Virgil: Georgics: Extract from Book IV; Orpheus and Eurydice |
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Ancient Greece

Virgil: Georgics: Extract from Book IV; Orpheus and Eurydice

Ll. 464-527. Towards the end of the fourth and final book of his magical poem, the “Georgics”, ostensibly a guide to country living, Virgil recounts the tragic tale of Orpheus, a famous musician from Northern Greece, whose singing and lyre-playing enchanted the whole of nature. When his beloved wife, Eurydice, died of a snake-bite, he was overcome with grief and decided to go down to the Underworld to try to recover her. (The text of this extract comes from the “Cambridge Latin Anthology”, Cambridge University Press, 1996.)

He, himself, soothing his sorrowful love with a hollow tortoise-shell lyre, to you, his sweet wife, to you on the desolate shore, to you with day coming, to you with day dying, used to sing alone (lit. with himself). He even entered the jaws of Taenarus, the lofty portals of Dis (i.e. an entrance to the Underworld in the Peloponnese), and the gloomy grove with its black terror, and approached both the Manes (i.e. the Shades, or the spirits of the dead) and their tremendous king (i.e. Pluto or Dis), hard hearts not knowing how to be mollified by human prayers. But, having been moved by his singing, insubstantial shades from the lowest resting places of Erebus (i.e. the Underworld) and the phantoms of those lacking life (lit. light) came forward, as many (as) the thousands of birds (that) hide themselves in the leaves (of trees), when evening or a wintry storm drives (them) from the mountains, (that is the shades of) mothers and men and the bodies of gallant heroes finished with life, boys and unmarried girls, and young men placed on the pyre before the eyes of their parents, whom the black mud and ugly weed of Cocytus (i.e. the river of wailing), and the hateful marsh with its sluggish water, binds fast (all) around, and whom the Styx (i.e. the river of death, the main river of the Underworld), flowing between them nine times, confines. Indeed, the very halls of Death and the innermost parts of Tartarus (i.e. the infernal regions, or the Underworld’s abode of the wicked) were dumbstruck, as were the Eumenides (i.e. the Furies, lit. ‘the Kindly Ones’, so called to propitiate them), having interwoven snakes into their hair, and Cerberus (i.e. the three-headed guard-dog of the Underworld), his three mouths agape, kept quiet, and the revolving wheel (lit. the wheel of the circle) of Ixion (i.e. one of the denizens of Tartarus, bound to an ever rolling wheel for trying to rape Juno, the queen of the gods) stood still in the wind.

And now, retracing his steps, he had evaded all hazards, and, Eurydice having been restored (to him), he was coming to the upper air (with her) following behind (for in fact Proserpina had required this ruling), when a sudden madness took hold of the unwary lover, a madness which must indeed be forgiven, if the Manes knew how to pardon: he halted, and, now, on the verge of light itself, alas, forgetful and overpowered at heart, he looked back. Thereupon, all his endeavour (was) wasted and the cruel tyrant’s condition (was) broken, and three times the crash of thunder (was) heard in the pools of Avernus (i.e. a lake in the Underworld). She says “What, what very great madness has destroyed both the wretched me and you, Orpheus? Behold, the cruel fates are calling (me) back, and sleep is closing my swimming eyes. And now, farewell: I am being carried (away), engulfed by endless night, and stretching out to you these helpless hands (lit. palms), alas, no (longer) yours.” She spoke, and suddenly out of his sight (lit. his eyes), like smoke mingling into thin air, she flies in a different direction, and she does not see him grasping in vain at shadows and wishing to say many things further; and the ferryman (i.e. Charon) of Orcus (i.e. the Underworld) did not allow (him) to cross again the marsh having been put in his way. What should he do? His wife having been snatched a second time, whither should he betake himself? By what weeping might he move the Manes, which powers above (might he move) by his voice? Indeed, she, now cold, was sailing (across) in the Stygian barque.

They say that for seven whole months in a row he grieved under a lofty crag beside the waters of the lonely Strymon (i.e. a river in Macedonia), and he unfolded this tale (lit. these things) in chilly caves, taming tigers and moving oak-trees by his song; thus, a sorrowing nightingale, under the shade of a poplar tree, laments her lost chicks, which a heartless ploughman, observing the chicks in the nest, has stolen; but she weeps all night, and, perched on a bow, she maintains her pitiful song, and with her sad laments she fills the area far and wide. No woman’s love (lit. Venus), not any marriage moved his heart. Alone, he roams over the Hyperborean ice-fields (i.e. the icy north of Europe) and the snowy Tanais (i.e. the river Don) and the ploughed fields of Riphaeus (i.e. mountains in northern Europe near to the source of the Don), never free from frost, lamenting the snatched Eurydice and the futile gifts of Dis. (But) the women of the Cicones (i.e. the people of Thrace), spurned by his devotion (to her), amid the sacred rites of the gods and the revels of Bacchus (i.e. the god of wine) at night, scattered (the limbs of) the young man over the wide fields. Then also, when the Hebrus (i.e. a Thracian river) of Oeagrius (king of Thrace and father of Orpheus) rolled (along) carrying in the midst of its waters his head, severed from his marble neck, the voice itself and the frozen tongue, his life ebbing way, continued to call “Eurydice, ah, poor Eurydice!”: the banks across the whole river re-echoed “Eurydice!”

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