Category Archives: poetry

Orpheus, from Greece to Brazil

Orpheus and Eurydice

Orpheus and Eurydice

From tales of wood nymphs transformed into trees or rivers, to gods arbitrarily helping or abducting humans, the Greek myths embody tragedy and comedy, love and hate, beautiful beings and repulsive ogres, and nature in all its unfathomable splendor. Of all the myths, the story of Persephone and the story of Orpheus must be the saddest. In Persephone, the young goddess of spring is abducted by Pluto and carried off to Hell. In Orpheus, two lovers are torn apart not once but twice, as Eurydice slips back down into the Underworld.

What is most extraordinary is that the myths were such brilliantly crafted tales and personifications, perhaps most lovingly interpreted by Ovid. The story of Orpheus was first penned by the Greek poet, Apollonius Rhodius, in The Voyage of the Argo, in the third-century, B.C.. Both Virgil and Ovid, two Roman poets from the Greco-Roman time period, continued the Orpheus tale with Orpheus and Eurydice

In this way, Apollonius passed along the historia of Orpheus, in the written tradition, influencing other ancient writers, who enlarged and enhanced the story, allowing the aeons to transform it into mythology for the world’s enjoyment and interpretation.

As the story goes, Hermes, the messenger god, invented the lyre and handed the instrument down, first to Apollo, the “magical musician”, and then to Orpheus. Apollo, the god of light and truth, was the father of Orpheus. Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry, was his mother. Hence, Orpheus came from an exceptionally melodious lineage.

Of the Muses, Hesiod is quoted as saying:

He is happy whom the Muses love. For though a man has sorrow and grief in his soul, yet when the servant of the Muses sings, at once he forgets his dark thoughts and remembers not his troubles. Such is the holy gift of the Muses to men.

The Story of Orpheus

It was said that Orpheus could sing and play music more sweetly than any mortal in all of Thrace. Indeed, he could move rivers, rocks and trees and attract the birds and animals to his side.

Half-human, half god, Orpheus also attained the adoration of the nymphs and Naiads: from beautiful maidens and lesser deities of the woods, rivers, trees and meadows, to the formidable, maenads, worshipers of the Bacchante, who, in Ovid’s version, ultimately destroy Orpheus out of jealousy.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Orpheus is married to Eurydice;

The new-wed bride,
Roaming with her gay Naiads through the grass,
Fell dying when a serpent struck her heel.

And in so dying, Eurydice is whisked away to the Underworld, much like Persephone, to the place of death, in Greco-Roman mythology, where all souls go in the final end. But the love of Orpheus and the loss that he feels is so great, that he travels to the Underworld and pleads his case before Hades to have his wife, Eurydice returned to life.

He plays upon his lyre and sings to all the host of the Underworld;

So to the music of his strings he sang,
And all the bloodless spirits wept to hear…
Then first by that sad singing overwhelmed,
The Furies’ cheeks, it’s said, were wet with tears…

Orpheus wins his wish. Hades grants that Eurydice return to the upper-realms with her husband, but with the stipulation that he is not to look back at her as they ascend to the light, Orpheus leading the way.

As the tragic tale goes, Orhpeus, in a fit of concern, does look back just as Eurydice is about to step up into the earthly realm, and the ill-destined bride descends, like mist, back down the dark tunnel into the Underworld again.

And now they neared the edge of the bright world,
And, fearing lest she faint, longing to look,
He turned his eyes – and straight she slipped away.

He stretched his arms to hold her – to be held –
And clasped, poor soul, naught but the yielding air.
And she, dying again, made no complaint
(For what complaint had she save she was loved?)
And breathed a faint farewell, and turned again
Back to the land of Spirits whence she came.
The double death of his Eurydice,
Stole Orpheus’ wits away.

And so Orpheus is left to sing and play beautiful, sad songs in the forests and meadows, by the rivers and under the trees, for the next three years, loved by many women, but loving none in return.

