This post will be an essay-type critical analysis of H.D.’s Eurydice, focusing upon her feminist adaptation of the Greek myth: Orpheus and Eurydice. Click here to read the poem.
H.D. transforms the myth of Orpheus drastically by assigning the narrative voice to Eurydice as a form of empowerment. In the poem the eponymous protagonist is elevated from the traditional passive role of a woman to an intense and defiant character. H.D.’s feminist tones are certainly conveyed in the poem as Eurydice cries out against the restraints on her life, both from Orpheus and the gods. As a reader would feel for a traditional Greek hero, Eurydice evokes cathartic emotions through her bitter descriptions, but is ultimately strengthened by her experiences.
Eurydice’s narrative voice is used to vividly express her outrage towards Orpheus, an anger attacking the patriarchal system and also his dismissal of her emotions. In the traditional Greek myth, it is Orpheus’ actions, emotions and thoughts that dominates throughout the story, H.D.’s decision to shift this to Eurydice is an act of empowerment in itself. Eurydice clearly blames Orpheus for her suffering in the repeated line “So for your arrogance/ and your ruthlessness”. It is interesting that a traditional quality of Greek heroes, their pride and confidence in their abilities, is what Eurydice blames her misfortune on. Orpheus is not an exception to this common quality as he is both the son of Apollo, a god, and the most talented musician. However, Orpheus’ arrogance is a patriarchal quality that H.D. criticises through Eurydice’s narrative. Orpheus’ confidence in himself also makes him very self-centred and vain, dismissive of the woman’s emotions. His rescue mission seems to be more for his own satisfaction and achieving heroism than saving Eurydice from the underworld. Eurydice tells Orpheus that “So for your arrogance I am broken at last”. It is not the underworld that breaks her but the actions of Orpheus. The tragedy inflicted on her by a man is worse than hell itself. She wishes that he had let her “rest with the dead” rather than give her hope and shatter it in the last second. Her fury towards Orpheus and his recklessness creates a vast distance between the two characters, so much so that the great love story of Orpheus and Eurydice is ghostly absent in this poem. When Eurydice recalls all the things she misses about Earth, “the live souls” and “the live flowers”, she does not once mention missing Orpheus. The only emotions Eurydice directs onto Orpheus are anger, blame and guilt, not compassion or love. As a woman, Eurydice becomes gradually detached from her husband and her narrative voice is crucial in conveying this. The use of rhetorical questions in section II lines 9-14 seems to be mimetic of Eurydice’s gradual distancing from her husband. With every ounce of blame that she places on Orpheus, she becomes more and more detached from him and his façade of heroism. Her detachment from the male hero in the poem seems to be crucial in her ultimate strengthening. In the traditional story Eurydice is much more like an object of desire and her death is caused by the cravings of another man (Aristaeus), who wishes to have her as his own. In this poem however, after her failed rescue mission by her husband Eurydice does not weep or pray to the gods, she speaks out in rage and frustration. Her fury towards Orpheus, and by extension the patriarchy, acts as a catalyst for her independence and self-empowerment.
The narrative voice of Eurydice is particularly successful in evoking sympathy for her, much more than for Orpheus. Traditionally, since the hero is at the centre of the story it is his misfortunes that the reader pities. In the Greek myth great sympathy is felt for Orpheus after Eurydice’s death as he wallows in miserable songs, and even brings Hades and Persephone to tears with his sadness. In H.D.’s poem Eurydice certainly evokes the most sympathy for her longing descriptions of the Earth and her desolate descriptions of the underworld and her losses. The first-person narrative enables these descriptions to be even more sorrowful and pitiful, and in this sense Eurydice is given heroine-like qualities. The contrast between the underworld and Earth stresses Eurydice’s sense of loss and loneliness. The poem begins with Eurydice’s longing for earth, suggesting its importance to her:
So you have swept me back –
I who could have walked with the live souls
above the earth,
I who could have slept among the live flowers
The first line, compared to the enjambement in the consecutive lines sets a contrast between the digression of the underworld, sweeping her “back” and the progression and fluidity of life on earth. The repetition of “live” also suggests a clear comparison of life versus death. When these lines are repeated in section V, the enjambement is lost, stressing Eurydice’s sense of loss and overwhelming atmosphere of nothingness. Furthermore, the repetition of “flowers” throughout the poem can be interpreted as a symbol of Eurydice’s hope and happiness. On Earth the flowers are “live” (I.4) and the crocuses are “very golden” and “red”. The vibrancy of the description and the bright colours convey cheerfulness and an atmosphere full of life. This description is pitted against the likes of: “all, all the flowers are lost” and “blue crocuses”. The flowers, once a symbol of beauty and happiness for Eurydice, are “lost” in the underworld just like her. It is symbolic of her loss of hope in returning to the world above but also significant in showing the darkness of hell. The blue colour of the crocuses contrasted with the warmer colours on Earth bring back the theme of death in the underworld. The flowers are blue like a lifeless body and there are “depth upon depth” of them, an overwhelming and suffocating feeling of lifelessness. This contrast created through Eurydice’s narrative description presents the stark differences between life and death, of the underworld and of the Earth. Her trapped existence in a setting so isolated and tragic, is a fate much worse than that of Orpheus, the victimised character in the traditional myth.
The most heroine-like quality of Eurydice is her strength and strong-will after all the hardship she has faced. Towards the end of the poem her narrative voice shifts from anger and self-pity to defiance and determination. Eurydice becomes aware that she is a ‘better’ person than Orpheus and has “more fervour/ than [him] in all the splendour of that place”. The constant mentions of “loss” are finally overcome as Eurydice manages to find herself again. She realises that her presence in the underworld does not mean that all that is inside her is also dead. After all, Orpheus lives on earth and yet Eurydice sees him as a hellish man. She states that her “hell is no worse” than his life, and thus she can overcome the underworld to find herself again. Eurydice begins to believe so strongly in herself and her thoughts that she remarks “no god can take that!”. This is also an unconventional change by H.D. since in the traditional myth the gods, such as Hades, essentially control the fate of the characters. However, in the poem Eurydice asserts power even over the gods. She challenges hell itself: “hell must break before I am lost”. Orpheus fails to save Eurydice, and so she saves herself. Eurydice stresses this point by saying “hell must open like a red rose” before she loses herself. The dead must literally become a force of life for her to lose herself. It can be argued that she is even braver than Orpheus who is granted his passage into the underworld by the gods. Eurydice creates her own path without permission from anybody. In the traditional myth, she is a merely a passive character who waits in the underworld until Orpheus dies and joins her, however in H.D.’s poem she becomes a strong feminist character, taking her fate into her own hands.
By the end of the poem H.D. manages to completely reverse the roles of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus becomes almost villainised as a result of the blame inflicted upon him by Eurydice, and his presence in the poem is dominated by her thoughts and emotions. There is a clear progression of Eurydice’s character in the poem from an abandoned wife to a woman of immense willpower. H.D. transforms the traditional Greek heroic myth into a poem conveying feminist messages. The narrative voice is integral to this character development as it allows the reader to have an insight into Eurydice’s intense feelings, experiences of the underworld, and the rediscovery of her true self.
Thank you for reading!