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What happened after the Greek hero Orpheus ignored the gods' commands and stole a glance at his beloved Eurydice? How would the story of Eurydice's second death change if she told the story instead of her "heroic" husband? In "Eurydice" (1917), Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961), known by her pseudonym H.D., imagines how Eurydice would react to her husband's failure. "Eurydice" is a feminist retelling of a classic Greek myth, examining themes of resiliency and inner power, as well as arrogance and self-importance.
Hilda Doolittle (H.D.)
Frequently noted imagery
Dead lichens drip
Dead cinders upon moss of ash
Rest with the dead
Flame upon flame
Black among the red sparks
Raw fissure in the rock where the light struck
The colour of azure crocuses
Saffron from the fringe of the earth
Coils and strands and pitfalls of blackness
Hell must open like a red rose
Resilience and inner strength
Arrogance and self-importance
Eurydice is betrayed by Orpheus's arrogance and the belief that only a man could save her, but she finds strength and a purpose as she reclaims her place and feminine power.
"Eurydice" was first published in the 1917 edition of the anthology Some Imagist Poets. The anthology ran from 1914-1917, during the First World War. The war deeply changed Doolittle's life, most notably shattering her relationship with her husband, Richard Aldington.
World War I was fought from 1914 to 1918 between the Allies (the United Kingdom, Russia, France, Italy, Japan, and the United States) and the Central Powers (Austria-Hungary, Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria). It was one of the bloodiest conflicts in modern history.
Over the course of the war, over 32 countries were involved and an estimated 40 million people died. Doolittle was living in the British Empire at the time. More than 1.1 million people died while serving Britain.
World War I saw the introduction of new technology and tactics in warfare. Machine guns, tanks, and aircraft were able to cause more damage than ever before. The use of trench warfare, mustard gas, and barbed wire also contributed to increased cases of PTSD due to the brutal fighting.
In 1915, Doolittle's child with Aldington was stillborn. She believed this tragedy was brought on by the shock of the Lusitania sinking. Aldington enlisted in the army in 1916 to fight in World War I and came back on leave completely changed. He suffered from PTSD and became more demanding and insensitive.
The Lusitania sank during World War I after being torpedoed by a German U-Boat. Of the roughly 2,000 people on the passenger boat, 1,198 people drowned. The ship was carrying hundreds of civilian passengers.
"Eurydice" was written in 1917, during this time of emotional turmoil. Perhaps partly autobiographical, the poem tells the story of a woman scorned by her lover and abandoned during her time of need.
The speaker of "Eurydice" is Eurydice of Greek myth. She blames Orpheus and his arrogance for the loss she has experienced. Because of him, she is forced to return to hell. She had almost given in to the peaceful rest of death and forgotten what it was like to be alive before he attempted to bring her back to the mortal world. Eurydice rebukes Orpheus for turning back and forfeiting her life. She then reclaims her place in hell and argues it is no worse than his life on earth. Eurydice says even in hell, she still has her will and her spirit, which cannot be taken away. Hell must break in two or spit her out before she will lose herself again.
The poem relies heavily on allusion and apostrophe to tell Eurydice's story. Other literary devices are rhetorical question, imagery, juxtaposition, metaphor, simile, and hyperbole.
The entire poem is an allusion to the Greek myth of Eurydice and Orpheus. Orpheus was a legendary musician who is said to have enchanted the gods with his playing. On Orpheus and Eurydice's wedding day, she was bitten by a snake and died.
Determined to bring her back to life, Orpheus traveled to the underworld and met with Hades and Persephone. They were deeply moved by his beautiful music and told him he could retrieve Eurydice from the kingdom of the dead and bring her back to life on earth.
The one condition was Orpheus must walk in front of Eurydice and not look back to see her while they were in the underworld. The two walked through the underworld together, with Eurydice following Orpheus's lead, but once he got back to earth, he looked back at her in his eagerness. Because Eurydice was not yet out of the Underworld, her life was forfeit, and she was lost forever.
