” romance.  Consider Rembrandt at his easel, year after year sitting before his mirror, descending deep into his life, the success, the ridicule, the patrons and creditors, the women, the death of his beloved Saskia and of his children, pleading his case with whatever gods he found there, then reemerging with a tint of shadow, a thickness of paint, a hue of gold with which to fleck the image of his eyes.  This is how we have learned to think about the creative act.

So many poets, composers, dramatists and film makers have been drawn to Orpheus that it has become almost the “Moonlight” Sonata of artistic subjects. It takes a poet like Czeslaw Milosz to prompt the question, “what vein of this much-blasted mine has not yet been tapped.”  Before we finish the first line of Milosz’s poem, “Standing on flagstones of the sidewalk at the entrance to Hades”, we know he’s found one. By giving the front door of Hades a sidewalk, he puts us out on the curb, so to speak, from where we glance sheepishly back at our expectations. We know sidewalks. We’ve used them as recently as this morning, in front of the post office or the grocery store. Our right to distance from the ensuing drama has been revoked. We soon learn that Hades, far from being a romantic Dantesque waste, is a corporate edifice with glass doors, corridors, elevators, like an inverted skyscraper, all the more sinister for its banality.

Milosz has written that what made his era basically different from any other was the motion picture, and his poem all but flickers with the silver screen’s influence: It opens on a noir-like night – fog, wind tearing at a coat and tossing leaves, headlights flaring and dimming. He puts Persephone on an amethyst throne in a garden of withered pear and apple trees, and one can almost sense a slow Tarkovskyian track through the grove of blackened trunks. Like a silent-era master, he directs Eurydice, upon her entrance, to lower her heavy-lashed eyelids and step rigidly at the beck of Hermes. As beguiling as these cinematic effects are – and who would not want to linger over the Kubrickesque electronic dogs, the path “phosphorized” out of the gloomy chiaroscuro, or the suggestive soundscape of echoing footsteps – Milosz’s strong allergy to empty gesture means that every detail draws us ineluctably towards the heart of the tragedy. The gathering tension finally breaks in a shattering crisis of faith just at the moment when faith is most indicated: Orpheus has begun his ascent out of Hades with Eurydice following in tandem with Hermes ready to whisk her back to the Underworld, this time forever, should her deliverer default on his agreement.  Then:

Under his faith a doubt sprang up
And entwined him like cold bindweed.
He knew he must have faith and he could not have faith.

This is rhetorically very close to Beckett’s “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” But never did two writers diverge more on the question of meaning. In pleading his case to Persephone, Orpheus proudly sings what amounts to the poetic ethos of Czeslaw Milosz:

Of his having composed his words always against death
And of having made no rhyme in praise of nothingness.

Fine.  But Queen Persephone, who knows a thing or two about how people participate in their own captivity, knows something about Orpheus, something which he does not yet know about himself, which goes against all his talking points, and precipitates his crisis.

I don’t know – said the goddess – whether you loved her or not.
Yet you have come here to rescue her.

Love her?  Of course he loves her.  And yet, a careful scan of the poem turns up not one mention of it.  Lest you fear Milosz is subverting what was to have been the whole point of the story, the poem never says he doesn’t love her either.  Its just that, in spite of what Orpheus himself might believe, it doesn’t figure in his motivation to bring her back with him to the land of the living.  What figures is profound need:

Only her love warmed him, humanized him.
When he was with her, he thought differently about himself.
He could not fail her now, when she was dead.

Need, and obligation. A biographical note is in order here: Milosz survived the death of two deeply loved wives.  The first, Janina, died in 1986.  In memorial to her, he wrote “On Parting with My Wife, Janina”. The second, Carol Thigpen, died in 2002. “Orpheus and Eurydice” is for her.  But, while the poem is profound as an elegy for this late-life companion, the imperative to “not fail” all those who have not escaped death, especially in the charnel house of Eastern Europe during his epoch, was the engine driving his entire intellectual and creative life.  Like all great poems, it is more, by far, than what it claims to be.

Two attributes of this poem have made it addictive for me.  The first is the tension between the traditional myth and the contemporary accoutrements with which Milosz delivers it.  The second is the ending. “Sun.  And sky.  And in the sky white clouds.” Had we noticed that, until now, there was no sky? No horizon?  And yet, this is not the resolution we had hoped for, or that Orpheus presumably had wanted.  Eurydice did not make it out.  He turned his head too soon.  Or, had she ever been there, following him, at all? It seems his doubts were born out, and his crisis of faith resolved, –negatively. He’s made it out with his skin—

Only now everything cried to him: Eurydice!
How will I live without you, my consoling one!

