by Taraneh Bigdeli
Margaret Atwood’s “Orpheus 1” is an adaptation of the myth of Orpheus told from the perspective of his bride, Eurydice. Often, the myth itself is simply titled “Orpheus”; however, in her poem Atwood reinterprets the myth to draw attention to the fact that the story involves two characters. According to The Concise Oxford Companion to Classical Literature and the Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World, the Orpheus myth is about a gifted musician whose talents are so great that all creatures are affected when he plays. He marries Eurydice, and on their wedding day, she suffers from a snakebite and dies. Orpheus retrieves her from the underworld by charming its god, Pluto, and his wife, Persephone, with his music. They give Eurydice back to Orpheus on the condition that he does not look at her until they are back amongst the living, but he turns too soon, and loses his wife forever.
In the myth, Orpheus is heartbroken by the loss of his wife. Eurydice’s death—tragic, swift, and unexpected—occurs soon after her marriage. Because of Orpheus’ heartbreak after the loss of his wife, we might assume that she is deeply in love with him as well. Atwood’s speaker, however, tells us something different. “[T]he return…was not my choice” (7-8), Eurydice says. This line is pivotal, forcing readers to look at the original myth in a new way. The concept that Eurydice would rather be in hell than return with her husband challenges the notion that the Orpheus myth is a love story. With this line, Atwood brings new light to an old myth. In the original myth, the only feelings expressed are those of Orpheus; he is devastated and courageously goes to hell after his wife. In the original myth, there is no mention that there are two parties involved, no suggestion that Eurydice might not love Orpheus, and no indication of whether she had a choice to return from the underworld with him. The myth tells us that, once dead, she is bound to the underworld, but Orpheus persuades Pluto to give her back to him. Atwood, however, makes it very clear that Eurydice has her own perspective and suggests that there may be more than one reason why Eurydice does not want to “return” (7) with her husband.
Atwood opens her poem with Eurydice’s observation of Orpheus: “[y]ou walked in front of me/pulling me” (1-2). This motif of physical dominance is repeated throughout the poem with words like “rope” (11) and “old leash” (14). The connotation of these words is rough and abusive; they are not often associated with love. Atwood’s diction reveals evidence of strain and describes the relationship “between” the couple as having been “stretched” (10). In addition, Eurydice says she is “obedient” (5). Atwood’s diction here indicates that her speaker follows the rules or requests of another. Subordinates obey, not lovers. Because she has been given back to Orpheus by Pluto, she is essentially property, passed from one man to another. She obeys both her husband and her god.
When Eurydice says Orpheus “might call” (15) his love for her an “old leash” (14), she speaks directly to him, suggesting that his love for her is not authentic but is really a device to manipulate what she does, a form of control. Orpheus “held/…the image of what [he] wanted/ [Eurydice] to [be]” (17-19). It is his idea, or “image” (18), of her that is important to him. Orpheus does not see Eurydice; he sees a version of her that he has created. Atwood uses words such as “hallucination” (21) and “image” (18) to describe the way Eurydice believes Orpheus sees her. All he knows of her is what he imagines. He does not see what she wants, or who she is.
What Orpheus wants is for Eurydice to be “living again” (19). The metaphorical theme of the poem is most apparent here. It is not that Eurydice is physically dead; it is that she does not love him, and he wants to bring her love for him back to life. In the original myth, Orpheus is able to charm any and all with his music. In Atwood’s version, he sings his wife into being: She “was listening/…and [Orpheus was] singing [her]” (21-22). Eurydice is charmed, and manipulated, by being the subject of his song.
In the end, though, Orpheus’ charms are unpersuasive. Atwood lets Eurydice make the choice that she is not given in the original myth: to “let go” and leave her husband (37). Throughout the poem, the actions of Eurydice and her husband are very separate. Eurydice follows her husband. She speaks of her experience and narrates what he does. He “sings” her, but not to her, and so he loses her. In the myth, Orpheus turns to Eurydice and loses her because he does so, but in Atwood’s poem, he turns because he has “already lost” her (33). In Atwood’s version of the story, the first time Orpheus notices his wife and she is not an idea or part of his imagination is the moment she leaves him. It is also the first instance in the poem in which Orpheus directly engages Eurydice. It is a very physical image, and full of meaning. Orpheus’ loss is described as a “failure” (36), suggesting that Orpheus’ reaction is not about heartbreak but rather about his ego. Losing Eurydice does not hurt Orpheus; his “failure” does.
The final line of Atwood’s poem is the most important, because it sums up the relationship and makes direct reference to the myth: “[Orpheus] could not believe [Eurydice] was more than [his] echo” (38). As his “echo,” “hallucination,” or “image,” Eurydice is not a full, independent person; she is just a reflection of her husband. Orpheus is used to manipulating others with his music. He is the talent, the leader and the most important person in his world.
Ultimately, the reason Eurydice leaves is that she is no “more than [his] echo.” She does not mean anything to him as a person. She is no longer an individual, and she is not seen as one by the husband who claims to love her. Eurydice is finally able to “let go” (37) and have a choice. In Atwood’s adaptation, it is Eurydice’s choice to go back to the underworld; she chooses death rather than life with Orpheus. In death, she is an individual. She is independent, instead of being an extension of her lover. Eurydice finally gets a voice in Atwood’s “Orpheus 1,” and when she expresses her feelings, readers discover they are very different from those of Orpheus.
Atwood, Margaret. “Orpheus 1.” Selected Poems II: 1976-1986. Vol. 2. Mariner Books, 1987. 108-108. Print.
“Orpheus.” The Concise Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. Ed. M.C. Howatson and Ian Chilvers. Oxford UP, 1996. Oxford Reference Online. Web. 1 February 2010.
“Orpheus.” Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World. Ed. John Roberts. Oxford UP, 2007. Oxford Reference Online. Web. 1 February 2010.