What do you make of the fact that it was Orpheus, not Eurydice, who was given the power to save or forfeit her life?
"Eurydice" is Eurydice's response to Orpheus's failed mission following her return to the underworld. In traditional myth, Orpheus is typically presented as a tragic hero and loving husband. In Doolittle's retelling of Eurydice's story, Orpheus is the arrogant, pompous antagonist who condemned his ex-lover to eternal hell.
Allusion: a figure of speech in which a person, event, or thing is indirectly referenced with the assumption the reader will be at least somewhat familiar with the topic
"Eurydice" is also an example of an apostrophe, as the speaker talks to the absent Orpheus. She addresses "you," even though she has returned to the underworld and he has gone back to earth.
The purpose of the apostrophe is to put Eurydice back at the center of her own story. Traditionally, readers are pushed towards sympathizing with Orpheus's loss, as though he is the ultimate victim. Positioning Eurydice as the speaker and Orpheus as the absent audience, Doolittle reminds us it is Eurydice, not Orpheus, who lost everything.
The apostrophe also gives Eurydice a voice and agency, which she is not afforded in traditional retellings of the myth. She is typically presented as a passive object in Orpheus's quest. Instead, Eurydice is the loudest and most fervent voice in the poem, rallying against male oppression.
Apostrophe: when the speaker in a literary work is talking to someone who is not physically there; the intended audience could either be dead or absent
Eurydice uses several rhetorical questions to stress it was Orpheus's fault she was condemned to the underworld. She asks him,
The answer is ultimately Orpheus's arrogance and self-importance. He wanted to see his heroics reflected in Eurydice's face. She says:
It was not love for Eurydice that caused him to venture into the underworld or to turn back and look at her. Instead, it was his arrogant desire to cheat death and then revel in his victory. Orpheus wanted to make sure Eurydice knew it was him who saved her, and this need for vain validation forfeited her life.
Rhetorical Question: a question asked to create dramatic effect or emphasize a point rather than to get an actual answer
"Eurydice" is filled with imagery of both the underworld and life on earth. The imagery associated with each varies drastically and creates juxtaposition in the poem. Eurydice uses beautiful natural imagery to define life on earth:
What had my face to offer
but reflex of the earth,
caught from the raw fissure in the rock
where the light struck,
and the colour of azure crocuses
and the bright surface of gold crocuses
and of the wind-flower,
swift in its veins as lightning
and as white." (40-49)
The imagery of the underworld where Eurydice is trapped is dominated by darkness, death, and destruction. She says she has been forced to return to hell,
Nothing can survive in the underworld, where there is no light or color. Starkly different from the vibrancy of the flowers on earth, the only color in the underworld comes from the destructive fires of hell:
The juxtaposition between Eurydice's past and her present shows how much Orpheus has taken from her. Because of his vanity, she has lost all the beauty and diversity of the earth. She must now contend with an eternity of perpetual darkness.
Have you read any other works which describe hell visually? How does "Eurydice" compare?
Juxtaposition: when two things are placed close together that have contrasting effects/images
Imagery: descriptive language that appeals to one of the five senses
The speaker uses metaphor to show the strength she has discovered in the underworld. She compares this strength to the things she loved most in life. Eurydice says,
By comparing her will to flowers and her spirit to a light, she turns the things she loved most about life into things that cannot be taken away from her. Hell might be dark and barren, but she will be able to persevere and thrive even in the most inhospitable conditions.
Metaphor: the comparison of two unlike things not using like/as
The poem ends with hyperbole and simile, which reinforce the speaker's resilience and inner strength. Eurydice says,
The speaker says hell will either fall apart or release its inhabitants back to the land of living before she will lose herself again. The simile of hell opening like a rose presents an interesting image of death giving way to life, and it acts as a reclamation of the beloved flowers of life that were lost in death.
Simile: the comparison of two unlike things using like, as, or than.
