The Story of Orpheus and Eurydice

Supplementary Material: Criticism

Article: "The Story of Orpheus and Eurydice": An Omitted Earthly Paradise Tale," Florence Boos, Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies 4.1 (November, 1983): 58-86.

[59] What caused Morris to discard ideas, drafts, even entire narratives from the final four-volume published sequence of The Earthly Paradise? Morris’ many drafts reflect mental vigor and deep passion for his most extended literary project: Edmund Gosse once cited Rossetti’s claim that Morris had crammed an entire room with the manuscripts of his poem. Whatever the truth of his assertion, Morris did project twelve additional tales designed for inclusion in The Earthly Paradise.2

          Of these twelve, he apparently completed three, The Life and Death of Jason, “The Story of Dorothea,” and “The Story of Orpheus and Eurydice.” The Life and Death of Jason, too long to serve as an individual tale, was published separately in 1867. "The Story of Dorothea" was never published in full, through its manuscript may be found in the Fitzwilliam Museum.  May Morris called it “cold and unconvincing,” and excluded it from the fragments and tales printed in volume twenty-four of the Collected Works. K.L. Goodwin has argued that her disapproval was for its references to lust, torture, and prostitution.3

          She did, however, publish the third completed tale, “The Story of Orpheus and Eurydice,” in volume twenty-four.  William Morris’ reasons for its earlier omission from The Earthly Paradise remain puzzling.  Manuscript drafts indicate that “Orpheus and Eurydice” underwent careful revision,4 and he liked two of its songs sufficiently to include them in Poems By the Way in 1891.  Orpheus was one of Morris’ favorite classical heroes and had been a central character in The Life and Death of Jason; the character of the hero-lover-singer deeply attracted Morris all his life.  May Morris comments on the exclusion of “Orpheus”:

“The Story of Orpheus,” also fair copied for the printers, was finished up before it was rejected by the author as too weighty for the general scheme of The Earthly Paradise.5

          The Earthly Paradise narrators and characters often reaffirm their belief that preservation in narrative history so transfigures suffering that it becomes a source of consolation, even joy.  Morris’ assumption that history is formed in mythic cycles of death and regeneration seems clearly to have influenced his fascination with [60] patterns of Scandinavian, European, and classical mythologies and use of them throughout his poetry.  The writings of his middle period reveal persistent concern with a search for spiritual love beyond time, and need to find some confirmation of immanence, perhaps even immortality, in physical and emotional loss. Morris’ life was not tranquil at this period,6 and he was neither euphemistic nor sentimental by character, so the affirmations he was able to make were qualified and complex.

          The Orphic legend has traditionally been associated with frustrated desire for immortal life, a paradoxical mixture of arduous achievement and total failure.7 Morris’ “Argument” for “Orpheus” suggests his interpretation of the myth’s essential features:

Orpheus the Thracian singer having lost his love by death, would yet not believe that she might not be won back again, but sought her where none else has dared to seek, and there as it were, compelled the gods to grant him somewhat; which nevertheless his own folly cast away again, and he was left to live and die a lonely man.

          The tale is both stark and unified in structure. Orpheus’ harrowing of the underworld is broken only by confrontations with Proserpine, Mercury, and other gods, and by eight songs of petition to the gods and self-encouragement.  The hideous landscape at Thrace is one of Morris’ most effective poetic creations; its desolate forests and sinister fertility owe much to Keats’ “Ode to Psyche” and “Ode to a Nightingale,” and resemble somewhat the desolate Iceland of “The Lovers of Gudrun” and Morris’ other northern poems.8

          The woods are haunted by a female being with supernatural powers, one of Morris’ many malevolent old women (such as the witch in “Rapunzel,” Grima in “The Fostering of Aslaug.” And the witch-wife in The Water of the Wondrous Isles).9 This crone is given some of the impersonal qualities of dread fate:

. . . sometimes would her awful shadow pass
Long in the sunset, long in the low moon. . .
and youth and damsel stand
Trembling and scarcely daring to draw breath,
As love grew faint before the coming death. (CW 24, 240)

          [61] Though capable of vigorous action, Orpheus is wholly unlike the grim inhabitants of this waste land in his heroism, sensitivity, artistry, and lyricism.  In Virgil’s version of the legend Eurydice is being pursued by Aristaeus when stung by the serpent, and Morris follows Ovid in omitting this incident.10 This elimination of the theme of sexual rivalry coincidentally emphasizes the event’s latent resemblance to the biblical fall.  It is perhaps also significant that Eurydice is not merely Orpheus’ beloved but “the desire of all the world” (241), an archetype of beauty and physical and metaphysical harmony in which all creation finds meaning.  Orpheus’ emotions are a thus heightened version of those shared by all. 

          In an unusual aside in The Earthly Paradise, the narrator appeals directly to the audience’s own awareness of death:

Ye who shall read what after followeth
May deem belike how this man first saw death (241)

Orpheus’ response is representative, almost redemptive:

Who none the less at last arose from pain
So great, that from its heart he needs must gain
Some little hope, if he should yet live on,
And so this grew at last until he won
A bitter courage from his lone despair,
That scarcely would believe in death, or bear
The burden of the changeless Gods while love
Was yet alive the very death to move,
What lore he gained, or in what hidden place. (241-42)

Intense loss engenders hope and the fierce courage of despair suspends belief in its occasion.  Not only Orpheus’ abilities but the intensity of his emotion moves the heedless gods.

          Dressed in black and crowned with withered flowers, Orpheus appears at the margin of the wood at midwinter, the sere opposite of the season in which Eurydice died, and complains that time’s progression has given him a death-in-life:

But I—I shall not die…
But, living, unconsumed by misery still.
Into a timeless, changeless sea of ill,
Made but to waste my wretched soul, shall float,
As from a dark stream’s mouth an unmanned boat
Floats into a windless sea fulfilled of death.11

[62] Though no living person has ever undertaken the journey into death, Orpheus crosses the river and plunges into the forest, conscious only of his grief and desperation, and enters a special landscape somewhat reminiscent of Rossetti’s Willowwood, the ghostly terrain in which Childe Roland seeks the Dark Tower, and the Waste Land of Tennyson’s “Holy Grail.” A flickering red light guides him from menacing forest to desolate plain to a bleak stone palace, where its source is revealed as a burning fire.  Orpheus notices that he cannot recognize the flowers at his feet, and intense desire makes even this small change seem hopeful. 

