Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

H.D. and Eurydice

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

H.D. and Eurydice

Article excerpt

. . . everything is at stake in the decision of the gaze.

- Blanchot, "The Gaze of Orpheus" (104)

In their uses of Orpheus, poets have dwelt on the figure of Orpheus while Eurydice remains an enigma, the shadowy instance that allows the transformation of a poet into Orpheus. It is the paradox of Orpheus's myth that it is in his moment of forgetting what he has labored so intensely to achieve that he accedes to the highest level of poetic creation. A Eurydice alive in "her diurnal truth," in Blanchot's phrase (from the essay "The Gaze of Orpheus" [100]), is a figure of farce, like the much-tried wife of Cocteau's film who must constantly duck under the furniture to avoid her husband's gaze in an ultimately futile effort to avoid her second death. Eurydice is twice forgotten: forgotten first because she is remembered only as the occasion of Orpheus's first miracle, his descent to the underworld, and forgotten again when her second death endows Orpheus's voice with such overwhelming power that her loss seems nugatory.

Most accounts of the legend assume (even if they do not articulate) Ovid's blithe disregard of Eurydice's plight: "What did she have to complain of? One thing, only: He loved her" (Book X, lines 61-62, p. 36). But the story of Orpheus's gaze is not only the story of the mute female object passive before the male artist's gaze. It is also the story of the artist's dependence on that erotic other, the external subject that enables him to become the artist who is Orpheus. It is this redoubled doubleness that Blanchot expresses - the emptiness of Eurydice doubled by the emptiness of Orpheus, whose inspiration is possible only in a moment of complete self-forgetting:

If inspiration means that Orpheus fails and Eurydice is lost twice over . . . it also turns Orpheus towards that failure and that insignificance and coerces him, by an irresistible impulse, as though giving up failure were much more serious than giving up success. (102)

The category of "diurnal truth" seems equally alien to both elements of this story, although traditionally only Eurydice is thought to have died.

In the context of H.D.'s larger work, her poem "Eurydice" exists in a limbo that parallels that of its subject. It was included in Amy Lowell's collection Some Imagist Poets and organized into the section entitled "The God" by H.D. when her Collected Poems was published in 1925. Critics have typically folded it into the stream of her later poems such as Helen in Egypt and "Calypso," where, in Rachel Blau DuPlessis's words, "H.D. has attempted to give a voice to one of the female figures long left voiceless within our culture" (420).(1) In this reading, Eurydice stands as a figure who, like the later personae adopted by H.D., successfully articulates a vibrant female reality that contests the dominant masculine worldview. For DuPlessis, "Eurydice" claims the colorless and contingent hell of the poem as the sufficient space of poetic creation, "not the space of rejection, negation, and loss, but [of] the splendor of her essential life" (411).(2)

For critics interested in her imagist poetics, "Eurydice" lies outside the core of H.D.'s practice, as represented by her first collection Sea Garden and the two most anthologized poems from the second collection, "Oread" and "The Pool," all dominated by imagist practices.(3) Unlike such H.D. poems whose opening lines evoke a crystalline moment of vision - "Weed, mossweed, / root tangled in sand" or "The hard sand breaks" (from "Iris" and "Hermes of the Ways") - "Eurydice" is not imagist but narrative, and it begins not with sight but with speech that expresses pure rage: "So you have swept me back, / I who could have walked with the live souls / above the earth" (CP, 1983, 51). Only after this blast of anger will H.D. offer images, as in her description of hell where "dead lichens drip / dead cinders upon moss of ash."(4)

But to read H. …

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