• Tag Archives poems
  • 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.

  • Derek Walcott won’t save you (part 3)

    A certain fatigue can set in when reading too much Derek Walcott at a go, like contending with a twice-too-large serving of boeuf bourguignon.  The impression I sometimes get of him is that of a 19th century novelist who, do to a fluke paper shortage, decided to funnel his torrential sensibilities into poetry. Middlemarch filed into iambic pentameter.  Or Moby Dick. Here are the opening lines of chapter 22 of his 1974 autobiographical poem, Another Life.

    Miasma, acedia, the enervations of damp,
    as the teeth of the mould gnaw, greening the carious stump
    of the beaten, corrugated silver of the marsh light,
    where the red heron hides, without a secret,
    as the cordage of mangrove tightens
    bland water to bland sky
    heavy and sodden as canvas,
    where the pirogue foundered with its caved-in stomach
    (a hulk, trying hard to look like
    a paleolithic, half-gnawed memory of pre-history)
    as the too green acid grasses set the salt teeth on edge,
    acids and russets and water-colored water,
    let the historian go mad there
    from thirst.  Slowly the water rat takes up its reed pen
    and scribbles. Leasurely, the egret
    on the mud tablet stamps its hieroglyph.


    There is an over-stuffedness about this, like the house of a lottery millionaire crazed for magnificence. The gift is formidable.  I particularly love lines five through seven, “as the cordage of mangrove tightens/bland water to bland sky/ heavy and sodden as canvas,”.  But by the time I reach line fourteen, with the historian gone mad from thirst, and realize I have been reading an actual sentence, I am quite out of breath.

    V. S. Naipaul famously wrote, “History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies.”  Walcott writes as if his life depended on proving this statement false. He has made it his ultimate concern to carry The Caribbean before the world, as if shouldering its golden palanquin alone, saying “Here. Here is our indispensable presence.”  But, like a skilled diplomat, he is as involved with the culture he is addressing as with the culture he is presenting. And so, a dynamic tension advances on his nerves, directing his pen (one almost imagines it a quill): On the one hand he has insisted that a life in St. Lucia is all his poetry requires. The narrator of his his 2004 book, The Prodigal, is told that Paris will change his life.  His response:

    I like my life.


    You think here is enough?

    For me it is.


    Anyway I can see Martinique from here.

    On the other hand, he has repudiated the “Black Word” movement, a stance towards writing espoused by the literary descendants of Langston Hughes, who believed it was critical for black writers to eschew the European tradition at every turn and blaze their own formal and linguistic trail.  Walcott cites his own melting pot ancestry – Dutch and British as well as African – as evidence that Tennyson and Yeats are his inheritance as much as the African jungle. A lover of The Islands, it is Europe’s ear he cherishes.

    Walcott’s childhood home on Chausse Road, Castries, St. Lucia

    Sam’s question, “Why is Derek Walcott considered so great?”  is now, I believe, stalking its answer:  I would propose that this ambivalence – his home, a twenty-seven mile by fourteen mile  reprieve from Caribbean waters, held up against the legacy of Auden – is at the core of his strength as a poet.  Far from dividing his art, making him half-hearted in either direction, it has given him a singleness of purpose.  His outsized ambition could perhaps best be described as a West Indian iteration of Stephen Dedelus’s famous battle cry near the end of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” Such rhetoric is naturally vulnerable to grandiloquence, but if his poems occasionally succumb, it is the error of a gifted boy from the provinces singing too loudly in the King’s church.  In this, it participates in a universal drama. It is one of the central tasks of our lives to press for certain reconciliations: between who we are and who we wish we were, what we are and what we could be, where we are, where we imagine it is better to be, and where, at last, we are most ourselves. And, in the course of these spiritual negotiations, can it be said we are, any of us, really alive if we don’t sing sometimes too loudly?

    Here, from the thirteenth chapter of The Prodigal, is Walcott at his most moving . This passage comes after the narrator has journeyed to Europe, fast on the heals of self-understanding, and has returned at last to his island home.