Then, Ovid continues the tale in The Death of Orpheus, wherein the Maenads, those jealous, pleasure seekers of Bacchic’ orgies, explode into a frenzied rage and destroy Orpheus with the violence of a pack of wolves.

Of Thracian women, wearing skins of beasts,
From some high ridge of ground caught sight of him.
‘Look!’ shouted one of them, tossing her hair
That floated in the breeze, ‘Look, there he is,
The man who scorns us!’

Re-telling the Myth

Many poets and writers have since developed and retold the myth, using the themes of ill-fated love and the immortals in such stories as Pyramus and Thisby or Romeo and Juliet. And Orpheus has found his way into opera, art, theater and film as well.

In the film, Black Orpheus, the setting is Rio de Janeiro during the wildly colorful and musical celebration of Carnival, which takes place during Lent. This makes for a brilliant tableau for the ancient tale. Since the Brazilians feel connected to the Greeks and make up a multi-faceted culture of strongly Catholic beliefs, with people of indigenous-Indian, Italian, Portuguese, German, French and African descent, their story is rich with the traditions of these combined groups.

From the film, Black Orpheus

From the film, Black Orpheus

This softly colorized film-version of the myth of Orpheus was directed by Marcel Camus, using a cool, samba musical score by bossa nova jazz legends, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luis Bonfa. Lots of symbolic detail can be deciphered from the beginning until the ending scenes. Through personifications of Hermes, the Muses, “Mira” – a jealous maenad, and Death or Fate, the Brazilians express their love of the Greeks, revering their stories and retelling their myth.

Yet, the Brazilians celebrate the illumination of the human spirit through the music and dancing of Carnival. Innocence shines through in the joy of their faces. And the very enchanting children of this film embody the true essence of dance. The bright colors and natural, instinctual rhythm of their remarkable “African beat” becomes that of a folk religion, mixing the Christ, Greek Mythology and African mysteries into one.

The festival costumes represent the Greco-Roman as well as the French, with Orpheus and Eurydice wearing Greek garments of a Golden Era, while the Maenads are dressed up in the flamboyance of French Versaille, illustrating the excesses of Marie Antionette and Louie XVI alongside street urchins and the very poor.

In the end, Mira, the frenzied Maenad, hurls a stone at Orpheus, as she does in the mythology. Camus remains true to Ovid by bringing Orpheus and Eurydice ultimately back together in death, but through the perspective of this romantic, creative, Brazilian film medium.

Black Orpheus won the Palme d’Or at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1960. Moreover, the film brought wide recognition and popularity to the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim.

References:The Metamorphoses by Ovid

(A version of this post originally appeared in my HubPages blog.)

A Japanese Literary Masterpiece

The Tale of Genji was written by Murasaki Shikibu, a woman who served among the royal court in the tenth century Heian period in present day Kyoto. This fascinating tale, the length of Wuthering Heights and Dickens’ David Copperfield combined, is revered as the finest work of Japanese literature and indeed one of the world’s greatest novels. Written in the lyrical style exclusive to Japanese poetics and prose, The Tale Of Genji flows in its original form as uninterrupted poetry. English translation does alter the original with paragraph-breaks and punctuation, yet the tale was so well crafted that the integral feeling of beauty holds forth, delighting and inspiring us.

Murasaki Shikibu, who was brought into the royal court as a girl, wrote her story probably with a brush and ink in the exquisitely painted characters of the syllabary, or alphabet, which had been developed over time as intrinsically Japanese and therefore distinguishable from its derivative Chinese. The Tale of Genji was written at the height of Japanese literary excellence, when artistic brilliance was cherished throughout the country, and women in particular were known to be the greatest writers of poetry and prose. Moreover, to be gifted in poetics was revered as a supreme talent in the royal court and among society at large and remains so today.

Of Japanese poetry, the Japanese poet, Kino Tsurayuki, has said,

The poetry of Japan has its roots in the human heart.

