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Orpheus

We want the heroes back so we can learn:
Herakles smashed his way to hell and stormed
By violence the ferryman and three-faced dog;
Even yanked Theseus from his deep-rooted seat
Without a by-your-leave to hell’s dark lord.

Is that the way to go? Now is our turn?
Another way the mind of Orpheus formed—
How music pierces through the deadest fog,
Turns even damnation into something sweet,
Lets death consider release it can afford.

How Orpheus played, till she who was inurned
Felt palpable, hair-raising, behind, warmed
His neck hotter than any burning log
As he went forward hopeful he would meet
Light, and her life duly from the god’s word.

But Orpheus—us—how easy then to spurn
What we are told, ignore the word that’s dawned
Already in our darkness, to be then clogged
So close to real light, hear heart miss its beat
As love refrigerates, turns back, is stored.

To feel his tears now, and how he yearned,
Not flinching suffering, the full-on pain it spawned,
Because in that the meaning points to God:
No denial or neurotic parts, instead complete
The universe is a song, is a chord.

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James Sale has had over 50 books published, most recently, “Mapping Motivation for Top Performing Teams” (Routledge, 2021). He has been nominated by The Hong Kong Review for the 2022 Pushcart Prize for poetry, has won first prize in The Society of Classical Poets 2017 annual competition, and performed in New York in 2019. He is a regular contributor to The Epoch Times. His most recent poetry collection is “StairWell.” For more information about the author, and about his Dante project, visit https://englishcantos.home.blog. To subscribe to his brief, free and monthly poetry newsletter, contact him at James@motivationalmaps.com


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22 Responses

  1. Linda Alice Fowler

    Wow James. Intense write whether naive heroes or bold cowards we be. Linda

    Reply
  2. Roy Eugene Peterson

    James, my first note regards your application of an amazing chain rhyme scheme throughout all the verses. I note Cerberus is present in the words three-faced dog that fits beautifully within your scheme. Secondly, “We want the heroes back” is a great way to begin the poem. Third, the ending is a beautiful thought of “points to God.” As always, the master excels!

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Thanks Roy: I’ve always wanted to be a ‘master’ and now with your endorsement I am!!! Watch out Yoda! Glad you spotted and appreciated the complex rhyming! Thanks.

      Reply
  3. Joseph S. Salemi

    The maintenance of a complex rhyme scheme of this type is no easy feat. It’s not just the finding of five rhymes each for five separate words, but also managing to interweave them into an inherited mythic tale that must stay recognizable to the reader.

    We all know the Orpheus-Eurydice story that Sale recounts here, but he also uses that story to make his additional points about heroism, music’s power, daring hope, foolish disregard of directions, loss, and at last a final closing meditation on how overarching divinity and the universe itself are “a song… a chord.”

    This is truly using inherited myth to speak of something wider than the mere narrative. Sale is never content with a re-telling; he always infuses an old story with broader perceptions.

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Thanks Joe, since I only recently commented on how skilful your use of rhyme is, then finding you appreciating mine is a big bonus – I am so pleased you find so much of interest in the work. Thank you again.

      Reply
  4. jd

    Your poem is beautiful, James, even with my distant memory of the age-old story.

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Thanks jd. As I often comment on these SCP pages: beauty is what we want, what we must demand, what we must insist upon if we are to write poetry. Thank you!

      Reply
  5. Brian A. Yapko

    James, you had me at “Orpheus” which, you may recall, is a myth I tried my own hand at. This is one of my favorites of all the classical stories for its pathos and the very human decisions and flaws which are drawn out of the story. The tragedy of Orpheus trying to resurrect Eurydice only to mess it up in the end is heartbreaking. You do this story great service by focusing on Orpheus as Everyman – us – and how easy it is for men to forget the rules, or trivialize them as unimportant. You take us into his thought-processes from the beginning as he strategizes how to bring Eurydice back. Then you go through the decision as to what might best move Hades: music. Orpheus is, after all, the consummate musician.

    You do a really interesting thing here, though. When things go south, you have Orpheus move on from the Classical gods (here Hades) and nudge him through tragedy into an even greater and deeper perception of the universe and man’s place in it. In fact, you raise the question of theodicy – how do we explain the existence of evil and tragedy in the world. You then bring Orpheus from the Classical world onward to the Judeo-Christian concept of (upper case) God. Divinity is not scattered among various pagan personalities. It exists in one place, in one existence. And, with that firm thought embedded in your conclusion, your final invocation of music no longer reflects Orpheus or his patron Apollo. We are now presented a description of the universe as a song/chord – something far greater and something which invokes two additional references for me: The Music of the Spheres; and John: In the beginning was the Word.” A word can be sung, can it not?

