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  • Writer's pictureDavid Youngblood

The Incredible Lightness of Grief

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes

And when all at once the god stopped

her, and with pain in his voice

spoke the words: he has turned around–,

she couldn't grasp this and quietly said: who?

--Ranier Maria Rilke

Italo Calvino, the prolific Italian writer and collector, observed in 6 Memos for the Next Millennium, a final unfinished collection of Harvard lectures before his death, that the whole course of his work as a writer and thinker and lecturer was the removal of weight from form. This was very much on my mind as I encountered, read, and re-read Ranier Maria Rilke’s poem “Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes.”

The poem retells the myth of the musician Orpheus who, burdened by the weight of his lost love, Eurydice, journeys to the underworld and charms Pluto enough to get him to agree to give Orpheus an opportunity to reclaim his love and bring her back from the underworld. It is not, however, solely Orpheus who is burdened in this poem. Eurydice and even the god Hermes are weighted by the inevitability and impossibility of their task. They move through the tragedy of a landscape framing the tragedy of their tale. And we as readers are also burdened right along with them, vicariously consumed in empathy. But it is a light movement not a dread shuffle. Sounds are absent as are heavy footfalls. Though grey, the landscape is not devoid of beauty--there is a “small wind” and a “light lyre.” And this lightest of possibilities is the fuel for the hope that we as observers must feel-- it is the substitution of chance for fate.

Orpheus “both his hands hung / heavy and clenched by the pour of his garment” keeps his gaze ever forward but “his hearing stayed close, like a scent.” Such language by Rilke reminds us of the twin nature of heaviness and grief, siblings who, like darkness and light, depend upon one another for existence.

Rilke stamps Eurydice too with a solemnity near heartbreak. As readers, we bear witness to the fated lover, “She was already loosened like long hair / and surrendered like the rain / and issued like massive provisions. / She was already root.” Throughout both descriptions, it’s easy to be overcome by the skill of Rilke the poet to entwine us in myth as we heavily and hesitatingly move forward toward the inevitable, ill-fated outcome, an outcome we know must come but hope can be delayed.

Hermes too, this lightest of all gods, feels the unbearable weight as “with pain in his voice” he gently draws Eurydice back even as Orpheus glances back. It is a moment of pain frozen as on an ancient Greek vase, the three players trapped as the expected climax arrives, cementing the trio in the turn from an impossible hope that we as onlookers shared. That hope evaporates as she “quietly said: who?” and we know that all is finally lost.

Where does such heaviness leave us in a discussion about teaching and its art? Is there a lightness amid the heaviness of our profession? Teaching is much like this journey our three pilgrims must make. Like Orpheus, the music of our lyre is our intrinsic ability to connect to children. They will follow the tune we play-- if we are prepared and practiced and make ourselves vulnerable. Like Orpheus, we enter into the bargain knowing or at least suspecting, that we shall not escape fate. How is it we can keep from the heavy tragedy within a profession that we know must break our hearts each year? For it is at the end of each year that the gentle, light god-- the future--must take our students by the hand and lead them away, back to their their own unique paths and away from our care.

Love is a skill that demands vulnerability and trust. The trust can be easy enough to secure, it’s built daily on the little kindnesses and humors and respect we show to the individuals in our charge. It’s the vulnerability that many of us struggle with. Perhaps we are leery of the pain resulting from opening our stories to others, but it only when we find a way to do so that we can truly be open to the possibility of love in our classrooms. That love will have the scent of success. We must tell our stories to our children and show them how best to tell their own, no matter the discipline we teach.

Each year we start anew with a fresh group and move, like Orpheus, never looking round, reluctant to turn back, knowing that the path must be forward. And our students, like Eurydice, uncertain but following, steadying themselves on the hand of Hermes, the god of the possible, the god of their future. The year inevitability must end as we must part from one another-- and this lightest of possibilities is the fuel for the hope that we as observers must feel-- it is the substitution of chance for fate, a substitution we must be content to make. If there is any happiness to be found in Rilke’s skillful retelling, it must be this: To act and to move forward at least to have a chance is far better than to be idol and grieving on the sidelines, paralyzed and without hope. And so, we teach on and the years flow around us. And like Orpheus, Eurydice and Hermes, our myth is encountered again, and again we make the bargain.

Here’s the poem in its entirety:

Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes

-- Ranier Maria Rilke

This was the eerie mine of souls.

Like silent silver-ore

they veined its darkness. Between roots

the blood that flows off into humans welled up,

looking dense as porphyry in the dark.

Otherwise, there was no red.

There were cliffs

and unreal forests. Bridges spanning emptiness

and that huge gray blind pool

hanging above its distant floor

like a stormy sky over a landscape.

And between still gentle fields

a pale strip of road unwound.

They came along this road.

In front the slender man in the blue cloak,

mute, impatient, looking straight ahead.

Without chewing, his footsteps ate the road

in big bites; and both his hands hung

heavy and clenched by the pour of his garment

and forgot all about the light lyre,

become like a part of his left hand,

rose tendrils strung in the limbs of an olive.

His mind like two minds.

While his gaze ran ahead, like a dog,

turned, and always came back from the distance

to wait at the next bend–

his hearing stayed close, like a scent.

At times it seemed to reach all the way back

to the movements of the two others

who ought to be following the whole way up.

And sometimes it seemed there was nothing behind him

but the echo of his own steps, the small wind

made by his cloak. And yet

he told himself: they were coming, once;

said it out loud, heard it die away . . .

They were coming. Only they were two

who moved with terrible stillness. Had he been allowed

to turn around just once (wouldn't that look back

mean the disintegration of this whole work,

still to be accomplished) of course he would have seen them,

two dim figures walking silently behind:

the god of journeys and secret tidings,

shining eyes inside the traveler's hood,

the slender wand held out in front of him,

and wings beating in his ankles;

and his left hand held out to: her.

This woman who was loved so much, that from one lyre

more mourning came than from women in mourning;

that a whole world was made from mourning, where

everything was present once again: forest and valley

and road and village, field, river and animal;

and that around this mourning-world, just as

around the other earth, a sun

and a silent star-filled sky wheeled,

a mourning-sky with displaced constellations–:

this woman who was loved so much . . .

But she walked alone, holding the god's hand,

her footsteps hindered by her long graveclothes,

faltering, gentle, and without impatience.

She was inside herself, like a great hope,

and never thought of the man who walked ahead

or the road that climbed back toward life.

She was inside herself. And her being dead

filled her like tremendous depth.

As a fruit is filled with its sweetness and darkness

she was filled with her big death, still so new

that it hadn't been fathomed.

She found herself in a resurrected

virginity; her sex closed

like a young flower at nightfall.

And her hands were so weaned from marriage

that she suffered from the light

god's endlessly still guiding touch

as from too great an intimacy.

She was no longer the blond woman

who sometimes echoed in the poet's songs,

no longer the fragrance, the island of their wide bed,

and no longer the man's to possess.

She was already loosened like long hair

and surrendered like the rain

and issued like massive provisions.

She was already root.

And when all at once the god stopped

her, and with pain in his voice

spoke the words: he has turned around–,

she couldn't grasp this and quietly said: who?

But far off, in front of the bright door

stood someone whose face

had grown unrecognizable. He just stood and watched,

how on this strip of road through the field

the god of secret tidings, with a heartbroken expression,

silently turned to follow the form

already starting back along the same road,

footsteps hindered by long graveclothes,

faltering, gentle, and without impatience.

German; trans. Franz Wright

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