It sounds as if Orpheus has reached the nadir of despair. But listen. It is not him doing the crying. It is the world which cries to him, wailing out its grief, which is the only authentic response to the scope of its loss.  Of Eurydice, yes.  Of Carol Thigpen, without doubt. But also of Warsaw, Auschwitz, and the gulags; of a now nearly forgotten generation of great Polish poets; of national identity and of human dignity; of the “human hope for the resurrection of the dead.” The twentieth century cannot be brought back for a second chance.  Persephone knew all along this poem was never about Eurydice.  Now Orpheus knows this as well. He’s made the the essential journey, to the Underworld and back.  What better, for him and for us, than to know that such a journey is possible.  For the first time he has genuine freedom, the freedom to ally himself, not with The Lost, but with all that endures.

But there was a fragrant scent of herbs, the low humming of bees,
And he fell asleep with his cheek on the sun-warmed earth.

It is hard to imagine a poet shy of ninety, even a great poet like Czeslaw Milosz, arriving at this order of sublimity.

Here is the poem in its entirety.  It is long.  It will take you six or seven minutes to read it.  I hope you do.



Standing on flagstones of the sidewalk at the entrance to Hades
Orpheus hunched in a gust of wind
That tore at his coat, rolled past in waves of fog,
Tossed the leaves of the trees.  The headlights of cars
Flared and dimmed in each succeeding wave.

He stopped at the glass-paneled door, uncertain
Whether he was strong enough for that ultimate trial.

He remembered her words: “You are a good man.”
He did not quite believe it.  Lyric poets
Usually have – as he knew – cold hearts.
It is like a medical condition.  Perfection in art
Is given in exchange for such an affliction.

Only her love warmed him, humanized him.
When he was with her, he thought differently about himself.
He could not fail her now, when she was dead.

He pushed open the door and found himself walking in a labyrinth,
Corridors, elevators.  The livid light was not light but the dark
of the earth.
Electronic dogs passed him noiselessly.
He descended many floors, a hundred, three hundred, down.

He was cold, aware that he was Nowhere.
Under thousands of frozen centuries,
On an ashy trace where generations had moldered,
In a kingdom that seemed to have no bottom and no end.

Thronging shadows surrounded him.
He recognized some of the faces.
He felt the rhythm of his blood.

He felt strongly his life with its guilt
And he was afraid to meet those to whom he had done harm.
But they had lost the ability to remember
And gave him only a glance, indifferent to all that.

For his defense he had a nine-stringed lyre.
He carried in it the music of the earth, against the abyss
That buries all of sound in silence.
He submitted to the music, yielded
To the dictation of a song, listening with rapt attention,
Became, like his lyre, its instrument.

Thus he arrived at the palace of the rulers of that land.
Persephone, in her garden of withered pear and apple trees,
Black, with naked branches and verrucose twigs,
Listened from the funereal amethyst of her throne.

He sang the brightness of mornings and green rivers,
He sang of smoking water in the rose-colored daybreaks,
Of colors: cinnabar, carmine, burnt sienna, blue,
Of the delight of swimming in the sea under marble cliffs,
Of feasting on a terrace above the tumult of a fishing port,
Of tastes of wine, olive oil, almonds, mustard, salt.
Of the flight of the swallow, the falcon,
Of a dignified flock of pelicans above the bay,
Of the scent of an armful of lilacs in summer rain,
Of his having composed his words always against death
And of having made no rhyme in praise of nothingness.

I don’t know – said the goddess – whether you loved her or not.
Yet you have come here to rescue her.
She will be returned to you.  But there are conditions:
You are not permitted to speak to her, or on the journey back
To turn your head, even once, to assure yourself that she is
behind you.

And so Hermes brought forth Eurydice.
Her face no longer hers, utterly gray,
Her eyelids lowered beneath the shade of her lashes.
She stepped rigidly, directed by the hand
Of her guide.  Orpheus wanted so much
To call her name, to wake her from that sleep.
But he refrained, for he had accepted the conditions.

And so they set out.  He first, and then, not right away,
The slap of the god’s sandals and the light patter
Of her feet fettered by her robe, as if by a shroud.
A steep climbing path phosphorized
Out of darkness like the walls of a tunnel.
He would stop and listen.  But then
They stopped, too, and the echo faded.
And when he began to walk the double tapping commenced again.
Sometimes it seemed closer, sometimes more distant.
Under his faith a doubt sprang up
And entwined him like cold bindweed.
Unable to weep, he wept at the loss
Of the human hope for the resurrection of the dead,
Because he was, now, like every other mortal.
His lyre was silent, yet he dreamed, defenseless.
He knew he must have faith and he could not have faith.
And so he would persist for a very long time,
Counting his steps in half-wakeful torpor.

Day was breaking.  Shapes of rock loomed up
Under the luminous eye of the exit from underground.
It happened as he expected.  He turned his head
And behind him on the path was no one.

Sun.  And sky.  And in the sky white clouds.
Only now everything cried to him: Eurydice!
How will I live without you, my consoling one!
But there was a fragrant scent of herbs, the low humming of bees,
And he fell asleep with his cheek on the sun-warmed earth.

