Orpheus called for Hymen and Hymen came
Robed in saffron like a saffron flame
Leaping across tremendous airy zones
To reach the land of the Ciconians.
So Hymen did attend the rites, but no
Good luck or cheer or salutations, no
Auspicious outcome was to come of that.
Instead, the torch he carried smoked and spat
And no matter how he fanned it wouldn’t flare.
His eyes kept watering. And a worse disaster
Than could have been predicted came to pass
For as the bride went roaming through the grass
With all her naiads round her, she fell down.
A snake had bit her ankle. She was gone.
Orpheus mourned her in the world above,
Raving and astray, until his love
Compelled him down among the very shades.
He dared to venture on the Stygian roads
Among those shadow people, the many, many
Ghosts of the dead, to find Persephone
And the lord who rules the dismal land of Hades;
Then plucked the lyre-gut for its melodies
And sang in harmony: ‘O founded powers
Who rule the underearth, this life of ours,
This mortal life we live in upper air
Will be returned to you. To you, therefore,
We may speak the whole truth and speak it out
As I do now, directly: I have not
Transgressed your gloomy borders just to see
The sights of Tartarus, nor to tie all three
Of the three-necked monster’s snake-snarled necks in one.
I crossed into your jurisdiction
Because my wife is here. The snake she stepped on
Poisoned her and cut her off too soon
And though I have tried to suffer on my own
And outlive loss, in the end Love won.
Whether or not you underpowers feel
The force of this god, Love, I cannot tell,
But surely he prevails down here as well
Unless that ancient story about hell
And its lord and a ravaged girl’s not true.
Was it not Love that bound the two of you?
I pray you, therefore, by the extent of these
Scaresome voids and mist-veiled silences,
Unweave the woven fate Eurydice
Endured too soon. All of humanity
Is in your power, your kingdom is our home.
We may put off the day but it will come.
Sooner or later, the last house on the road
Will be this immemorial abode.
This is the throne-room of the universe.
Allow Eurydice her unlived years
And when she will have lived them, she’ll be yours
Inalienably. I desire on sufferance
And want my wife. But if the fates pronounce
Against this privilege, then you can take
Credit for two deaths. I shall not go back.’
As Orpheus played and pleaded, the bodiless
Hordes of the dead wept for him. Tantalus
Was so bewitched he let the next wave fill
And fall without reaching. Ixion’s wheel
Stood spellbound. The vultures’ beaks held off
Above Tityos’ liver. The obsessive
Water-riddlers heard and did not move.
And Sisyphus, you dozed upon your rock
Which stood dazed also. A tear then wet the cheek
Of each of the Eumenides, the one
And only time: song had made them human
And made the lord of Hades and his lady
Relent as well. They called Eurydice
Who limped out from among the newly dead
As eager as the day when she’d been wed
To Orpheus. But there was one term set:
Until he left Avernus, he was not
To look back, or the gift would be in vain.
They took the pathway up a steep incline
That kept on rising higher, through a grim
Silence and thick mist, and they had come
Close to the rim of earth when Orpheus—
Anxious for her, wild to see her face—
Turned his head to look and she was gone
Immediately, forever, back and down.
He reached his arms out, desperate to hold
And be held on to, but his arms just filled
With insubstantial air. She died again,
Bridal and doomed, but still did not complain
Against her husband — as indeed how could she
Complain about being loved so totally?
Instead, as she slipped away, she called out dear
And desperate farewells he strained to hear.
The second death stunned Orpheus. He stood
Disconsolate, beyond himself, dumbfounded
Like the man who turned to stone because he’d seen
Hercules lead Cerberus on a chain
Leashed to his middle neck; or like that pair
Petrified to two rocks underwater
In the riverlands of Ida—Olenos
And Lethea, uxorious sinners.
Pleading and pleading to be let across
The Styx again, he sat for seven days
Fasting and filthy on the bank, but Charon
Would not allow it. So he travelled on
Accusing the cruel gods until he found
A way back to his mountainous home ground
The sun passed through the house
Of Pisces three times then, and Orpheus
Withdrew and turned away from loving women—
Perhaps because there only could be one
Eurydice, or because the shock of loss
Had changed his very nature. Nonetheless,
Many women loved him and, denied
Or not, adored. But now the only bride
For Orpheus was going to be a boy
And Thracians learned from him, who still enjoy
Plucking those spring flowers bright and early.
—From Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book X,
and Seamus Heaney’s The Midnight Verdict (1993).