          After he ignores a mocking voice which laughs and derides his innocence, he encounters Proserphine, mistress of death, in her palace:

. . . sitting at the hall’s far end
On a great seat of stone, a woman, clad
In white wool raiment: in her hand she had
A rock wherefrom she span a coal-black thread;
Her face was as the face of one long dead
But for her glittering eyes, and white and long
Hung down her hair her raiment’s fold among. (246)

          In Ovid’s underworld, Orpheus had encountered both Pluto and Proserpine, but Pluto is absent here.

          Proserpine (herself of course kidnapped to Hades) hails Orpheus as “World’s Hope, World’s Love”; he in turn hails her as “Mother,” and requests from her the knowledge he needs.  She dismisses his address—death mothers nothing—and tries to persuade him with a mixture of compassion and contempt:

Fool of the world, thou hearkenest not to me,
Deeming thy love and part of thee to be,
Knowing it mighty, thinking that thou too
Art grown a God all marvelous things to do—
Assay it, O thou singer. . .
Who then as now wert but the helpless tool
Of that undying worldwide melody
Whose sweet sound mocks the vain hearts to die. (247)

          When Orpheus pleads in reply for the disquieting sight of his dead beloved, her lyrical reply is almost an antiphonal response.  Love indeed should rule the world, but the gods exploit love “to make the morning bright and fair”: [63]

Yet hearken now, thou as thou standest there,
So loving and so lovesome and so fair,
All music on thy lips, and in thine heart—
More than a God in this one thing thou art,
And if love ruled the world thou too shouldst rule.
But so it is not; love is but the tool
They use to make the morning bright and fair—
Through the cold patience of thy grief forgot,
A hundred thousand springs wax bright and hot,
A hundred thousand summers bear the rose. . . (248)

          Proserpine asserts in effect that the suffering that follows love is somehow necessary for renewal, an argument which recalls Prometheus’ steadfastness which releases all elements of the world to recombine in harmony (in Prometheus Unbound). This detailed theodicy of course does not answer the essential question: how is suffering consistent with joyous renewal? At times her exhortation even resembles Henley’s “Invictus”:

Come then today and strive and strive and fail,
Beat down and conquered—yet of more avail,
Sweeter and fairer to the world than though
In triumph thou thy short life passedst through. . . (248)

Suffering is more significant and less evanescent than happiness.

          At last Proserpine approaches, places her ice-cold hand on his, and with elaborate ritual prepares the magic potion which will allow him to journey through the underworld.  It will cause drowsiness, she warns, but afterwards, “. . . in the sweetest wise/ Thou mayest, sing thou of thy miseries. . .” Her farewell is dismal:

Belike it is that n’er shall meet again
Thine all-devouring feverish longing vain
And my despair that the Gods needs must call
Patience and silence, the great help of all. (249)

She and Orpheus have at least agreed that patience and resignation are masks for despair. 

          The first signs of Orpheus’ awakening consciousness are dream-like recollections of his past songs.  He remembers “images/ Of bygone days”: [64]

. . . until at last the hall
Heard his deft fingers on the red fold fall
And move in loving wise: though he belike
Scarce knew that music therefrom he died strike,
Scarce knew that words from his parched lips came forth.
For all these things to him were grown nought worth:
Only his love lived, only his longing strove
To think the whole world filled with his sweet love. (251)

          No old artificer, Orpheus embodies the Romantic ideal of an artist rendered selfless by the intensity of his love. Oblivious to all but the object of his desire, he is for this reason the most skillful of singers.

          The narrator now intrudes, to remind his audience that the songs of the tale are not the actual songs of the historical Orpheus:

Long ago has he gone, nor left behind
One word of his to loose love, or to bind,
Yet tells the tale his thought in words like these,
Faint as they be to match his melodies. (251)

          It is unclear why Orpheus’ songs require more suspension of disbelief than the elaborate lyrical conversation he has just held with Proserpine.  Everything we have read up to now has been a “tale”—why the sudden need to distance the persona?  In part perhaps these reminders serve as a miniature frame for the songs; from the juvenilia and early prose romances Morris wished to commemorate unremembered artists and lost art,12 and perhaps the songs’ inaccessibility is intended to render imperfect hints of their quality more poignant.

          Before the gods deliver their judgment, Orpheus sings four songs, not mere interludes, but central pleas in the poem’s most important debate.  The first song, “While agone my words had wings. . . ,” juxtaposes his present mute despair with the full range of his past music.  Once he narrated noble and heroic deeds to audiences of old men and maidens, and sang of love “as if alone.”

Or in days not long agone,
Would I sit as if alone
Though around stood many a one
Each as if alone we were
For of fresh love sang I there. (252) [65]

          Associations of love with loneliness are characteristic of Morris’ work.  Once, Orpheus recalls, he readily evoked a profusion of cyclical events and emotions, but now, like Coleridge in “Dejection: An Ode,” suffers anguish which he fears can neither be shared nor expressed:

But of this how shall I sing?
The sick hope whereto I cling,
The despair that everything
Moaneth with about mine eyes,
This dull cage of miseries? (253)

          The second song of petition postulates a divine aloofness which resembles that of Tennyson’s Lotus-Eaters, and asks how such impervious beings as the gods can have created the infinitely painful complexity of human emotions:

Did ye teach me how to sing Or where else did I gain
The tears slow-born of bliss, The sweetness drawn from pain? (253)

Are not the gods in control of these cycles of joy and melancholy, responsible for their meaning or lack of it? For all Orpheus really knows, he may be alone in the universe:

I stand alone and longing Nor know if ought doth live
Except myself and sorrow Nor know with whom to strive,
Nor know if ye have might To hold back or to give. . .
Or if ye are my foes, Or the love that burns in me. (253)

