ORPHEUS AND EURYDICE
BY V. C. TURNBULL
"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."
Never was musician like Orpheus, who sang songs,
inspired by the Muses, to a lyre that was given to
him by Apollo. So mighty indeed was the magic of his
music, that Nature herself owned his sway. Not only
did rocks and rills repeat his lays, but the very trees uprooted
themselves to follow in his train, and the savage
beasts of the forest were tamed and fawned upon him as
he played and sang.
But of all who hearkened enchanted to those matchless
strains, none drew deeper delight therefrom than the
singer's newly wed wife, the young and lovely Eurydice.
Hour by hour she sat at his feet hearkening to the music
of his voice and lyre, and the gods themselves might have
envied the happy pair.
And surely some god did look with envious eye upon
those two. For on an evil day, Eurydice, strolling with
her maidens through a flowery meadow, was bitten on
her foot by a viper and perished in all her beauty ere
the sun went down.
Then Orpheus, terrible in his anguish, swore that death
itself should not forever rob him of his love. His song,
which could tame wild beasts and drag the ancient trees
from their roots, should quell the powers of hell and
snatch back Eurydice from their grasp.
Thus he swore, calling on the gods to help him; and
taking his lyre in his hand he set forth on that fearful
pilgrimage from which never man—unless, like Hercules,
he was a hero, half man and half god—had returned
And now he reaches the downward path, the end
whereof is lost in gloom. Deeper and deeper he descended
till the light of day was quite shut out, and with
it all the sounds of the pleasant earth. Downward
through the silence as of the grave, downward through
darkness deeper than that of any earthly night. Then
out of the darkness, faint at first, but louder as he went
on, came sounds that chilled his blood—shrieks and
groans of more than mortal anguish, and the terrible
voices of the Furies, speaking words that cannot be
uttered in any human tongue.
When Orpheus heard these things his knees shook and
his feet paused as if rooted to the ground. But remembering
once more his love and all his grief, he struck his
lyre and sang, till his dirge, reverberating like a coronach
or funeral march, drowned all the sounds of hell. And
Charon, the old ferryman, subdued by the melody, ferried
him over the ninefold Styx which none save the dead
might cross; and when Orpheus reached the other side
great companies of pale ghosts flocked round him on
that drear shore; for the singer was no shadowy ghost
like themselves, but a mortal, beautiful though woebegone,
and his song spoke to them as with a thousand
voices of the sunlight and the familiar earth, and of those
who were left behind in their well-loved homes.
But Orpheus, not finding Eurydice among these, made
no tarrying. Onward he passed, over the flaming flood
of Phlegethon, through the cloud-hung and adamantine
portals of Tartarus. Here Pluto, lord of the under-world,
sits enthroned, and round him sinners do penance
for the evil that they wrought upon earth. There Ixion,
murderer of his father-in-law, is racked upon the ever-turning
wheel, and Tantalus, who slew his son, endures
eternal hunger in sight of food and eternal fear from the
stone ever ready to fall. There the daughters of DanaŁs
cease not to pour water into bottomless urns. There
Sisyphus, who broke faith with the gods when they permitted
him to return a little while to the upper world,
evermore rolls up a steep hill a great stone that, falling
back from the summit, crushes the wretch in its downward
But now a great marvel was seen in hell. For as Orpheus
entered singing, his melodies, the first that had
ever sounded in that dread abode, caused all its terrors
for a moment to cease. Tantalus caught no more at the
fruits that slipped through his fingers, Ixion's wheel
ceased to turn, the daughters of DanaŁs paused at their
urns, and Sisyphus rested on his rock. Nay, the very
Furies themselves ceased to scourge their victims, and
the snakes that mingled with their locks hung down, forgetting
So came Orpheus to the throne of great Pluto, by
whose side sat Proserpine, his Queen. And the king of
the infernal gods asked: "What wouldst thou, mortal,
who darest to enter unbidden this our realm of death?"
Orpheus answered, touching his lyre the while: "Not
as a spy or a foe have I come where no living wight
hath ventured before, but I seek my wife, slain untimely
by the fangs of a serpent. Such love as mine for a
maiden such as she must melt the stoniest heart. Thy
heart is not all of stone, and thou too didst once love
an earthly maiden. By these places filled with horrors,
and by the silence of these boundless realms, I entreat
thee restore Eurydice to life."
He paused, and all Tartarus waited with him for a
reply. The terrible eyes of Pluto were cast down, and
to Proserpine came a memory of the far-off days when
she too was a maid upon earth sporting in the flowery
meads of Enna. Then Orpheus struck again his magic
strings and sang: "To thee we all belong; to thee soon
or late we all must come. It is but for a little space that
I crave my Eurydice. Nay, without her I will not return.
Grant, therefore, my prayer, O Pluto, or slay me
here and now."
Then Pluto raised his head and spoke: "Bring hither
And Eurydice, still pale and limping from her mortal
wound, was brought from among the shades of the
And Pluto said: "Take back, Orpheus, thy wife Eurydice,
and lead her to the upper world again. But go
thou before and leave her to follow after. Look not once
back till thou hast passed my borders and canst see the
sun, for in the moment when thou turnest thy head, thy
wife is lost to thee again and forever."
Then with great joy Orpheus turned and led Eurydice
from thence. They left behind the tortured dead and the
gibbering ghosts; they crossed the flaming Phlegethon,
and Charon rowed them once more over the ninefold
Styx; and up the dark path they went, the cries of Tartarus
sounding ever fainter in their ears; and anon the
light of the sun shone faint and far where the path returned
to earth, and as they pressed forward the song
of the little birds made answer to the lyre of Orpheus.
But the cup of happiness was dashed from the lips that
touched its brim. For even as they stood upon the uttermost
verge of the dark place, the light of the sun just
dawning upon their faces and their feet within a pace of
earthly soil, Eurydice stumbled and cried out in pain.
Without a thought Orpheus turned to see what ailed
her, and in that moment was she caught from him. Far
down the path he saw her, a ghost once more, fading
from his sight like smoke as her faint form was lost in
the gloom; only for a moment could he see her white arms stretched towards him in vain; only once could he hear
her last heart-broken farewell.
Down the path rushed Orpheus, clamoring for his
Eurydice lost a second time; but vain was all his grief,
for not again would Charon row him across the Styx.
So the singer returned to earth, his heart broken, and
all joy gone from his life. Thenceforth his one consolation
was to sit upon Mount Rhodope singing his love
and his loss. And the Thracian women, worshipers of
Bacchus, kindling at his strains, called to him to join in
their wild rites. But when he turned from them with
loathing, they fell upon him, tearing him limb from limb.
And his head they cast into the river Hebrus, whose
banks bore to the ∆gean Sea that long-drawn wail:
"Eurydice, Eurydice!" And still as we hear the music
of that sweet name we think of "infinite passion, and the
pain of finite hearts that yearn."
But the gods, first punishing the Thracian women by
turning them into trees, took the lyre of Orpheus and set
it among the stars. And Orpheus himself, once more
entering by the gate of death the regions of the dead,
seeks and finds his beloved Eurydice. Now may they
walk side by side, now Orpheus, if he goes before, may
look back in safety upon the face of his loved one. For
the sorrows of life are over and the pangs of death are
past, and no shadow of parting can come between the
singer and his love in the Elysium of the Blessed.