Wednesday, November 10, 2010


with Pope John Paul II, circa 1980


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 the ultimate trial.

He remembered her words: “You are a good man.”
He did not quite believe it. Lyric poets
Usually have – he knew it – 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 e 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 the sounds in silence.
He submitted to the music, yielded
To the dictations 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 the tastes of wine, olive oil, almonds, mustard, salt.
Of the flight of the swallow, the falcon,
Of a dignified flock of pelicans above a 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 a 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 a 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.

~ Czeslaw Milosz, from Second Space,
   translated by the author and Robert Hass



What strikes me is the last few moments of Milosz's version where Orpheus looks back and knows he's lost her by not going along with the scenario, but he lies down on the warm earth, under the blue sky, the sun and falls asleep. Earth itself as renewal, that contact. Little children know this instinctively and lie down in the grass, in the corn rows, between the bean vines – they just lie on the ground and soak up sun and dream. As we grow older, most of us rarely have full body contact with the earth.

So here's Orpheus regaining strength in this natural way. He already bears the imprint of his inspiration, Eurydice, and he goes on to write and sing more beautifully than ever. In fact losing her, rather than pleasing her as in a marriage he's free to a work romantically with his perfect muse, the inspiring woman who will never grow old – it will always be the young Eurydice he lost.

It reminded me of the story of Hercules who fought the giant Antaeus and couldn’t subdue him. Each time he knocked him down Antaeus got up stronger until Hercules realized that his mother was Gaia, the earth goddess, and when he came in contact with her she gave him strength as he lay there seemingly conquered. I think Orpheus also knew instinctively that the earth would renew him.


If we assume that in this poem Orpheus stands for Milosz, then it makes sense that this is how the countryside-bred Milosz saw it: contact with the earth/nature is renewing. It is the ultimate consolation, and perhaps the only one (seeing how wives don’t last; Milosz was twice widowed, even though his second wife, Carol, happened to be thirty years younger than he).

Most modern poets would have ended on line, “And behind him on the path was no one.” But Milosz rejects the modern taboo on affirmation. The scent of the herbs, the humming of bees, the warmth of the sun – these are the reliable consolations.

This is indeed an astonishing poem, showing that this ninety-year-old Orpheus remained, as always, a pessimist and an ecstatic at the same time, with the ecstatic element winning in the end, even though Eurydice is lost. The human beloved is lost, but not the beloved earth, which consoles him. Persephone rules the realm of death, but in the realm of the living, Milosz/Orpheus is consoled by the Great Mother, arguably Demeter. 

Milosz condemns the preference for nihilism and negative moods so common in modern literature. He can be explicit about it, as in this short poem:


In fear and trembling, I think I would fulfill my life
Only if I brought myself to make a public confession
Revealing a sham, my own and of my epoch:
We were permitted to shriek in the tongue of dwarfs and demons,
But pure and generous words were forbidden
Under so stiff a penalty that whoever dare to pronounce one
Considered himself as a lost man.

            ~ Czesław Miłosz, 1970, From the Rising of the Sun

But it’s not only the ending which makes this poem so different from the typical treatment of the Orpheus and Eurydice story. The opening is marvelously original, and is perhaps the most modern element here. Orpheus does not enter through a cave or a forest or a lake.  We are not in nature; we are in a great city (could it be New York?), with sidewalks, and cars passing by, creating the effect of “waves of headlights.” He opens a glass door and enters what seems like a huge office building with corridors and elevators. There is no Cerberus; instead, “electronic dogs passed him noiselessly.”

He does descend, however, rather than ascend. This disappoints me somewhat, since I was already imagining a skyscraper as a kind of Hades, with dull-faced employees as the dead, and the penthouse as the throne chamber of Hades and Persephone. No such luck. Orpheus descends hundreds of floors down. Among the shadows, he meets some he used to know when they were alive, but they are indifferent, since they have no memory.

