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On "Eurydice"

Helen Sword

Written during the painful disintegration of her marriage to Richard Aldington, "Eurydice" can be read on the most obvious biographical level as H.D.’s personal cry of rage and despair against an unfaithful husband, also a poet and once a mentor, who has drawn her toward unhappiness only to turn and reject her. . . . Her Eurydice executes an Orphic turn of her own–or, if you will, a "Eurydicean" turn away from patriarchal convention–when she rejects the familiar myth of Orpheus as the faithful lover whose glance back at his wife signals at once his aspiration and his human imperfection. Orpheus’ backward glance, this Eurydice suggests, is more a gesture of greed–

So for your arrogance
and your ruthlessness
I have lost the earth
and the flowers of the earth

–than one of love or even pure passionate need.

At the same time, H.D. also rejects the image of Eurydice as the passive object of her heroic husband’s quest, allowed, while Orpheus charms the underworld with his music, no creative voice of her own. . . . H.D.’s heroine, rather than accepting her fate in silence or lamenting vaguely to the gods, cries out defiantly against all male oppression, offering a manifesto for a feminist poetics appropriating hell, the negative space of literary marginality into which the female poet has been driven, as a source of power. . . . Eurydice’s determination to reign in hell if she cannot write poetry in heaven is not, perhaps, the most satisfying solution possible to the creative dilemma in which Orpheus has placed her. But it is a courageous one, and the apocalyptic imagery of the final stanza–in which hell, in a demonic revision of Robert Burns, threatens to open "like a red rose"–suggests that Eurydice’s "flowers of myself" are powerful blooms, indeed.

From Engendering Inspiration: Visionary Strategies in Rilke, Lawrence, and H.D. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1995. 185-87. Copyright © by the University of Michigan 1995

Barbara Guest

[D.H.] Lawrence was closer than he cared to admit to Imagism, because he was influenced by H.D.'s poetry--one hears echoes of her in his earlier poems. In exchange, H.D. caught the freedom of Lawrence's poetry; his passion is reflected in the intenseness of "Eurydice." This is a poem prophetic of her life; the poem also may have betrayed her inner knowledge that she could never possess Lawrence as she once possessed [Richard] Aldington. His soul, that is, could never be owned by her. From "Eurydice":

At least I have the flowers of myself
and my thoughts, no god
can take that;
I have the fervour of myself for a presence
and my own spirit for light;
and my spirit with its loss
knows this;
though small against the black,
small against the formless rocks,
hell must break before I am lost;
before I am lost,
hell must open like a red rose
for the dead to pass.

Each seeded poetry with flowers. Specifically, one thinks of H.D.'s favorite anemones, and hyacinths, of Lawrence's "Bavarian Gentians," and "Sicilian Cyclamens." H.D. never realized that Lawrence--when The Ship of Death, which includes the above poems, along with "Snake" and the title poem, was published posthumously in 1941--had become one of the great poets of their generation.

From Herself Defined: The Poet H.D. and Her World. Copyright © 1984 by Barbara Guest.

Elizabeth Dodd

"Eurydice," written during H.D.'s stay at Corfe Castle during World War I, has recently drawn more attention than many of her other persona poems; it is a prime example of how she embedded herself in characters from mythology. The speaker, Eurydice, addresses Orpheus from the underworld; she is filled with anger and resentment at her lover's bumbling of his famous failed rescue. The first numbered section reveals the intensity of her recriminations:

So you have swept me back,
I who could have walked with the live souls
above the earth,
I who could have slept among the live flowers
at last;

so for your arrogance
and your ruthlessness
I am swept back
where dead lichens drip
dead cinders upon moss of ash;

so for your arrogance
I am broken at last,
I who had lived unconscious,
who was almost forgot;

if you had let me wait
I had grown from listlessness
into peace,
if you had let me rest with the dead,
I had forgot you
and the past.

Elsewhere, she continues to confront him with his own superciliousness, asking what he saw in her, "the light of your own face, / the fire of your own presence?" She laments what she has lost: not, notably, him, but the very presence of the living earth, listed in imagery of flowers and colors. And her blame is again directed solely at him in the fifth numbered section, where she declares everything she has lost is due to his "arrogance" and "ruthlessness."

Full of the indictment she levels against Orpheus, she declares her own personhood, remote and safe from any--even well-meaning--meddling.

At least I have the flowers of myself,
and my thoughts, no god
can take that;

As recent critics have often noted, H.D.'s speaker presents a feminist twist to the familiar myth, telling the woman's story through her own voice. The sympathy aroused is not for poor Orpheus, who lost his lover twice, but rather for Eurydice, who twice lost life upon the earth; moreover, Orpheus appears, through Eurydice's accusations, to be a self-important, unthinking fool rather than a great artist.

Here is a point that has not been fully recognized in most discussions of this poem: Eurydice makes no mention of Orpheus's great gift of song. In H.D.'s revisionist mythmaking, the plight of the female speaker at the hands of the egocentric male eclipses the traditional emphasis on the power of the poet. Indeed, a more traditional understanding of the myth includes a sense of tragic inevitability; the sensitive poet's song is the product of a love so strong that it empowers his own splendid talent, but it also compels him to look back to his beloved. How can such a sensitive lover not took back? H. D. subverts this interpretation both when Eurydice accuses Orpheus of looking back to see his own reflection and in her omission altogether of poetry's role.

Clearly, this is a persona poem and not a confessional poem adorned with ornamental allusion like Plath's "Lady Lazarus," nor is it a modern feminine lament of disappointed love like those written by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Yet within the persona, H. D. has merged her own sense of outrage and betrayal with that of her mythic speaker. H. D. probably wrote the poem before the events at Mecklenburgh Square and thus before her disappointing relationship with Lawrence and the escalation of Aldington's affair with Yorke, although he had pursued an affair with Flo Fallas. Yet already she could empathize with her speaker's nearly powerless resentment toward a poet-lover's arrogance and actual abandonment.

From The Veiled Mirror and the Woman Poet: H.D., Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop, and Louise Glück. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1992. Copyright © 1992 by the Curators of the University of Missouri.

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