Hyperbole: An extreme exaggeration used for emphasis, not meant to be taken literally
The main themes in "Eurydice" are resilience and inner strength, as well as arrogance and self-importance.
The poem ends on a hopeful note, with Eurydice reclaiming her place in the underworld instead of allowing it to break her. She does not view her separation from Orpheus, flowers, or light as a loss. Instead, she changes her perspective of the underworld. Instead of viewing hell as a punishment, Eurydice comes to view it as a place of adversity where she can grow and become stronger. She says,
Being in hell has forced Eurydice to rely on herself. In her time of distress, she realizes the power that was always inside her just needed a new mindset and circumstance to unleash itself.
In stark contrast to Eurydice's newfound power are Orpheus's arrogance and self-importance. Eurydice's life was forfeit, not for her shortcomings or mistakes, but because Orpheus made himself the focus of his mission instead of the woman he was trying to save. Eurydice tells him,
I have lost the earth
and the flowers of the earth,
and the live souls above the earth,
and you who passed across the light
you who have your own light,
who are to yourself a presence,
who need no presence;" (82-92)
She argues it was Orpheus's self-importance that caused her second death. His position in society afforded him the chance to be the hero: the gods gave him—not Eurydice herself—the opportunity to save Eurydice's life. Orpheus squandered it because he arrogantly wanted her to recognize what he was doing for her. And for his self-importance, Eurydice must pay the ultimate price.
"Eurydice" is a feminist retelling of the myth of Eurydice and Orpheus. Instead of positioning Orpheus as the forlorn lover/hero/victim, it is Eurydice who is the protagonist of the poem. Far from a helpless heroine who passively follows her lover on his quest, Eurydice is on a quest of her own. After Orpheus fails her, it is Eurydice who becomes the hero, redefining her circumstances and her power in order to best serve herself.
"Eurydice" can thus be read as a feminist critique of how the patriarchy limits women and keeps them from realizing their full potential. The poem posits if Eurydice had the chance to save her life herself, she would have lived. But the gods decided it was only the masculine Orpheus who was capable of the task. By putting Eurydice's fate in someone else's hands, the patriarchal gods limited how much control she had over her own life.
Interestingly, when Eurydice is separated from Orpheus, she truly comes into her own power. She alone redefines her place in hell as she leans into her own resilience, purpose, and strength. The final lines of the poem are an assertion that no one will ever be able to take away her power again and she will find a way to be free. It was an arrogant, self-important man who forfeited Eurydice's life, but it will be Eurydice herself who decides her fate.
In Greek myth, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice is a metaphor for loss of trust and subsequent repercussions.
The speaker is Eurydice after she has returned to the Underworld.
The central theme is resilience and inner strength.
"Eurydice" is Eurydice's perspective on Orpheus's failure to return her to the land of the living. Instead of being a passive character, Eurydice is strong-willed and blames her ex lover's vanity and arrogance for condemning her.
"Eurydice" was written by poet Hilda Doolittle (pen name H.D.).
Who wrote "Eurydice"?
"Eurydice" was written by Hilda Doolittle.
What was happening in Hilda Doolittle's life when "Eurydice" was written?
Doolittle was going through a separation with her husband.
When was "Eurydice published"?
It was published in 1917 during the first World War, which drastically changed Doolittle's pre-war life.
What Greek myth does "Eurydice" respond to?
The myth of Eurydice and Orpheus
Who is the speaker of Eurydice?
What does Eurydice blame her return to hell on?
Orpheus's arrogance and ruthlessness
True or false: Eurydice becomes comfortable with her place in hell
What does Eurydice say she misses most from earth?
What are the main themes of the poem?
The main themes are resiliency and inner strength as well as arrogance and self-importance.
What is the meaning of the poem?
"Eurydice" is a feminist retelling of the ancient Greek myth in which Orpheus is the tragic hero and Eurydice is a passive object of his quest. Eurydice was betrayed by Orpheus's arrogance and the belief that only a man could save her, but she finds strength and a purpose as she reclaims her place and feminine power.
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