Self-Sacrifice for Love of Another in Margaret Atwood's Orpheus

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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 w...

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...nt for which he sacrifices his life tends to gain drive and force.

In reference to the subtlety of language, Robert Frost once said, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” Without the allusion to Greek mythology and use of metonymy, the poem may diminish any sympathy the reader feels for Orpheus. Additionally, the literary devices contribute a sense of mystery that captivates the reader, especially regarding the description of the Underworld, a place one thinks about and reads about but cannot witness before death. On the contrary, the inclusion of these devises may raise awareness for the reader in regard to passionate leaders within his own society. Therefore, one must read between the lines of Margaret Atwood’s poetry in order to discover her true intentions.

Works Cited
Atwood, Margaret. Selected Poems II: 1976 - 1986. Vol. 2. Mariner Books, 1987. Print.

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