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Self Sacrifice For Love Of Another In Margaret Atwood's Orpheus

984 words - 4 pages

Known for the manipulation of literary devices to create two wholly different meanings of her poetry, Margaret Atwood expects her readers to discover both figurative and literal translations. She uses allusions and metonymy in her popular poem “Orpheus” to encourage her readers to draw meaning from their own personal interests. If one’s area of expertise is Greek mythology, the reference to Orpheus is prevalent; however, if one is enthusiastic about revolutionary history, then he may perceive this poem as a tribute to martyrs in history. Though interpretations may differ, the main theme of the poem is self-sacrifice for love of another or perhaps an entire population.
While Atwood creates allusions to Greek mythology in several of her poems, her use of this device is rather unique in “Orpheus,” for the lucent evidence only appears in the title. The poet never mentions the name Orpheus directly within the poem; rather, she employs a third-person point of view and refers to the subject of the work as he: “Whether he will go on singing / or not, knowing what he knows / of the horror of this world…” (1-3). A reader not previously familiar with mythology who may overlook the title would find difficulty deciphering this literary piece in connection to Orpheus; however, by paying attention to the title, one can relate literally every line to the mythological figure.. In the actual myth, Orpheus is an extraordinary singer whose voice is unsurpassed by any mortal or god. He loses his wife Eurydice because of a serpent bite, after only a few days into their marriage. Devastated by his loss, he travels to the underworld in order to sing to Hades and ask for the return of his wife. The speaker describes hell in the following: “He was not wandering among meadows / all this time. / He was down there / among the mouthless ones” (4-6). The gruesome imagery further illustrates this horrifying setting. As Orpheus sings, several women in the underworld grow an attraction to his dedication for his love. They are so agitated and jealous by his desires for Eurydice that they “cut off both his hands / and soon they will tear / his head from his body in one burst” (23-25). In various versions of this myth, Bacchic orgies tear Orpheus’s body into pieces and then eat his flesh; they then take him to the island of Lesbos. His head, though detached from the body, keeps singing: “He foresees this. Yet he will go on / singing, and in praise” (28-29). These lines illustrate Orpheus’s persistent love for Eurydice and evoke sympathy from the reader since Orpheus is never able to rescue his wife.
The figurative depiction of this poem relates to sacrifice and love as well, though a different sort. The protagonist of this poem can very well be a martyr who rises among his peers to defend their rights and willingly sacrifices his life for a particular cause. Metonymy and metaphors are evident...

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