In any case, he cannot frame a plea to beings he cannot understand, whose silence may have any meaning, or none, whose nature may be metaphysical or psychological, individual or impersonal.  He recalls his contrasting kinship with human audiences:

When the lover unbeloved Must sigh with rest and smile
For the sweetness of the song That made not light of woe,
And the youngling stand apart, And learn that life must go. (253)

Gradually Orpheus becomes more assertive, and bargains like Job with his creator:

O ye who ne’er were fettered, By the bonds of time and ill,
Give, give, if ye are worthy Or leave me worthier still;
For the measure of my love No gain of love should fill. [66]

If I held the hands I love, If I pressed her who is gone,
Living, breathing, to my breast, Not e’en so were all well won.
O be satisfied with this, That no end my longing knows
If the years might not be counted, For we twain to sit all close
As on earth we sat a little Twixt the lily and the rose. . . (254)

          Finitude and death are indicted, not just the early death of his beloved, and the expression “Or leave me worthier still” may imply that if the gods deny his request, they will be less worthy than he, who is made infinite by the “measure of his love.” The truly god-like do not ignore life, but create, enhance, and–if necessary—resurrect it.

          Memories of Eurydice suggest his third song, “Once, a white house there was,” set unlike the first two in a narrative frame.  Two Thracian lovers pass Orpheus’ and Eurydice’s wedding bower, but congratulate them in oddly ominous terms;

And the berries of the thorn
Know no ruddy threat of death!”. . .

There her naked feet did pass
And her hand touched blossoms fair
By the poison lurking there
In the yellow-throated snake;
But their beauty did not wake
His dull heart and evil eyes . . . (256)

          When later they return, the garden is ruined, and described in images which suggest Tennyson’s “Mariana” and Morris’ early poetry on deserted buildings.13 The blasted wedding bed and wasted marriage preparations are reported to the lovers, and they depart, chastened in their own hopes by the tragedy they have seen:

Think ye that these twain might rest
Till they knew why they, so blessed
Such a sorrow of heart should feel?
Through the summer day they steal,
E’en as folk who dwell alone
In a land whence all are gone
Where their shame hath wrought the thing . . .

Folk they meet at last to tell
How the death of joy befell (257) [67]

Like the Wanderers of the Earthly Paradise frame, the Thracian lovers seek solace in narration: the Wanderers at the close of life, the lovers at close of day.

            At the third song’s conclusion, Orpheus once again hears mocking laughter. The final song, “O if ye laugh, then am I grown. . .” also has a frame and narrative, both spoken by Orpheus.  He repeats that human love is more godlike than indifferent gods, and again preaches justice to these amorphous beings who presumably rule the universe.

O if ye laugh, then am I grown,
O Gods, as here I stand alone
The body of a ceaseless moan,
Yet better than ye are, a part
Of the world’s woe and the world’s heart. (258)

The nameless gods finally answer Orpheus, and begin with an apology:

But how shall song move that which hath no ears,
Or love the things that nought of longing bears,
Or grief move that, which never doth behold
The world amid unnumbered griefs grown old
Yet sill alive more griefs to bear and more? (260-261)

          “[T] hat which hath no ears” has somehow heard his song and decided to defer in part to his “will exceeding strong/ Mid earthly wills.” Their “gift” will be treacherous and unsure, yet he must understand and accept this fearlessly.  They grant him first a version of the past sorrow, to persuade him that his suffering is trivial against the agony of all humankind.  Like Odysseus, Virgil, and Dante, Orpheus views a procession of dead souls:

. . nor might he turn away,
Till as the unending flock of rain-clouds grey
O’er the sea streaming did they grow to be,
And each one with its unmatched misery
Unnamed, unhealed . . . (261)

Further reminded that even those who achieve their desires in life come to the same wretched end, he is unconvinced; he cries out for Eurydice, and defends the significance of his search: [68]

“O ye, if men should learn that one might die
And yet return, should not their grief be less
Because of hope? should not their happiness
Falter no more twixt time of longing pain
And time of gaining all that they may gain?” (262)

Briefly the gods seem to affirm his role as a representative suffering hero:

          And thou, O Orpheus then,
Wilt bear this thing alone of living men,
And as thou hitherto has helped them well,
Help them in this and leave a tale to tell.
For whereas neither God nor man indeed
Thou fain wouldst be, yet may we grant thy need,
Great art thou, great and strong all things to bear!” (263)

          There are obvious echoes of Christ and Prometheus in these suggestions that Orpheus alone has strength to endure for himself and others.  Part of this responsibility will be the creation of “ a tale to tell”; whatever his story, he must bequeath it to those who follow.

          This promise of success arouses in Orpheus conflicting emotions—longing, joy, overpowering fear—which render him unconscious.  The gods admonish Orpheus a last time that Eurydice’s knowledge of death will alienate her from him:

          Art thou willing to see eyes
Thou lovest so grow old amid surprise
Of thee and thy desires, and all the ways
Of mortal men . . . (264)

Worse, Orpheus’ own consciousness will be altered, and he will remain forever restless, disillusioned with the shows and emotions of life:

A soul to whom nought earthly shall be pure
Or strange or great—nay, nay, not e’en thy love
Thou deemest greater than the Gods above?
Is it enough, the gain we offer thee? (264)

          Even resurrection is to be partly paralyzed by death’s frigid stasis and the gods’ numbing ennui: the gods assert that Orpheus will look with estrangement on his own desire and love, and be [69] irreparably alienated from himself and unable to respect his former identity.