The Tale Of Genji, a masterpiece of poetics, reads as something of a Siddhartha tale; although, Genji, unlike the young Buddha, experiences a number of pivotal romantic relationships on his journey rather than spiritual encounters: Siddhartha, the son of an emperor, chose to leave the sanctuary of the court and follow his own yearning to know the world and all of human suffering first hand. In Genji’s case, his father, the emperor, forces Genji out into the world to save his beloved son from the jealousies and intrigues of the court, where highly contentious political backbiting could, his father believed, kill a spirit of such divine charisma as Genji’s.

In the genre of courtly romance, the extraordinary infuses Genji’s environment even as a commoner living amidst a realm far from the royal court. Beauty and refinement are written into the flowers, trees and things of nature. Coming from a tradition of, not only Buddhism but, firstly, the Shinto religion, in which reverence for feminine nature-deities, as the sun, mountains and rivers, Murasaki draws from these nature-tropes to imbue her tale with a subtle, supernatural ambiance. Here, the various relationships of our chivalrous Genji include the poetry, symbolism and quiet eroticism of flowers. Cantillation, or the reading out loud of poems as declarations of love, describes Genji’s character while also exhibiting Murasaki’s rarified art of poetic verse. Genji learns through his adventures the poignancy and anguish of romantic love as well as that of death’s shadow.

The evening sky was serenely beautiful. The flowers below the veranda were withered, the songs of the insects were dying too, and autumn tints were coming over the maples. Looking out upon the scene, which might have been a painting, Ukon thought what a lovely asylum she had found herself. She wanted to avert her eyes at the thought of the house of the ‘evening faces.’ A pigeon called, somewhat discordantly, from a bamboo thicket. Remembering how the same call had frightened the girl in that deserted villa, Genji could see the little figure as if an apparition were there before him.

‘How old was she? She seemed so delicate, because she was not long for this world, I suppose.’

The above excerpt is taken from the chapter entitled Evening Faces. Other chapter titles include: Lavender, The Sacred Tree, Wisteria Leaves, Evening Mist, The Wizard, Beneath the Oak, and The Drake Fly. Within these wilderness motifs, Genji embarks on his romantic adventures. As an Orpheus hero, the prodigy evinces the nobility of his ancestry, knows something of its effects, but disavows any show of rightful hubris.

Murasaki Shikibu was the daughter of a low ranking nobleman and was recognized as a gifted writer with superior potential and was thereby invited to serve in the salon of a royal consort. Shikibu’s father preferred the education of boys, but he too saw his daughter’s genius and so allowed her to live outside of her home, inside the opulence of courtly-life. It was here, in these most ideal surroundings, for classical education and writing, that a tenth-century Japanese woman wrote the world’s first novel.

It has been observed that any English translation of The Tale of Genji loses much of the natural grace of the original, and this may be a metaphor for the Japanese culture at large: we as Westerners are captivated by its charm, find mystery and adoration in it’s artistry; yet, we can perhaps never fully appreciate the essential beauty of its enigmatic language.

Castaways

Shakespeare the Tempest adjst

Shakespeare’s The Tempest may be the definitive castaways-tale. There is the duke, Prospero, who becomes usurped from the throne by his own brother and put to sea, along with a baby girl, in a meagerly provisioned, shoddy boat. Ovid, Shakespeare’s unofficial muse, used this suspenseful theme in the mythical tale of Perseus. Similarly, there is an island on which the two exiled royals find refuge and where they ultimately long for a return home. In both Shakespeare and Ovid, the castaways survive with the unusual advantage of magic.

The Tempest’s Prospero has spent his life studying books of the supernatural within the sequestered comforts of his beloved Milan. Now, many leagues from his homeland, surviving for approximately twelve years on a faraway island in the Mediterranean, Prospero has been plotting with his art to conjure a storm, a tempest, which will bring his enemies to the island. It takes a tremendous amount of control to accomplish such a feat, and Prospero certainly is something of a control freak at best and a cruel brute at his worst.

