The Orphic Physics of Early Modern Eloquence

  • Jenny C. Mann
Part of the Palgrave Handbooks of Literature and Science book series (PAHALISC)


Since its first appearance in the poetry of early Greece, the myth of Orpheus has helped to conceptualize the hidden process whereby eloquent language persuades or otherwise produces belief by making a strong impression on its audiences. The earliest tales of Orpheus emphasize the preternatural force of artful language, endowing Orpheus’s song with the power to move animals, trees, and stones.1 In Roman versions of the myth, including those contained in Virgil’s Georgics and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Orpheus descends into the underworld in order to win back his dead wife Eurydice. He uses his song to persuade the gods of Hades to release his bride, only to lose her a second time when he disobeys their command and gazes back as they depart the underworld. In his grief Orpheus renounces all women, promising to love only boys, and his mournful song draws trees, beasts, and stones to follow him. Yet despite the power of his song, Orpheus is torn apart by a howling band of Bacchae in revenge for his disdain. Dismemberment, however, does not quiet his voice, and Orpheus’s severed head and lyre continue to sing as they float down the Hebrus to the island of Lesbos, where Apollo protects the head from the bite of a snake and gives it the power of prophecy. Virgil and Ovid thus emphasize the magical force of artful language, but they also highlight the impotence of Orpheus’s song (he fails to rescue Eurydice and is eventually torn to pieces). In the Metamorphoses, Orpheus is killed, as Joseph Ortiz explains, because he cannot ‘move’ the Bacchantes (in illo tempore primum /inrita dicentem nec quicquam voce moventem) and so cannot deflect stones being thrown at him.2


English Poesy Deep Impression Classical Myth Roman Version Voice Terminal 
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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jenny C. Mann
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of EnglishCornell UniversityNew YorkUSA

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