“For his defense” Orpheus has his lyre, on which he can play the “music of the earth.” Like the lyre, he too is the instrument of this music. In fact he is an artist first, and he knows it; everything else, including Eurydice, comes second: “lyric poets usually have – as he knew – cold hearts.” Nevertheless, he feels he needs Eurydice to warm his heart and make him feel more human.

It’s interesting that Persephone’s amethyst throne stands in an orchard of withered fruit trees. Hades is never mentioned; in this poem, Persephone seems to be the sole deity of the Underworld. Another twist on the traditional tale is the song of Orpheus. It’s not a song about his love for Eurydice and a plea for Eurydice’s return. Rather, it’s a description of the delights of earthly life, e.g. “swimming in the sea under marble cliffs,” or “the scent of an armful of lilacs in summer rain.”

Even though Persephone can’t tell whether or not Orpheus loves Eurydice, she decides that Eurydice can return to the upper world, provided Orpheus doesn’t turn around to make sure she is following. And Eurydice, gray-faced and rigid, corpse-like, is brought forth by Hermes. For a while, Orpheus can hear the footsteps of both Eurydice and the messenger god. But the sound gets more distant, and Orpheus loses his faith “in the resurrection of the dead.” Near the exit, he turns around: just as he expected, “behind him on the path was no one.”

Note that this is a departure from convention. In the myth, Orpheus does get a glimpse of Eurydice. Milosz modernizes the story: the gods, if not yet dead (except for the the earth, the Great Mother), are moribund and die or at last fall silent during the ascent; likewise, the belief in the soul's afterlife is becoming uncertain. Yet he also gives it a happy ending (or sorts). As Una already discussed, Orpheus is consoled and renewed by contact with the earth. 

It’s also important to note that Orpheus enters the Underworld in autumn (fallen leaves, fog, cold wind) and in the city, and emerges on a warm spring day (it could also already be summer), somewhere in the countryside.  Thus, arguably, he seems to follow Persephone’s own pattern of entering and leaving the Underworld. The shift from city to country, to nature, likely reflects Milosz’s love of nature, acquired in his childhood on a Lithuanian estate.

Altogether, we have here an unconventional retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice story. While I would be more fascinated by trying to keep it urban, I admit that Milosz’s ending is also compelling. It connects his poem with the great tradition of nature poetry, including Asian poetry. Spouses die, friends move away; the beauty of nature remains and consoles.

Milosz wrote this poem in 2002, after the death of his second wife. He himself had only two years to live. His religious faith did not seem either strong or conventional, though “officially” he was a Catholic. Nevertheless, he remained a poet of affirmation, taking pride in

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


An observation: when Orpheus in Milosz' poem achieved renewal via nature he was ALONE. 

Men tend to need aloneness for renewal whereas women tend to need connection with others. Would a female Orpheus lie down in nature or would she go to her friends for support?


A very good point, but I would be careful about generalizing. Not all female poets are the same. Some might in fact seek solitude and quiet in nature, equally with or ahead of turning to their friends. Don't forget how introverted poets tend to be, male or female, and how much poets in general love the beauty of nature.

Interestingly, Ovid’s Orpheus did not turn to nature for solace. He turned to homoerotic love. Milosz “re-visions” the myth through the lens his own psyche. He does not trust the projections of the mind. The earth, however, is real -- the soil, the grass, the flowers.


  1. Interesting. I did not know this poem. I think Milosz was a true mystic, or at least knew about the core of being that all poetry aspires to... But that's a subject for another story.

    In light of our recent conversations about one "Great Poet" I really like the lines about poets: "Lyric poets
    Usually have – he knew it – cold hearts.
    It is like a medical condition. Perfection in art / Is given in exchange for such an affliction."

    They were friends and lived, at the end of Milosz's life, in Krakow, may these words be dedicated to that other, cold one? Or is Milosz talking about his own inability to engage, to love?

  2. I'm sure that Milosz was able to love, and everyone seems to remember him as friendly and enormously vital. It's only that writing takes a huge amount of time, and poets/writers tend to feel guilty about not spending enough time with the family (though it's entirely possible that it's just what the family appreciates, someone who doesn't overly intrude on them).