          Orpheus withstands these withering adjurations, and sees a light through the trees; he is approached by a vaguely Keastian winged male figure (Mercury, the gods’ messenger), who reports he has been sent to bid Orpheus rejoice, but phrases his comforting  words in the subjunctive: “And it may be that thou art such a one/ E’en as thou deemest . . .” (266).  The earth’s desolate winter, Mercury continues, will seem beautiful to Orpheus when he is united with his love, and he invokes the reunion in  a song:

But then withal the pain of her and thee,
The pity for each other’s agony
Shall make love greater—deem’st thou not that earth
Shall tremble somewhat through its changing girth
When round about her heart thine arms are cast. .  .
O happy, happy shall ye be that tide!” (266-67)

          Since Mercury (like all the gods) presumably knows Orpheus’ fate, the sincerity of this prediction is questionable.  Like other Morrisean protagonists before an important event, Orpheus is also given a glimpse of real foreknowledge:

He saw himself entangled in time’s net,
Of love forgotten, helpless to forget,
Yet longing and its sweetness all gone by,
And no one left to note its misery. . . . (267)

          Mercury states the final conditions for Orpheus’ great test: he must maintain unwavering faith in the immortality of his love, but also remember the impassable gulf of death between himself and Eurydice’s spirit; if he turns his head to view her while still in hell, she will be immured there forever.

Then certainly a fearful wall shall part
Thy soul and her soul; then thy love is weighed
And found a light thing.” (268)

As Orpheus sets forth, his final accusation has the force of simple truth:

. . . ye grudge to see love’s bliss
Here, where things die not: only on the earth
Beset by cold death’s ever narrowing girth
Ye let us love. . . (268) [70]

He has not been told that Eurydice is now behind him, but calls out lovingly to her:

Come, the Gods slew thee, I redeemed thee, dear! (268)

Mercury departs and Orpheus hurries forward.

          Earlier he had sung four songs in support of his petition to the gods; now he sings four more to Eurydice and himself.  The first, “Winter in the world it is,” anticipates his reunion with Eurydice in a midwinter landscape, whose desolation he contrasts with the happiness of two lovers who go to consummate their love.  Love’s joy follows frustration, but the final end is secure and fulfilled:

O my love, the night shall last
Longer than men tell thereof
Laden with our lonely love! (270)

          The succession from pleasant day to restful night elsewhere forms the theme of some of Morris’ best short lyrics, most notably “For the Bed at Kelmscott.”

          Yet, unaccountably, Orpheus feels growing fear; the lyric which follows, “Shall we wake one morn of spring,” also celebrates satisfied love after a day’s journey, but contains more suggestions of distress.

Shall we wake one morn of spring
Glad at heart at everything,
Yet pensive with the thought of eve? (271)

          Evening now suggests not only sexual union and happy sense of closure, but Ecclesiastes’ “night” as well.  Eurydice will sit silently beside him in Apollo’s temple, her face averted.  Since she neither speaks nor looks at him, Orpheus cannot know what she thinks, and doubts increase.  The declining day seems less hopeful, and

. . . I weary more for thee
Than if far apart we were. . .(272)

In spite of this, the poem’s final lines are unclouded:

-- Ah, my joy, my joy thereof! (272)

          Orpheus now hopes (irrationally) to hear the footsteps of his be-[71]loved behind him, and when he hears nothing, a “dreadful helpless sense of loneliness” makes him address Eurydice for the first time in a pleading tone:

          “Eurydice. . ..
Hearken lest I faint and fear thou too
Shouldst faint and fear, and all be left to do
Once more—O hearken sweet. . . (272)

To comfort himself, he speaks as though they were already free of underworld:

          O hearken sweet—this is a dream
And all our sorrow now doth only seem
And thou art mine and I am thine . . . (272)

            The third and briefest song follows immediately, “O my love, how could it be,” an expression of harmony phrased as a question:

Oh my love, how could it be
But summer must be brought to me
Brought to the world by thy full love? (273)

          Her love is again said to move not only himself but the world; it enfolds him like the branches of a tree, and brings satisfaction and rest. In the final stanza, he urges that they wander through the woods and lie beneath a chestnut tree, sleepy with mingled weariness and love:

Wearied but most fain to bless
Pity-laden summer, sad
With the hope the spring once had. (273)

          The image of the protecting tree unifies the poem’s opening and conclusion, and again completion of a journey brings relief and gentle melancholy.

          But now menacing and sinister noises break the silence, a crowd seems to shriek his name, and another procession of dismal specters appears.  He calls on Eurydice to help him in his terror, and the mention of her name temporarily consoles him.  Soon, however, his fears return, and, in familiar Morrisean imagery, he feels “caged, prisoned”: [72]

. . . And scarce his love and longing now seemed fair,
And time was dead, and he left all alone
Wandering through space where nothing might be won
By will or strength or courage. . . (275)

          This of course is the despair of which the gods had warned, the dread of helpless entrapment and fear that no human effort can affect the course of events.

          He has always found resolution in music, and now he sings to Eurydice for the last time, “O love, how the dying year.”  He and she alone realize that all the gods’ gifts are trivial against the epiphany of their “fresh love”:

Thinking how that all things won
Are as nought and nought and nought
To the joy our fresh love brought
When all fear of change was dead. (275-76)

Here as in other Victorian poets, love is valued for its ability to suspend the decrement of time. 14  Other mortals by comparison have a shallow contempt for death,

For they deem themselves divine,
And shall curse those eyes of thine
Where death gathers now, and grows
Thy passion to its fainting close. (276)

There follows a moving and prophetic evocation of union with her in death; even if she can no longer feel or respond, she is not alone, for in death he will join her:

Yet not all alone thou art,
For my lips and hands are nigh,
And I fail and faint and die
As thou diest, O my sweet.
Our souls meet and our loves meet,
And at last we know for sure
What shall change and what endure. (276)

            The first five stanzas of Orpheus’ song have been addressed to a woman walking behind him, but the last seems to plead with a distant and divine beloved who looks down on the earth from above: [73]

O my love look down and see
What they deem felicity!
Look down on the autumn earth
And their terror-girded mirth;
Speak with words that have no name
All thy love and pity and shame! (276)

When this plea is answered with silence, he drops his harp in self-defeating despair.  In the final pathetic sequence, he sees ahead of him the light of earth, and runs towards it, crying again hopefully:

          “O me, Eurydice,
Be swift, “he cried, “to follow after me,
For in the world, if nowhere else, love lives. . .
O fair earth, my sweet, the joyous place
Filled with the pleasure of thy loveliness
New-born at last my weary eyes to bless!” (277)

The light increases but the chilling silence remains, and he staggers onward.  His desire becomes so intense that he is unable to endure its agony of conflicting fear and hope; he fears his love is myth, his struggle a fantasy, and his search will end in death.