    Reply
    • James Sale

      I do recall indeed Brian and commented at the time on how much I enjoyed your poem – and clearly we both share a passion for this particular myth. As you comment, and ABB does below, I am very into synthesising the Greek and Judeo-Christian traditions – Milton did, so did Dante, and epic poets should if they are going to be epic poets, and so we can but try to aspire to this great calling and hope the Muse lights the fire. It is perfect, therefore, that you should mention the Word – I can only say that I am currently attempting (though in actual fact I am currently in Verona!) to write Canto 7 of my Paradiso – the Canto of the Poets – and St John the Divine is to make an appearance … so the Muse pre-informs me! Thanks for your ever-perceptive critical acumen in reading poetry – mine in this case! And yes, one song, one verse!

      Reply
  6. ABB

    Orpheus, patron hero of poets, is always an inspired subject for verse. As Brian already articulated in one of his standard subtle analyses, I love your penchant for synthesizing the Greek myths with the Judeo-Christian tradition. Through five stanzas, your five rhymes ascend towards the light. Among the fundamentalists, this is of course a big ‘no-no’—these tedious bores would have us excise the Greeks from everything. Some of leftists, on the other hand, are trying to revive the pagan ways but throwing out Christianity. With Puritans on two sides, you steer a rich middle way.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      A winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor refused to wear his decoration. You know why? He was a Low-Church fundamentalist evangelical, and he would not wear a medal that had the head of a pagan divinity (Athena) on it. When told that Athena was the tutelary goddess of war, he said he didn’t care. He wasn’t going to wear the award.

      It’s this kind of ignorant back-country philistinism that betrays our Western heritage, just as much as wokeness and cultural Marxism.

      Reply
      • James Sale

        Yes, Joe: both suffer from a literalism that is debilitating and dangerous; for starters, it completely limits understanding.

    • James Sale

      Thanks ABB: as Apollo observed- not too much! Or, with Yang we must have Yin! Thanks for pointing out the 5 x 5 structure: the number of ‘grace’ of course!

      Reply
  7. C.B. Anderson

    Marvelous, James, simply marvelous. For the formal discipline alone it is magnificent. I knew you had it in you, and I apologise if I have ever slighted you in the past.

    Reply
  8. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    James, to draw upon the story of Orpheus and weave its wonders and wisdom into modern day dilemmas faced by “us” is not only creative, but also much needed in this godless time of cancel-culture. This is the sort of writing that makes one want to pick up the classics and indulge oneself in the true purpose of poetry.

    Reply
  9. Margaret Coats

    James, I find the important expression in your poem to be “ignore the word,” or as Brian Yapko says, “trivialize the rules” in the universal song. That is, Orpheus fails to recognize his own part in that chord or song larger than lyre and voice. Perhaps this also pertains to William Ruleman’s sonnet on the misunderstood and dismembered poet, which is another treatment of Orpheus published on this site (though previously published elsewhere). Three excellent reflections on the myth, one that has been thoroughly received into Western civilization, with a great number of interpretations in music and visual arts as well as literature. You take it in the direction of emphasizing suffering (“full-on pain”) that is not mere classic woe, but has meaning because it points to God. And the suffering God is Christ, allowing all sufferers (not just poets) to sanctify themselves through the experience. Truly a universal perspective, though sadly not one accepted by all.

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Thanks Margaret: yes, the expression, ‘ignore the word’, is the beginning of the transition from the classical world to the Bible. It would have been too strong to write ‘the Word’, but Adam ignored the Word, so did the Israelites after Moses, and so did Orpheus: the greatest sin of all for the Greeks was hubris, and what was hubris? To ignore or disobey the words of a god. As Brian points out, the poem is a kind of movement towards theodicy; but we can rest assured that although the world can ignore ‘reality’, it cannot ignore the consequences of ‘reality’, and this is what is being played out now.

      Reply
  10. Adam Sedia

    This is a very rich poem, both in its technique and its meaning. I find it interesting how the rhyme scheme operates across stanzas rather than within them — a nice touch that obscures the rhyme, but not too much.

    Many insightful comments have already been said about the substance of the poem. I will add that I love the description of Eurydice’s revival from her own perspective — very “real.” I also enjoy the contrast of Orpheus’s method of assuaging with music to Heracles’s assault. And then there’s the end — plaintive, fatalistic, yet joyful. Amor fati is what I draw from the conclusion. Very nice!

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Thanks Adam – really pleased you liked the poem and its technique. Everything works together for good – as St Paul observed … with a condition, or it that quibble? (which, as a lawyer, I am sure you know all about!)

      Reply

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