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Jean Lang

Orpheus with his lute made trees, And the mountain tops that freeze, Bow themselves when he did sing; To his music plants and flowers Ever sprung, as sun and showers There had made a lasting spring. Everything that heard him play, Even the billows of the sea, Hung their heads, and then lay by, In sweet music is such art, Killing care and grief of heart Fall asleep, or hearing die.”
“Are we not all lovers as Orpheus was, loving what is gone from us forever, and seeking it vainly in the solitudes and wilderness of the mind, and crying to Eurydice to come again? And are we not all foolish as Orpheus was, hoping by the agony of love and the ecstasy of will to win back Eurydice; and do we not all fail, as Orpheus failed, because we forsake the way of the other world for the way of this world?”
-Fiona Macleod

It is the custom nowadays for scientists and for other scholarly people to take hold of the old myths, to take them to pieces, and to find some deep, hidden meaning in each part of the story. So you will find that some will tell you that Orpheus is the personification of the winds which “tear up trees as they course along, chanting their wild music,” and that Eurydice is the morning “with its short-lived beauty.” Others say that Orpheus is “the mythological expression of the delight which music gives to the primitive races,” while yet others accept without hesitation the idea that Orpheus is the sun that, when day is done, plunges into the black abyss of night, in the vain hope of overtaking his lost bride, Eurydice, the rosy dawn. And, whether they be right or wrong, it would seem that the sadness that comes to us sometimes as the day dies and the last of the sun’s rays vanish to leave the hills and valleys dark and cold, the sorrowful feeling that we cannot understand when, in country places, we hear music coming from far away, or listen to the plaintive song of the bird, are things that very specially belong to the story of Orpheus.

Orpheus in El Maestro by Luys Milan, 1536. Orpheus plays his lute while animals watch calmly. A river and town are visible behind him.Orpheus in El Maestro by Luys Milan, 1536

In the country of Thrace, surrounded by all the best gifts of the gods, Orpheus was born. His father was Apollo, the god of music and of song, his mother the muse Calliope. Apollo gave his little son a lyre, and himself taught him how to play it. It was not long before all the wild things in the woods of Thrace crept out from the green trees and thick undergrowth, and from the holes and caves in the rocks, to listen to the music that the child’s fingers made. The coo of the dove to his mate, the flute-clear trill of the blackbird, the song of the lark, the liquid carol of the nightingale—all ceased when the boy made music. The winds that whispered their secrets to the trees owned him for their lord, and the proudest trees of the forest bowed their heads that they might not miss one exquisite sigh that his fingers drew from the magical strings. Nor man nor beast lived in his day that he could not sway by the power of his melody. He played a lullaby, and all things slept. He played a love-lilt, and the flowers sprang up in full bloom from the cold earth, and the dreaming red rosebud opened wide her velvet petals, and all the land seemed full of the loving echoes of the lilt he played. He played a war-march, and, afar off, the sleeping tyrants of the forest sprang up, wide awake, and bared their angry teeth, and the untried youths of Thrace ran to beg their fathers to let them taste battle, while the scarred warriors felt on their thumbs the sharpness of their sword blades, and smiled, well content. While he played it would seem as though the very stones and rocks gained hearts. Nay, the whole heart of the universe became one great, palpitating, beautiful thing, an instrument from whose trembling strings was drawn out the music of Orpheus.

He rose to great power, and became a mighty prince of Thrace. Not his lute alone, but he himself played on the heart of the fair Eurydice and held it captive. It seemed as though, when they became man and wife, all happiness must be theirs. But although Hymen, the god of marriage, himself came to bless them on the day they wed, the omens on that day were against them. The torch that Hymen carried had no golden flame, but sent out pungent black smoke that made their eyes water. They feared they knew not what; but when, soon afterwards, as Eurydice wandered with the nymphs, her companions, through the blue-shadowed woods of Thrace, the reason was discovered. A bold shepherd, who did not know her for a princess, saw Eurydice, and no sooner saw her than he loved her. He ran after her to proclaim to her his love, and she, afraid of his wild uncouthness, fled before him. She ran, in her terror, too swiftly to watch whither she went, and a poisonous snake that lurked amongst the fern bit the fair white foot that flitted, like a butterfly, across it. In agonised suffering Eurydice died. Her spirit went to the land of the Shades, and Orpheus was left broken-hearted.

The sad winds that blow at night across the sea, the sobbing gales that tell of wreck and death, the birds that wail in the darkness for their mates, the sad, soft whisper of the aspen leaves and the leaves of the heavy clad blue-black cypresses, all now were hushed, for greater than all, more full of bitter sorrow than any, arose the music of Orpheus, a long-drawn sob from a broken heart in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

Grief came alike to gods and to men as they listened, but no comfort came to him from the expression of his sorrow. At length, when to bear his grief longer was impossible for him, Orpheus wandered to Olympus, and there besought Zeus to give him permission to seek his wife in the gloomy land of the Shades. Zeus, moved by his anguish, granted the permission he sought, but solemnly warned him of the terrible perils of his undertaking.

