Myths of Greece and Rome Narrated with Special Reference to Literature and Art

Page: 33

No living being had ever before penetrated thus into the Infernal Regions, and Orpheus wandered on until he came to the throne of Pluto, king of these realms, whereon the stern ruler sat in silence, his wife Proserpina beside him, and the relentless Fates at his feet.

Orpheus made known his errand in operatic guise, and succeeded in moving the royal pair to tears, whereupon they graciously consented to restore Eurydice to life and to her fond husband’s care.

“Hell consented
To hear the Poet’s prayer:
Stern Proserpine relented,
And gave him back the fair.
Thus song could prevail
O’er death, and o’er hell,
A conquest how hard and how glorious!
Tho’ fate had fast bound her
With Styx nine times round her,
Yet music and love were victorious.”


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[79] But one condition was imposed before he was allowed to depart; i.e., that he should leave the Infernal Regions without turning once to look into his beloved wife’s face.

Orpheus accepted the condition joyfully, and wended his way out of Hades, looking neither to the right nor to the left, but straight before him; and as he walked he wondered whether Eurydice were changed by her sojourn in these rayless depths. His longing to feast his eyes once more upon her loved features made him forget the condition imposed by Pluto, and turn just before he reached the earth; but he only beheld the vanishing form of the wife he had so nearly snatched from the grave.

All was now over. He had tried and failed. No hope remained. In despair, the lonely musician retreated to the forest solitudes, and there played his mournful laments,—

“Such strains as would have won the ear
Of Pluto, to have quite set free
His half-regained Eurydice.”

But there were none to hear except the trees, winds, and wild beasts in the forest, who strove in their dumb way to comfort him as he moved restlessly about, seeking a solace for his bursting heart. At times it seemed to his half-delirious fancy that he could discern Eurydice wandering about in the dim distance, with the selfsame mournful expression of which he had caught a mere glimpse as she drifted reluctantly back into the dark shadows of Hades.

“At that elm-vista’s end I trace
Dimly thy sad leave-taking face,
Eurydice! Eurydice!
The tremulous leaves repeat to me
Eurydice! Eurydice!”

At last there dawned a day when some Bacchantes overtook him in the forest, and bade him play some gay music, so they [80] might indulge in a dance. But poor Orpheus, dazed with grief, could not comply with their demands; and the sad notes which alone he now could draw from his instrument so enraged the merrymakers, that they tore him limb from limb, and cast his mangled remains into the Hebrus River.

As the poet-musician’s head floated down the stream, the pallid lips still murmured, “Eurydice!” for even in death he could not forget his wife; and, as his spirit drifted on to join her, he incessantly called upon her name, until the brooks, trees, and fountains he had loved so well caught up the longing cry, and repeated it again and again.