    So has it come to this, to have to choose?
    The chafe of the breakers’ moving marbles,
    their lucent and commodious statuary
    of turbulent stasis, changing repetition
    of drizzling spray that glazes your eyes
    like the marble miracles of the Villa Borghese?
    Do not diminish in my memory
    villages of absolutely no importance,
    the rattleing bridge over the stone-bright river,
    un-ornate churches, chapels in the provinces
    of light-exhausted Europe. Hoard, cherish
    your negligible existence, your unrecorded history
    of unambitious syntax, your clean pools
    of unpolluted light over close stones.


  • “Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow: Easter of God.”

    This week I had intended to publish the follow-up to my last post, about Derek Walcott.  But Holy Week has been its usual drama queen self, and no matter how I try to air out my religious sensibility, I’m always brought to my knees by its rapturous tragedy.  Consequently, another poet has been knocking about in my skull, clamoring to be heard: the lyrical and tragic-eyed Odysseus Elytis.  So, Walcott can wait another week.

    For some reason, I always associate Easter with Greece.  I love to prepare Greek food for the feast.  Two years ago, I made an enormous lamb pie baked in a crust of Greek bread (We ate it all week.  Making moderate amounts is difficult for me).  Sam makes tzoureki, a Greek braided bread, not unlike Jewish challa, with red-painted Easter eggs baked into the pleats.

    This year, Easter dinner will be, not Greek, but Italian, featuring a rustico casserole of cubed lamb tossed with herbs, garlic, tomatoes and  Parmigiano-Reggiano, layered with thinly sliced new potatoes.  I probably won’t be able to resist trading out the third cup of water the recipe calls for to be added before putting it into the oven with with wine.  As crusty as the potatoes will get, and as meltingly tender the lamb, Elytis, in spirit, is scowling at these plans.  What his country suffered at the hands of the Italians during World War II, the humiliation of foreign occupation, mass killings, rapes and starvation, would likely cause my cooking this year to catch in his throat. His experience as an officer in the heroic Albanian Campaign that resisted the Italian invasion of Greece became the genesis of the poem that marked the turning point in his career:  Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign (1945). In a letter to the translator Kimon Friar, Elytis wrote of its origins:

    ‘A kind of “metaphysical modesty” dominated me. The virtues I found embodied and living in my comrades formed in synthesis a brave young man of heroic stature, one whom I saw in every period of our history. They had killed him a thousand times, and a thousand times he had sprung up again, breathing and alive. His was no doubt the measure and worth of our civilization, compounded of his love not of death but of life. It was with his love of Freedom that he recreated life out of the stuff of death.”

    And so he wrote this magnificent cycle, fourteen stanzas, in honor of this imagined, composite, fallen soldier.  Without a trace of club-footed allegory, Elytis produced one of the most evocative Easter poems I know.  Here is the final stanza in Friar’s translation.


    Now the dream in the blood throbs more swiftly
    The truest moment of the world rings out:
    Greeks show the way in the darkness:
    For you the eyes of the sun shall fill with tears of joy.

    Rainbow-beaten shores fall into the water
    Ships with open-sails voyage on the meadows
    The most innocent girls
    Run naked in men’s eyes
    And modesty shouts from behind the hedge
    Boys! There is no other earth more beautiful

    The truest moment of the world rings out!

    With a morning stride on the growing grass
    He is continually ascending;
    Around him those passions glow that once
    Were lost in the solitude of sin;
    Passions flame up, the neighbours of his heart;
    Birds greet him, they seem to him his companions
    ‘Birds, my dear birds, this is where death ends!’
    ‘Comrades, my dear comrades, this is where life begins!’
    The dew of heavenly beauty glistens in his hair.

    Bells of crystal are ringing far away
    Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow: the Easter of God!


    Odysseus Elytis, made a Nobel Laureate in 1979, died in 1996.  This year, he would have turned one hundred.  Many regard him as the greatest Greek poet of the 20th century. Greece is making a great fuss over him this year, and as his birthday, November 2, approaches, I will almost certainly be publishing more posts on him.  But for now, this Easter greeting.


    Odysseus Elytis