            For the first time his courage deserts him, and he feels selfish fear that Eurydice will regain life with his aid, but he will die:

          “O thou bitter Death,”
He cried, “and shall I die, and shall she live,
Is [this] then all the gift that thou wilt give,
Her life for my life?” (277-78)

Utterly demoralized, but conscious of his act’s terrible significance, he turns with “dreadful face” to gaze on her:

And for an instant all was well forgot
But very love; for through the midst of it
His mortal eyes beheld her body flit,
Yea coming toward him: her remembered eyes
Gazing upon him in no other wise
Than when upon the earth in some fair wood
Their feet drew each to each and all was good (278)

This is the bitterest and sweetest vision of his life.  The gods have granted him his petition to see Eurydice once more among the [74] dead, and he has destroyed what he beheld.

            “Orpheus”’s epilogue is one of the most beautiful passages Morris ever wrote.  In concentrated form, it recreates the pattern of despair and consolation familiar from lyrics of this period and other texts of The Earthly Paradise.  Orpheus’ spiritual void is expressed in images of night and dawn, reminiscent of the monthly lyrics for The Earthly Paradise, or Gudrun’s anguish when she rises from feverish sleep to a bleak dawn.

What fell to him after that last sad night
How shall I say? – it may be that . . . the morn, stilled
By iron frost, white world and sky of grey,
Had more of blank despair than e’en such day
Will often have. . . (279)

            Again like the speaker of Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode,” he feels a “wild thrill” as the rushing wind seems to call an unknown name.

. . . it may be that. . . there grew a shame
Of his own lonely grief within his heart
And to that cry he cried to have a part
In some more god-like sorrow than the days
Shed dully on his petty tangled ways—
I know not, I . . . (279)

Ultimately, of course, Orpheus is absorbed into legend—one hears that he haunts the Thracian chestnut-wood at night, or that he calls softly and pleadingly to his “dead love, that lost delight” between gusts of summer storms.  Time and history gradually mitigate—or efface—his guilt and sorrow.14 In the intensity of this grief he truly embraces the sorrows of the world, and it is fitting that legends of his cries evolve into complex tales of consolation:

But the world wore through years of good and bad,
And tales that less of pity in them had,
Or more of hope, of Orpheus men ‘gan tell: . . . (280)

Though some claim he was slain by Bacchus’ followers, others believe that the muses lead him to Mount Helicon, where he was deified:

From out the world’s grief a calm life he won,
Nothing forgotten of his feverish pain,
Nothing regretted, but all spent and vain,
And he not glad nor grieved, but God indeed. (280) [75]

If so, he achieves, not oblivion, but the detached and painless memory of pain.  The legends also fail to mention whether Eurydice, like Psyche, is also deified—one assumes not.

            All self-conscious Morris protagonists desire that their grief create meaning for others, and history and song are for Morris the most significant expression of human kinship in the awareness of joy and recurrent loss.  Orpheus is an archetype of this pattern: “The Story of Orpheus and Eurydice” is a metaphor of spiritual process, the story of one human loss told for the sake of fellowship with the kindred experience of countless others:

Ah let such go their ways, his earthly need
Ye know; his earthly longing and defeat. (280)

Each human being suffers loneliness and grief of separation from all others, but awareness of this isolation is itself a deep communal experience:

Thank him low-voiced that even is sweet
Unto our dying hearts that needs must gain
A little hope from pity and from pain. (280)

            In “To Marguerite,” written about twenty years before “Orpheus,” Matthew Arnold describes the human personality as an island which reflects that it has once been part of a common continent, but now is isolated by the cold, dark sea. Morris’ Orpheus reminds us that the “islands” are capable of song, legend, poetry, and history, and by singing of their confinement ennoble themselves and others; the memory of this songs renders our lives less immured by restraints of our bodies and nameless histories, and more sympathetic with the vibrations of our collective fulfillment and loss.


            The title of the tale is “The Story of Orpheus and Eurydice,” but we learn virtually nothing of Eurydice.  She appears only twice.  Early we are informed that Orpheus “wooed the maid Eurydice/ And won her,” that she died before “all their longing into pure delight/ Should melt away” (241), and that as “the desire of all the world” she fully reciprocated his desire and affection.  Orpheus’ agonizing vision of her “Gazing upon him in no other wise/ Than when upon the earth in some fair wood/ Their feet drew each to each and all was good,” (278) shows that through all their distress she has been faithful, and has followed him trustingly to the margin of the underworld. Beautiful, loving, steadfast, she is condemned [76] to silence (a shade, after all) and unable to help as they struggle together toward life.

            Eurydice’s character may be suggested by the passages and songs which evoke what Orpheus hopes will be their future.  In the passage quoted above he imagines sitting with her in Apollo’s temple:

. . . thou sittest, nor mayest speak,
Nor mayest move the hand I kiss
Nor the very depth of bliss;
Nay, nor turn thine eyes to me. (271)

Between his second and third songs, he cries out that their horrible journey is but a nightmare, for they are at home together in their nuptial bed:

. . . my arms are wound
About thy body, but thy hands fall down
Away from me, O sweet, mine own, mine own!
Doubtful e’en now with thy last waking shame.” (212-3)

“Doubtful e’en now” – he assumes her Victorian modesty will remain even on their wedding night.  His last desperate request to Eurydice, that she speak to him, “All thy love and pity and shame!” (276), also suggests that her deepest love is still tremulous and reluctant.  Of course, the view Orpheus holds of Eurydice in extremis is not necessarily her own.  We are not told the extent to which her shade may be conscious of the journey, or tormented to mute agony by his gradual deterioration.  We do not even know whether she is able to hear his songs, or is overwhelmed by despair when returned forever to hell.  Does she know or learn of his later fate, and feel eternal grief that she cannot join him?  If she has suffered as deeply as he, is there an analogous redemption for her?  Morris follows his classical sources in leaving such questions unresolved.