But the love of Orpheus was too perfect to know any fear; thankfully he hastened to the dark cave on the side of the promontory of Taenarus, and soon arrived at the entrance of Hades. Stark and grim was the three-headed watchdog, Cerberus, which guarded the door, and with the growls and the furious roaring of a wild beast athirst for its prey it greeted Orpheus. But Orpheus touched his lute, and the brute, amazed, sank into silence. And still he played, and the dog would gently have licked the player’s feet, and looked up in his face with its savage eyes full of the light that we see in the eyes of the dogs of this earth as they gaze with love at their masters. On, then, strode Orpheus, playing still, and the melody he drew from his lute passed before him into the realms of Pluto.

Surely never were heard such strains. They told of perfect, tender love, of unending longing, of pain too great to end with death. Of all the beauties of the earth they sang—of the sorrow of the world—of all the world’s desire—of things past—of things to come. And ever, through the song that the lute sang, there came, like a thread of silver that is woven in a black velvet pall, a limpid melody. It was as though a bird sang in the mirk night, and it spoke of peace and of hope, and of joy that knows no ending.

Into the blackest depths of Hades the sounds sped on their way, and the hands of Time stood still. From his bitter task of trying to quaff the stream that ever receded from the parched and burning lips, Tantalus ceased for a moment. The ceaseless course of Ixion’s wheel was stayed, the vulture’s relentless beak no longer tore at the Titan’s liver; Sisyphus gave up his weary task of rolling the stone and sat on the rock to listen, the Danaïdes rested from their labour of drawing water in a sieve. For the first time, the cheeks of the Furies were wet with tears, and the restless shades that came and went in the darkness, like dead autumn leaves driven by a winter gale, stood still to gaze and listen. Before the throne where Pluto and his queen Proserpine were seated, sable-clad and stern, the relentless Fates at their feet, Orpheus still played on. And to Proserpine then came the living remembrance of all the joys of her girlhood by the blue Ægean Sea in the fair island of Sicily. Again she knew the fragrance and the beauty of the flowers of spring. Even into Hades the scent of the violets seemed to come, and fresh in her heart was the sorrow that had been hers on the day on which the ruthless King of Darkness tore her from her mother and from all that she held most dear. Silent she sat beside her frowning, stern-faced lord, but her eyes grew dim.

When, with a quivering sigh, the music stopped, Orpheus fearlessly pled his cause. To let him have Eurydice, to give him back his more than life, to grant that he might lead her with him up to “the light of Heaven”—that was his prayer.

The eyes of Pluto and Proserpine did not dare to meet, yet with one accord was their answer given. Eurydice should be given back to him, but only on one condition. Not until he had reached the light of earth again was he to turn round and look upon the face for a sight of which his eyes were tired with longing. Eagerly Orpheus complied, and with a heart almost breaking with gladness he heard the call for Eurydice and turned to retrace his way, with the light footfall of the little feet that he adored making music behind him. Too good a thing it seemed—too unbelievable a joy. She was there—quite close to him. Their days of happiness were not ended. His love had won her back, even from the land of darkness. All that he had not told her of that love while yet she was on earth he would tell her now. All that he had failed in before, he would make perfect now. The little limping foot—how it made his soul overflow with adoring tenderness. So near she was, he might even touch her were he to stretch back his hand....

And then there came to him a hideous doubt. What if Pluto had played him false? What if there followed him not Eurydice, but a mocking shade? As he climbed the steep ascent that led upwards to the light, his fear grew more cruelly real. Almost he could imagine that her footsteps had stopped, that when he reached the light he would find himself left once more to his cruel loneliness. Too overwhelming for him was the doubt. So nearly there they were that the darkness was no longer that of night, but as that of evening when the long shadows fall upon the land, and there seemed no reason for Orpheus to wait.

Swiftly he turned, and found his wife behind him, but only for a moment she stayed. Her arms were thrown open and Orpheus would fain have grasped her in his own, but before they could touch each other Eurydice was borne from him, back into the darkness.

“Farewell!” she said—“Farewell!” and her voice was a sigh of hopeless grief. In mad desperation Orpheus sought to follow her, but his attempt was vain. At the brink of the dark, fierce-flooded Acheron the boat with its boatman, old Charon, lay ready to ferry across to the further shore those whose future lay in the land of Shades. To him ran Orpheus, in clamorous anxiety to undo the evil he had wrought. But Charon angrily repulsed him. There was no place for such as Orpheus in his ferry-boat. Those only who went, never to return, could find a passage there. For seven long days and seven longer nights Orpheus waited beside the river, hoping that Charon would relent, but at last hope died, and he sought the depths of the forests of Thrace, where trees and rocks and beasts and birds were all his friends.

He took his lyre again then and played:

“Such strains as would have won the ear Of Pluto, to have quite set free His half-regained Eurydice.”

Day and night he stayed in the shadow of the woodlands, all the sorrow of his heart expressing itself in the song of his lute. The fiercest beasts of the forest crawled to his feet and looked up at him with eyes full of pity. The song of the birds ceased, and when the wind moaned through the trees they echoed his cry, “Eurydice! Eurydice!”

In the dawning hours it would seem to him that he saw her again, flitting, a thing of mist and rising sun, across the dimness of the woods. And when evening came and all things rested, and the night called out the mystery of the forest, again he would see her. In the long blue shadows of the trees she would stand—up the woodland paths she walked, where her little feet fluttered the dry leaves as she passed. Her face was white as a lily in the moonlight, and ever she held out her arms to Orpheus:

“At that elm-vista’s end I trace, Dimly thy sad leave-taking face, Eurydice! Eurydice! The tremulous leaves repeat to me Eurydice! Eurydice!”

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