Though he adores his daughter, Miranda, Prospero is manipulative with her in the way he controls her thoughts and her memory and even what she sees:

The fringed curtains of thine eye advance,
And say what thou seest yond. 1.2.411,412

With cunning conversation, he allows for certain memories to filter in. But when Miranda begins to recall too much, Prospero utilizes his absolute power to knock her out with sleep. So, Miranda is continually awakening from naps with a quizzical look on her face. Still, she has very early memories that appear to be surreptitiously pressed on her by Prospero:

’Tis far off,
And rather like a dream than an assurance
That my remembrance warrants. Had I not
Four or five women once that tended me? 1.2.46-49

Mirada, (whose very name is phonetically similar to the words memory and remember), speaks with eloquence about what she does or does not recall of her early childhood in Milan. She is the angelic, innately wise ingenue that Shakespeare often employed for his female characters.

Since landing on the isle, Miranda has been under Prospero’s tutelage and influence. Yet, her temperament hardly resembles her father’s. For instance, while Prospero has enough angry aggression to create a violent tempest that would bring a ship crashing in flames to the shore, Miranda has not inherited any of his meanness; in fact, she sympathizes with the crew:

O, I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer! 1.2.5,6

As they made the island their home, Prospero had quickly acquired slaves: Caliban, (an anagram of cannibal,) a native of the island who is referred to as a grotesque creature – and Ariel, a male or kind of asexual sprite, who had been imprisoned in a tree trunk by Caliban’s mother, a witch. The witch has since died, so Prospero frees Ariel from the tree, but imprisons the airy spirit all the same with threats of returning him to the tree if he does not obey:

Thou liest, malignant thing! Hast thou forgot
the foul witch Sycorax… 1.2.259,260

In keeping with this colonialist trope, Shakespeare has Prospero commanding these two slaves for the magician’s own purposes in raising the storm and using his minion, Ariel, to perform spritely tricks on the royals, who wash ashore. Indeed, Ariel is eternally on-call to carry out fantastic, magical activities all across the island. Hence, Prospero, who was exiled, has exiled his captors to the imprisonment of slavery and bondage.

The dialogue is highly poetic even between the oppressed Caliban and his master, for Prospero and Miranda taught Caliban to speak, thus he speaks their elevated language, yet he resists their complete control by saying:

You taught me language; and my prophit on’t
is, I know how to curse… 1.2.365-366

On the other hand, Ariel addresses Prospero as he would want to be addressed:

All hail, great master! Grave sir, hail!… 1.2.189

However, Ariel’s salutations to Prospero are so slavishly sycophantic, one might mistake it for mockery. But Ariel has been promised the carrot of eventual freedom; and so, the invisible sprite dashes from one side of the island to the other and then out into the middle of the sea before you can blink, in order to fulfill Prospero’s deeds.

With Ariel, there are many references to the Greek gods and goddesses, unicorns, mysterious incantations and mythical masques and pageants. In Act IV, a magnificent engagement-ceremony is performed for Miranda and Ferdinand, who fall in love at first sight. With a fantastic tableau and supernatural arias, Ariel conjures the spirits of Queen Juno and the goddess Ceres. Invoking the Proserpine myth, Ceres must first be assured that Venus was not a part of this union, for Ceres has forsworn the Goddess of Love because of the way Venus sealed the fate of Ceres’ daughter, Proserpine, who was abducted by the King of Hell to become the Queen of the Underworld. After Ceres has the assurance that Venus had no part in this coupling, the engagement-ceremony for Miranda and Ferdinand is then blessed by Juno, Ceres and the singing and dancing of ethereal spirit-nymphs.

Unlike Ovid himself, who was exiled by Augustus Ceasar to the island of Tomis in the Black Sea, Prospero attains his desired outcome: the royals and their lords land – setting the stage for the magician’s machinations. In perfect, Shakesperean writerly-timing, the newly arrived men notice the enchantments in the sultry island:

These are not natural events; they strengthen
From strange to stranger. 5.1.227,228

Still, the royals and their men soon speak of plans to establish an ideal government in a sort of utopian society. Politically, however, their ideals only lead them to contradiction, debate and trechery. And as with most Shakespearean plots, the jesters stumble on stage to mock everything that is taking place in the play.

