Ann Wroe wrote the book on Orpheus, that magician, demi-god, philosopher, priest, poet, singer, that inspiration, that tragedy, that Argonaut, that sacrificial lamb. Her new book, Orpheus, The Song of Life, is dedicated to everyone who protested, "But Orpheus isn't real." Using everything from texts from antiquity to poems and paintings from the present day, Wroe demonstrates that an archetype, despite all the blurring of boundaries and definitions (Was Orpheus based on a real person? Was he a king? A Poet? Did he study at Alexandria? Did he live in Thrace, or the mountains further north?) despite all the questions, Orpheus is a Being, an Idea, with a lasting influence, a man real enough to inspire uncounted poems, songs, operas, mosaics, paintings, plays, and happenings. As for scholarly works about the big O, I very much doubt that a better one will be coming along soon. Wroe is learned and erudite, a writer whose mastery of her prose makes the reader feel, this reader, at least, that he's found a text that becomes both a home (comfortable) and a way-station, a place that has the potential to be the start of any number of journeys. Whether you are planning on a trip to Hades to retrieve your one true love, or you want to discover ways to be the enchanted singer of your age--and who at one time or another has not wanted to have a voice that moved the very trees to dance--this is the book you need. Poets of all sorts, here is Anne Wroe on Orpheus:
The public square was always foreign to him. His school was not in any building, though the boys sitting now on temple steps, smoking and listening to their iPods, may jiggle with the sense of him, as he slides through shaded doorways on the waves of balalaika music kicked up from passing cars. The forest was always his place, or among the rocks; in secret, and most often in the dark.
Here she is describing how Orpheus sang a song that made a forest uproot itself, great trees following behind him like eager dogs:
He led them, then -- scarcely daring to turn, in case they froze behind him -- swaying and stumbling from rock to rock, their canopies full of sky and threshing wings, until they reached Zone on the Aegean Sea. There, in an open space, they arranged themselves in a double ring as though they meant to dance in a spiral, like the planets around the sun. But though he urged them to dance, though he challenged them, laughing and splashing, to follow him into the sea with their hundred hydra arms, they moved no more. Having staggered so far, astonished by the wide blue glare ahead of them, they felt the music leave them, and rooted there.
He could only lead them so far. That is still the case.
I am eager to find out where Wroe's terrific book might lead me.
|Orpheus playing for the beasts. The unicorn looks particularly enthralled.|