            Eurydice seems most to have gratified Orpheus with the quiet response manifested in her glowing eyes—rather generic womanly traits for nineteenth century poetry.  She functions as a guiding abstraction of das ewig Weibliche which alone can satisfy his yearning and loneliness. In the last song to Eurydice, Orpheus describes her response to fear of death:

Yet hangs death above us still,
And no hope of further gain,
But foreboding of a pain
But the dread of surefoot fate
Makes thine eyes so passionate
Makes thy hands so fain to cling. (275) [76]

Later he calls that

          . . . all things won
Are as nought and nought and nought
To the joy our fresh love brought
When all fear of change was dead. (275-76)

Romantic love thus empowers him to demand both suspension of time and restoration of life itself:

“O ye, if men should learn that one might die
And yet return, should not their grief be less
Because of hope? should not their happiness
Falter no more twixt time of longing pain
And time of gaining all that they may gain?” (262)

            “Orpheus”’s expression of love is stereotyped in patterns common to all of Morris’ poetry, but here especially pronounced; the female partner cannot and should not participate in active struggle, even when the male protagonist is oppressed by the burden striving for common happiness without her presence or support.  Throughout the early prose romances and the Defence, women wait and suffer but are unable or unwilling to influence events by their action. Morris’ male protagonists generally face the outer battles of life alone.  “The Story of Orpheus and Eurydice”’s presentation of love is Morris’ most stylized expression of this pattern: Orpheus must conquer all the forces of death on behalf of a beloved who is utterly helpless, and cannot aid him to the minutest degree with reassurance of her love.

            In the hands of another poet such a plot might even have become a misogynistic set-piece, such as Tennyson’s hostile portrayal of Guenevere in the Idylls (1859) or of Lucillia in “Lucretius” (1868).  By contrast, Morris’ Eurydice is not responsible for Orpheus’ collapse and remains to the end a worthy if wraithlike beloved.  His love for her is hardly grave error or submission of soul to sense, but the most significant experience of his life and source of his art. Men who suffer in love pervade Morris’ poetry, and usually hold themselves responsible for their loss. In “The Lovers of Gudrun,” for example, Bodli kills Kiartan but never reproaches Gudrun, who survives to tell their son that she preferred another to his father.  Generous in poetry and in life Morris sought to understand what he saw as womanly “coldness”: "King Arthur’s Tomb,” “The Story of Rhodope,” and “The Lovers of Gudrun” all give moving accounts of the frustration and pain suffered by women as they wound men who love them; “cold” without, they burn [78] within.  In associating inability to respond to male sexuality with the repression of once-generous emotions, Morris created some of the more complex and sympathetic representations of women in Victorian poetry.


Relation of “The Story of Orpheus and Eurydice” to The Earthly Paradise

            With the exception of a few short didactic tales and the Wanderers’ frame narrative, all The Earthly Paradise stories are preoccupied with searches for love.  “The Story of Orpheus and Eurydice” resembles the tales in which this search fails, such as “The Watching of the Falcon,” “The Man Who Never Laughed Again,” or “The Lovers of Gudrun.”  Orpheus’ weakness destroys Eurydice, though his own pain ultimately ennobles him and inspires his songs.  In several respects “The Story of Orpheus and Eurydice” resembles “Cupid and Psyche”: each protagonist undertakes a long journey which includes confrontation with stern underworld divinities, each loses the beloved through failure to obey a divine injunction, and each tale ends with a suggestion of immortal life. Had Morris included “The Story of Orpheus and Eurydice” it would not in fact have seemed out of place among the tales of The Earthly Paradise. For example, it could easily have been substituted for the fragmentary, even contradictory “Story of Rhodope,” the classical tale for November, which is unequally paired with “The Lovers of Gudrun.”  No tale of The Earthly Paradise presents a similar pattern of heroic, noble striving by a male protagonist which results in total earthly loss and other-worldly reparation.  One of the most painful of all Morris’ tales, its deep pathos and consolation are almost needed to complete the range of love’s manifestations which is the most significant thematic complex in The Earthly Paradise.

            In structure, “The Story of Orpheus and Eurydice” does differ from most Earthly Paradisetales. The plot is simpler and less dramatic, in its concentration on one person’s grief—at times it is exclusively a record of Orpheus’ inner life.  The poem is unusually lyrical, and nowhere does the poetry of Morris’ middle period show more evidence of stylistic care.  It is less a “tale” than a mixture of lyrical monologue, psychodrama, extended allegory, and elegy.  In this it resembles many of the grieving personal lyrics Morris wrote during the early 1870’s, usually dated between 1869 and 1873, which express a sense of metaphysical despair, personal loneliness, and grief for lost love. [79]

            In any case, “The Story of Orpheus and Eurydice” remains a remarkable fusion of the most important types of poetry Morris wrote during this period—the narratives of The Earthly Paradise and the shorter personal lyrics.  Not only was the writing of short songs one of Morris’ best gifts, but the Orpheus myth provided the ideal plot for presenting one of his most pervasive themes, the interrelation of gain and loss.  Morris’ equivalent of “Childe Roland,” “The Holy Grail,” or “The House of Life,” “Orpheus and Eurydice” is a the lyrical narrative of a noble protagonist who struggles against a loveless wasteland.  Simple, stark, and unified in theme, language, and plot, “Orpheus” carefully harmonizes narrative, elegy, and myth.  Why, then, did Morris not publish “The Story of Orpheus and Eurydice”?

            Morris never answered this question, and the only recorded comment is May’s remark, quoted above, that it seemed “too weighty.”  She admired it, but pointedly omitted the usual comments on its content when she printed it in volume XXIV of the Collected Works in 1915.  A parallel to “The Story of Orpheus and Eurydice” may be provided by the shorter lyrics of his middle period, which Morris chose to publish in fragments, belatedly, or not at all.  These shorter lyrics are frequently addressed to a woman who is kind and occasionally loving, but essentially indifferent, and whose silence causes him grief.  He included some in Poems By the Way in 1891, roughly twenty years after most were written, and May Morris published more selections in 1915 and in her 1936 William Morris Artist Writer Socialist.  Several more have since appeared, and others remain in manuscript.15  A tendency to disguise their essential unity may be indicated by the way in which he assembled Poems By the Way: with many good poems at hand, he searched among juvenile fragments for material to rewrite for inclusion.  Morris did present something of the same emotional struggle in the later Love Is Enough, written directly after the completion of The Earthly Paradise and published in 1872.  Like “The Story of Orpheus and Eurydice,” Love Is Enough underwent unusual reworking and revision, and Mackail comments,

[I]ts failure to make any impression on a large audience was received by him with perfect equanimity.  It was a thing he had done to please himself, and he thought highly of it, but he did not expect it to please other people to anything like [79] the same degree.16

Perhaps “Orpheus” was likewise something of a private effort.

