The Underworld, Logos, and the Poetic Imagination
In the Odyssey of Homer, Odysseus travels to the underworld and meets the soul of Achilles, who bitterly comments on existence after death:
O shining Odysseus, never try to console me for dying.
I would rather follow the plow as thrall to another
man, one with no land allotted him and not much to live on,
than be a king over all the perished dead.
The ancient Greek interpretation of death, as expressed by Homer, portrays the Underworld as a horrible place, terrifying in its monotony and lack of meaning; and Death is something to be feared and avoided as long as possible.
Poetry's representation of death has changed dramatically since Homer, especially in the hands of more modern poets like Rilke and Gregory Orr, who, in their handling of the Orpheus and Alcestis myths, treat death as desirable, even more fulfilling than life. In the earlier Greek versions of the Orpheus myth, Eurydice reacts with despair when she loses her only chance to return to the realm of the living. In the modern poetry of Rilke and Orr, however, Eurydice does not want to leave the Underworld. Indeed, returning to life is a painful and dreadful experience for her. She responds to the possibility of life with the same hesitation and fear that the Homeric heroes felt toward death.
What has not changed, however, from Homer to the twentieth century is that we do not know what happens after death, and we still use poetry as a means of addressing the uncertainty of death. Poetry is our way of immortalizing and idealizing the dead, and, consequently, the poet acts as the bridge between the living and the dead.
The Iliad begins with the invocation of the Muse, or the poet entreating a goddess to sing through him and to tell the story of Achilles' wrath:
Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus' son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the
Achians. . .
The poet, therefore, acts as a meduim through which poetry flows from a higher divinity to the listening audience. The story of the Trojan War lives on because of the poetry of Homer, which has, in a sense, immortalized the characters and events of the war. They still exist in the poem, and we can summon them into physical existence by reading the poem--that is to say, we can re-create them through language. Within the poem, Death is despicable to Achilles, and his glory and honor are vitally important to him. This is because he knows that by achieving glory, he will live on forever in the songs of others. Indeed, it is significant that he is playing a lyre when the embassy of Greek soldiers tries to convince him to return to battle. Achilles himself keeps the heroes before him alive, "singing of men's fame" (Iliad, 9.189).
Another poet of Greek mythology who commemorates the dead is Orpheus, who sings of his dead wife, Eurydice, in an attempt to keep her alive. The story of Orpheus has been...