11 Responses to Orpheus and Eurydice, by Czeslaw Milosz —or: Milosz Journeys to the Underworld and Back

  1. Avatar amright
    amright says:

    Wonderful !! Thanks for posting.

    • Thank you, amright, for stopping by to read my post. I always look forward to your comments on Nobel Prize reading group at shelfari. I appreciate you stopping by my site.

      So sorry that my technical glitch caused your comment on “The MIlosz Century” to be lost. With your permission, I might transfer to this site the wonderful information on the article about the Milosz festival in Krakow by the Hindi poet which you left on the Czeslaw Milosz feed at shelfari.

      Thanks again.

  2. Thanks.
    Sorry for not checking earlier.
    Got the Road Side Dog collection also and am into the book now.
    Thanks again for both!

    • Hello Madhav,
      Thank you so much for visiting The Shelf. I appreciate your “stopping by”.
      I would love to hear your impressions of ROAD SIDE DOG. Does anything in particular strike you?

  3. Thank you, David, this is truly wonderful!

    • Hi Aarti,
      I’m so glad you liked the post. Sorry for taking so long to respond. I’ve so enjoyed your comments on shelfari, which is how I know you are a dedicated reader of poetry. Are you much acquainted with Czeslaw Milosz?

  4. Avatar Ernest C. Raskauskas, Sr
    Ernest C. Raskauskas, Sr says:

    I’m 84 and through Milosz, became interested in poetry when I was turning 70. What a gift! Since then I have read everthing he has ever written, prose or poetry. Of course, many other poets as well, many of them introduced by him. What a wonderful new life in my great age. Milosz poetry is intelligible, a requisite for me, and his voice speaks to his belief that there is some power outside of and greater than any of us. This transcendent dimension is also important to me. For me also, I feel I’ve signed up with all of your. “It is sweet to think that I was a companion in an expedition that never ceases, though centures pass away.” Milosz “Report”

    • Ernest, welcome! I am reading your comment on a grey, cool, early spring day while sitting by the window at one of my favorite coffee shops. The demographic here, both inside and walking by somewhat under-dressed for the light rain, is fairly young, very laptop and iphone oriented. It is a comparatively well-educated group which assembles here, but the number of times I’ve seen a volume of poetry on someone’s table, if rendered as a temperature, would freeze interstellar particles. I just texted Sam, my partner, to tell him I received a comment from a man in his eighties who, because of Milosz, fell in love with poetry. His reply: “There’s something so deep about discovering a passion later. Life shifts and has facet.”

      How perfect that you found poetry through Milosz! Someone, perhaps Robert Hass, described him as one of the great poets of old age. The word on the street is that poets tend to produce their best, most searching, most innovative work early in their careers and then spend their late years rehashing and calcifying. I am suspicious of such constructed notions with so many examples to the contrary (Yeats, Stevens, Amy Clampitt, Milosz etc.). I assume that what whoever said this about Milosz meant was that, not only did his poetic faculty deepen, but that he took on age as a subject in itself and said things about it that had not been said before.

      I would love to know who else you are reading. I assume you are acquainted with Milosz’s great compatriots Wislawa Szymborska and Zbigniew Herbert, two of my favorite poets (Herbert, without question, belongs on the list of Nobel laureates; his omission is a shame). You might be interested, too, in Julia Hartwig, a somewhat lesser known but marvelous, “intelligible” Polish poet (Something in the water in Poland…)

      Thank you, Ernest, so much for your comment. Please stop back by to continue the conversation!

      • Avatar Ernest C., Raskauskas, Sr
        Ernest C., Raskauskas, Sr says:

        David: Thank you for your felicitous note. Yes, I have read Szmborska and Herbert whom I met through Milosz, and other Polish poets in Milosz anthology of Postwar Polish Poets. I particularly enjoyed Adam Zagajewski and I fell in love with Anna Kamienska whom I met through Poetry magazine. I’m doing a lot of catch-up on 20th century poets, Auden, Bishop, Ferlinghetti, on and on. Wht fun I am having. Dare I say I’m writing a little poetry also.

        Ernie Raskauskas

        • Outstanding that you are writing poetry! A challenge to the mind, a recourse for the heart. Writing poetry strengthens by the very fragility of the pursuit; opening one’s self enough to place one true word in front of another braces the nerves, and, I suspect, tips one’s entire being, body chemistry and all, towards health. I hope you know Rilke’s LETTERS TO A YOUNG POET (which, of course, you are). If not, don’t let too much time pass…

          I have a friend who got to meet Adam Zagajewski. Had a class with him, I believe. I overcame my grievous envy and have chosen to continue speaking to him. Yes, he is marvelous. A fine, deep mind and spirit. And thank you for mentioning Anna Kamienska, whom I don’t know. I look forward to discovering her. Of the poets you mentioned, Auden is my Zeus. Bishop I also love. Ferlinghetti has never warmed me, but I respect him. Perhaps I have simply not spent sufficient time with his work.

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