The process by which art expresses and is different from the life which creates it is obviously complex.  “The Story of Orpheus and Eurydice” does seem to present private emotions which seem intensely to have preoccupied Morris during this period, but which he did not necessarily wish to share with a reading public.  It has been suggested that Morris refrained from publishing contemporaneous poems of personal grief out of a Victorian sense of propriety and a desire to spare his family and friends public embarrassment, and such influences were no doubt strong.  Like other Victorian poets Morris was openly confessional in some ways and surprisingly reticent in others.  A letter of the period to Aglaia Coronio suggests that he responded to his wife’s estrangement and preference for another man less with anger or wounded pride than with grief, embarrassment, and self-reproach at his inability to rise above his disappointment to some detachment.  The letter describes his loneliness while his wife was at Kelmscott in 1872, his irritation at Rossetti’s open contempt for many of Kelmscott’s attractive features, and his own efforts to overcome depression:

. . . I said there was no cause for my feeling low . . . and indeed I am afraid it comes from some cowardice or unmanliness in me.  One thing wanting ought not to go for so much. . . often in my better moods I wonder what it is in me that throws me into such rage and despair at other times.  I suspect, do you know, that some such moods would have come upon me at times even without this failure of mine . . . There, dear Aglaia, see how I am showing my pettiness! please don’t encourage me in this. . . O how I long to keep the world from narrowing on me, and to look at things bigly and kindly!17 [81] 

The passage is characteristic of Morris’ thinking on ethical matters; when faced with failure and isolation in the indissoluble structure of Victorian marriage, he systematically strove to sublimate direct expression of grief.  In a life of activity—translations, Icelandic studies, and political thought and action—he managed “to look at things bigly and kindly,” and “The Story of Orpheus and Eurydice” may have enabled him to work through a stage of this search for detachment and purpose.  On this account, it would represent a dark confrontation of his loss, to which Love is Enough is a more carefully modulated sequel, in which the lyrical intensity, expressions of longing, and stark spiritual allegory are contained by a complex multi-frame structure, and provided with a somewhat more affirmative conclusion.

            Examining Morris’ literary manuscripts after his death in 1898, the then 58-year-old Jane Morris looked through “Orpheus and Eurydice” and the unpublished shorter lyrics of the Earthly Paradise period which expressed Morris’ deep grief at his estrangement from her, and wrote to Sydney Cockerell, Morris’ executor and the future director of the Fitzwilliam Museum:

The long ones Orpheus &tc were discarded E.P. stories and not published, because not good enough. . . Then there remain only a few short pieces of great beauty, but not enough to make a volume by themselves, not likely they were not discoverable at the time Poems By the Way were published, or all would have been included I should think.18

The manuscripts were presumably “discoverable” in 1891, since Morris had used a few in Poems By the Way, and it is unlikely that all the carefully preserved drafts of “The Story of Orpheus and Eurydice,” including the final copy prepared for the printer, had been misplaced.  Jane Morris’ remarks here may reflect something other than self-protective guile—perhaps she failed to reread the poems, or had blurred the matter in her mind over time. [82] In any case there is sadness to this bland response to "The Story of Orpheus and Eurydice" by the probable object of its intense longing and beautiful lyricism.

            This tale is one of Morris’ best representations of the poet’s search for immortality.  Orpheus was no idle singer, but a man actively engaged in the commemoration of life, celebration of desire, and transmutation of emotion through art.  Orpheus’ responses to his grief parallel Morris’ own search for whatever immortality is possible to man through visionary participation in the life and social order of future generations, and “The Story of Orpheus and Eurydice” remains among the finest narrative expressions of a lonely and private search for meaning which preoccupied Morris in the period of The Earthly Paradise.     



1. Quoted by May Morris, Collected Works, III (London: Longmans, 1910), xiii.  In 1872 Edmund Gosse was introduced to Morris with whom he shared an interest in Scandinavian literature, and in 1876 he reviewed Sigurd the Volsung for The Academy.

2. There is no extant text of “The Story of Theseus,” “The Seven Sleepers,” or “The Queen of the North.”  The last two were advertised in the published list of projected tales at the end of Jason but dropped from the list of titles which concluded volume one of The Earthly Paradise. More puzzling are “Amys and Amillion,” which Gosse insists Morris once read aloud to him (Collected Works, III, xii-xiii), and “The King’s Treasure House,” “The Dolphins and the Lovers,” and “The Fortunes of Gyzes.”  The last three were completed, according to May Morris (Collected Works, III, xiii), but no known drafts remain.  Two fragments in volume twenty-four of Collected Works—“In Arthur’s House”, and an untitled tale which takes place “off the coast of Norway”—may derive from these or other unpublished drafts of The Earthly Paradise.

May Morris also published two other fragments, “The Wooing of Swanhild,” and “The Story of Aristomenes,” in volume twenty-four of the Collected Works.  “The Wooing of Swanhild,” like “The Fostering of Aslaug,” treats a subsidiary part of the Sigurd legend.  “The Story of Aristomenes, “ a classical narrative of just revolution, is preserved in a notebook draft (B.M. 45, 308) labeled “Begun June 25th, 1870,” and a short excerpt entitled “The First Foray of Aristomenes” appeared in the May, 1876 Athenaeum. May Morris comments  that it grew too long for inclusion in The Earthly Paradise (introduction to Collected Works, XXIV, xxx), but Morris did retain another long classical heroic tale, that of Bellerophon, and published The Life and Death of Jason in separate form. The subject matter of “Aristomenes” is more directly political than that of other Earthly Paradisetales or fragments, describing the preparation of the young Aristomenes to lead his nation in revolt against an alien dictatorship.  In emphasizing the grounds for just revolution and in its avoidance of romantic themes, “The Story of Aristomenes” anticipates the later Dream of John Ball, and it seems unfortunate that Morris did not complete it.

