The Double Death of Eurydice: A Discussion of Browning and Mythology

  • Robert Steiner


The scene of myth is public, in this case the underworld, a site identifying desire with rhetoric and rhetoric with death. Timeless, stateless, permanently abject, this new scene for the hero is the border of his magic and of his relations with the gods. The same passion that drove him underground will insure his failure, a failure that must insure the success of the myth in which, knowingly and unknowingly, he plays a part. The underworld is quiet and solemn, as befits the meeting of lovers, informed by mystery that the hero only identifies with death and violation. Orpheus must be stunned by Eurydice’s words: surely she would not undo the future they might yet have? Does Eurydice have her own set of laws for the encounter? Where in Orpheus there is only sexual loss, in his wife there is a clear demand for the blissful moment which she, in her timelessness, understands as perpetuating their passion. Her state makes literal the lovers’ desire for eternity; ironically, romantic union has its perfect rhetoric in the underworld. To explore the borders of this public scene, we must consider the inversions it makes possible. Lovers’ language, what the Greeks call krevata murmurata (bed murmurings), which elsewhere and in time would itself work like the hero’s magic, demands the perversion of magic, inaugurating the metamorphoses of will and passion.

But give them me, the mouth, the eyes, the brow! Let them once more absorb me! One look now Will lap me round for ever, not to pass Out of its light, though darkness lie beyond: Hold me but safe again within the bond Of one immortal look! All woe that was, Forgotten, and all terror that may be, Defied, -no past is mine, no future: look at me!1


Death Drive Historical Meaning Clear Demand Public Scene Infinite Moment 
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  1. 1.
    Robert Browning, Dramatis Personae (1864) in Complete Poems of Robert Browning(Cambridge: 1895).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Among the earliest to consider Orpheus historically are Isocrates, Horace and Quintilian. The implications of anti-positivist readings toward the concept of logos can be found in M. I. Finley, The Use and Abuse of History (New York: Viking, 1975) pp. 1–45. More to the point of tradition are John Block Friedman, Orpheus in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970) and Jean Seznec, Survival of the Pagmz Gods (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    By the sixteenth century, the debate over the status of Eurydice was a heated one. The economy of the myth emphasised the spectacle of the underworld journey, the heresy and bloody fate, not only overwhelming the sexual origins and phallic imagery, but virtually eliminating Eurydice as an element. The notion of Orpheus as a civilising figure, argued in Robert Holcot’s In Librum Sapientiae (Basel, 1586), stood in direct contradiction to the misogynist of John Lydgate’s Fall of Princes (c. 1450). See Friedman, pp. 169–71, 237n.41, 231n.42Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    This heretical interpretation first appears in Notker Labeo’s High German translation of Boethius’ Consolation, but resolves Orpheus’ ‘chiding’ of the gods within doctrine by condemning his original urge as lust, (of. Friedman, pp. 102–4).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    For number will not, either as mover or as form, produce a continuum. But again there cannot be any contrary that is also essentially a productive or moving principle; or it would be possible not to be.’ (Metaphysics, XII, Ch. 10). The attack on mathematical first principles, ‘that things exist by the imitation of numbers’, identifies Democritus’ theory with Pythagoreanism: ‘the real is differentiated only by rhythm, inter-connection and turning (clinamen), (Metaphysics, I, Ch. 4). Aristotle’s critique further links Pythagorean thought to the virtual indistinction between Being and Non-Being: ‘... being no more is than non-being, because solid is no more than empty’, (Metaphysics, I, Ch. 4). The characterisation implies, of course, that the Orphic credo of ‘flow’ is essentially a credo of contrary flux rather than reason. Heaven as a musical scale, for example, permits endless repetitions but no development. See Aristotle, Metaphysics, Clarendon Aristotle Series, Editor by J. L. Ackrill (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963).Google Scholar

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© Regina Barreca 1990

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  • Robert Steiner

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