Meanwhile, Prospero and Miranda are prized with the most philosophical and poetic lines, as when Prospero addresses his new, prospective son-in-law, Ferdinand; Prospero councils:

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep… 4.1.156,- 158

Another poetic tool, personification, is generously used throughout the play, as when Prospero personifies time:

Now does my project gather to a head:
My charms crack not; my spirits obey, and time
Goes upright with his carraiage… 5.1.1

Finally, Prospero’s solemn speech in Act V has been attributed to Shakespeare’s farewell to the theater. Spectacular as it is, the soliloquy is too long to quote here, (5.1.34-57), as is Prospero’s epilogue, a prayer, really, of farewell and forgiveness. (Epilogue)

Yet, Miranda utters the most famous and widely used lines in The Tempest when she says:

O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in’t! 5.1.182-185

These are the words she speaks as all of the survivors of the tempest gather around Prospero. They are highly optimistic words that can be broadly interpreted coming from innocent Miranda, who could not recall seeing another man, other than her father, Prospero, and a slave, Caliban, her entire life.

{photo taken with my BlackBerry}

Remembering Yeats

IMG-20121112-03681

As I took my last final exam in my last and final quarter in college, I could hear the students who had already finished for the quarter outside whooping it up and cheering by the fountain

I couldn’t concentrate on my exam. It was a Women’s Lit class in a room built half underground, but I could see the blue sky through the upper windows and hear the shouting of students who were out on the lawn and near the water fountain, which spilled into a rushing pool. In my sleep-deprived, day-dreaming state, I actually pictured the students dancing in the pool – celebrating and splashing around. And I kept thinking of a line from Yeats: “… Flash fishlike; nymphs and satyrs copulating in the foam…” I had learned this from another class, 20th Century British and Irish Poetry. I never memorized the entire poem, but that rather shocking line always lingered.

I honestly do not know how I passed the Women’s Lit exam, and I was surprised to learn that I had aced the class. Perhaps I was inspired by Yeats. I will always remember him and associate his poem with that moment and my image of the youths by the fountain.

NEWS FOR THE DELPHIC ORACLE

                        I

There all the golden codgers lay,

There the silver dew,

And the great water sighed for love,

And the wind sighed too.

Man-picker Niamh leant and sighed

By Oisin on the grass;

There sighed amid his choir of love

Tall Pythagoras.

Plotinus came and looked about,

The salt-flakes on his breast,

And having stretched and yawned awhile

Lay sighing like the rest.

                        II

Straddling each a dolphin’s back

And steadied by a fin,

Those Innocents re-live their death,

Their wounds open again.

The ecstatic waters laugh because

Their cries are sweet and strange,

Through their ancestral patterns dance,

And the brute dolphins plunge

Where wades the choir of love

Proffering its sacred laurel crowns,

They pitch their burdens off.

                        III

Slim adolescence that a nymph has stripped,

Peleus on Thetis stares.

Her limbs are delicate as an eyelid,

Love has blinded him with tears;

But Thetis’ belly listens.

Down the mountain walls

From where Pan’s cavern is

Intolerable music falls.

Foul goat-head, brutal arm appear,

Belly, shoulder, bum,

Flash fishlike; nymphs and satyrs

Copulate in the foam.

 

~ William Butler Yeats

 

{photo taken with my BlackBerry}

 

 

Autumn Contentment

Calendar pages into the wind ~

small kites limning cursive loops

on the whims of the air.

Freedom breathes up

through the colors of a pastel fallout ~

the smells of dawn mixing into a new, unknown day.

Like the first, fresh whiffs of Autumn,

when the earth turns away

from a long, sweltering summer ~

spinning up leaves of our new contentment.

 

~ tracy