Orpheus, The Song Of Life by Ann Wroe

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Orpheus, The Song Of Life by Ann Wroe

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Clare Reddaway
Reviewed by Clare Reddaway
Summary: Lyrical life of Greek mythical musician and poet Orpheus, with reference to the numerous artistic re-interpretations of his story throughout the ages.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: July 2012
Publisher: Pimlico
ISBN: 978-1845951689

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Orpheus is one of the most memorable and recognisable figures of Greek mythology. He was a legendary musician and poet, whose song could charm all living things and indeed the very stones of the earth. He had a dramatic life, including joining the Argonauts as they searched for the golden fleece. Most memorably, he travelled to Hades to rescue his dead wife Eurydice from the underworld. However, he was unable to obey Pluto’s command not to look at her. He couldn’t resist turning around, only to see her sucked back into the depths and death. This tale of romantic tragedy and thwarted love has intrigued and delighted artists and writers through the centuries, and they have portrayed Orpheus and his life in music, paintings, plays, poems, operas and films ever since.

Ann Wroe’s book tells the story of Orpheus’s life, drawing on all of the many sources that have told it. So she opens the book with a depiction of the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke in 1922, whose poem about the singer of singers punctuates the chapters. She then writes about the periods of Orpheus’s life from birth to death as if he was (and indeed maybe he was) a real person. As she writes she gives us the interpretations through the different centuries. So when she introduces Eurydice, she tells the reader that the Greeks saw Eurydice as a dryad or tree-spirit; Calderón in the seventeenth century saw her as human nature; Rilke as ‘an almost girl’; medieval writers as ‘deep judgement’ and Remigius of Auxerre in the ninth century made her Music itself. When Wroe writes of the marriage of Eurydice and Orpheus she contrasts the way it was depicted by Monteverdi in 1607, all feathered hats and slashed velvets, with the much grimmer ash-coloured ceremony in Ovid, in which Eurydice is as ‘light as cobwebs and dust, already a shade anticipating death.’

Wroe writes evocatively of Orpheus, bringing the boy and the lover to life with her words. She luxuriates in descriptions, for instance in the ‘land of spices’ there are the ‘resins and aromatics that [Orpheus] used to reinforce his prayers: red balsam, pitch pine, vanilla-scented storax, cassia and golden crocus, frankincense in white cubes.’ She writes vividly of Orpheus’ journey across the river in Hades: ‘the Styx was suddenly webbing and foaming underneath him as the Hebrus did, curling into eddies and tight silver waves that shattered softly on the opposite shore.’ The writing is poetic and romantic, and with it she succeeds in her attempts to bring this ‘poet and magician, a semi-god, halfway divine’ to life. He springs, charming and lyrical, through the pages. The Greece that he lived in is also brought into focus – the entrance to Hades, through an ‘icy cave called the Devil’s Throat, where the Trigradsak river plunges underground in two great waterfalls, roaring into the dark.’ As a reader, I am there, slipping on the rocks, splashed by the water.

There is a great deal of learning in this book. Wroe can leap between Ovid and Virgil to Cocteau in one paragraph, with erudition and panache. This reader, for one, could have done with a little more help. Wroe eschews the footnote, but I would have found it helpful at the end of the book to have had a short appendix with further details of the poems, pictures and films that she references. (There is, of course, a bibliography, but I would have found a sentence or two about each to be helpful.) Equally, a reproduction of the Giorgione and Corot pictures that she describes would have added to my enjoyment.

Wroe uses Orpheus’s life as the chronological structure of the book. This is an interesting and unusual choice, which does bring the character of Orpheus to life and enables the reader to experience each of his dramatic episodes in a series of mirrors, through the different interpretations of his character. However, it does mean there is little analyses of why his life was re-interpreted in such varied ways, and what the interpretations tell us about the different historical and cultural periods. It is hard for the reader to come to any firm conclusions as the author flits from reference to reference. Perhaps the only final conclusion is that the story of Orpheus was very appealing to a lot of artists.

This is a delightful and interesting book that re-tells an ancient story vividly and lyrically. I am less sure that it adds anything to my overall understanding of the myriad interpretations and reimaginings of Greek myth, although the references are well-chosen and carefully researched. (Personally, I was sad that there was no mention of ‘Black Orpheus’, the 1959 film set in the favelas of Rio, but I do understand that not everything could find a place without making the book into an encyclopaedia.) This book has everything, I think, that you need to know about Orpheus and it has made me want to turn to some of the poems and pictures that Wroe introduces. And to take a holiday in Greece, of course.

Younger readers interested in the subject might enjoy Greek Myths by Ann Turnbull and Sarah Young

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Buy Orpheus, The Song Of Life by Ann Wroe at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Orpheus, The Song Of Life by Ann Wroe at Amazon.com.


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