3. K.L. Goodwin, “An Unpublished Tale fromThe Earthly Paradise," Victorian Poetry, 13, nos. 3-4 (1975): 91-102.

4. Four drafts for “Orpheus”  are preserved in B.M. Add. MS 45,307 and Add. MS 45,308, one in Add. MS 45,307 and three in Add. MS 45,308.  Two seem to be drafts for the published version, while the other two (Add. MS 45, 308, ff. 1-11, 56-57) are fragments of a more conventional narrative version which recounts the legend’s events in more literal sequence, includes additional Ovidian details, and ends with Orpheus’ murder by the Thracian women. At the conclusion, Orpheus’ severed head [!] expostulates:

“The very Love, chased from the World away
Ye would not let live, lonely wandering;
How shall ye live without this precious thing.”. . .
Slowly to the golden House of Love [they]
Bore through the solemn shadows of the night
Orpheus the Singer, once the World’s Delight,
Whose spirit strove with gods, and had prevailed
But that the flesh looked backwards once, and failed. (57)

This first draft does seem closer to other Earthly Paradise tales in manner, structure, and literal use of its sources than the final and more lyrical version.

5. Collected Works, XXIV (London: Longmans, 1915), xxx.  She notes that Morris wrote alternate versions of the opening passage and the description of Orpheus’ violent death at the hands of the Thracian women.

6. For discussions of Morris’ life during this period, see Philip Henderson, William Morris, His Life, Work, and Friends (New York: McGraw Hill, 1967), Chapters 5 and 6, and John Le Bourgeois, “Morris, Rossetti, and Warrington Taylor,” Notes and Queries, 220 (1975): 113-15.

7. The standard introduction to what is known about Greek Orphic rites is William Keith Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion: A Study of the Orphic Movement (London: Methuen, 1935). A survey of the myth’s appearance in English literature appears in Kenneth Gros Louis, “The Myth of Orpheus in English Literature” (Diss. Univ. of Wisconsin, 1965).  More specialized discussions of the use of the Orpheus figure are given in Orpheus in the Middle Ages by John Friedman (Cambridge: Harvard, 1970), a comprehensive treatment of Orpheus in the art, music, and literature in medieval Europe, and Walter Strauss’ Descent and Return: The Orphic Theme in Modern Literature (Cambridge: Harvard, 1971), which concentrates almost exclusively on French and German poetry.  The best brief guide to 19th century reworkings of the Orpheus myth probably remains Douglas Bush’s Mythology and the Romantic Tradition in English Poetry (New York: Norton, 1937), but more study of the appearance of Orpheus and Eurydice in 19th century British poetry seems needed.

8. Ovid’s account of the Orpheus myth also emphasizes the dense thickets in which Orpheus sings (Metamorphoses, X, 11. 86-105).  For some verbal parallels with Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” compare Keats:

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs. . .
(st. V)

with Morris:

             He looked down towards his feet
And might not move the flowers that they did meet (244)

Keats’ persona wanders through the dense forest exclaiming, “Darkling, I listen. . . ,” and Orpheus travels “Thus darkling through the changeless wood ways blind. . .” (244).  Orpheus’ succession of tremulous physical and emotional changes vaguely parallels the successive transmutations of Keats’ Endymion and Hyperion, and the burning glow of Mercury’s eyes and countenance resembles that of the several Keatsian personae:

In nought might Orpheus see his visage clear:
Now burned his eyes with wild and dreadful light,
Now soft they grew, as though his soul and sight
Of something good past words; and odorous air
Stirred in his long locks, from his pinions fair,
Till his bright cheeks were half veiled . . . . (265)

9. For a discussion in Jungian language of Morris’ recurrent use of fair maidens and sinister witches, see Max Wickert, “Form and Archetype in William Morris, 1855-1870” (Diss., Yale University, 1965)

10. In Ovid’s account in Metamorphoses X, Eurydice simply dies, smitten by a serpent’s sting, and Persephone and Mercury do not have the central prominence they receive in Morris’ narrative; Pluto, other divinities, and all the shades of hell are deeply stirred by Orpheus’ music.  Ovid’s Eurydice seems more aware of the implications of her husband’s failure, and speaks an uncomplaining “farewell” before vanishing again to Hades.  Ovid also devotes many lines to Orpheus’ later career as a singer of homosexual love songs, an aspect of the legend which Morris omits.

11. Compare the ending of “Adonais,” where the speaker affirms that his spirit’s ship is borne “darkly, fearfully afar,” although, unlike Orpheus, he knows that its direction is towards the “inmost veil of Heaven.” The symbolic significance of Eurydice’s death also parallels somewhat that of the beautiful maiden’s death in “The Sensitive Plant.”

12. As founder of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, he similarly sought for the preservation of past remains, rather than “renovation” of what could in fact never be recreated, much less “improved,” by nineteenth-century taste.

13. For example, “The Abbey and the Palace,” “The Banners,” and “The Dedication of the Temple.”

14. For a discussion of Victorian anxieties about the passing of time, see Jerome Buckley’s The Triumph of Time: A Study of the Victorian Concepts of Time, History, Progress, and Decadence (Cambridge: Harvard, 1966)

15. Florence Boos, “A Checklist of Poetry of the Earthly Paradise Period: Lyrics, Translation, Fragments, and Unused Earthly Paradise Narratives.” See at

16. J.W. Mackail, The Life of William Morris  (London: Longmans, 1899), II, 169.

17. Quoted in Philip Henderson, The Letters of William Morris to His Family and Friends (London: Longmans, 1950), pp. 50-51.

18. Letter dated January 2, 1898, Chatham House, Lyme Regis, in V.A. MS., R.C. JJ34.

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