The Underworld, Logos, and the Poetic Imagination Essay

The Underworld, Logos, and the Poetic Imagination Essay

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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.[1]

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 en...

... middle of paper ...

... her back,/ to hurt her into memory." Gregory Orr, Betrayals/Hades,
Eurydice, Orpheus, in City of Salt, (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press,
1995), ll. 10-15, p. 34.

[8] Martin Heidegger, "Being and Time," Basic Writings, Edited by David Farrell Krell
(San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1993), 78.

[9] When Heidegger speaks of the Logos with a capital "L," he is speaking of some sort
of higher, transcendent truth. When he speaks of logos with a lower-case "l," he
simply means "word."

[10] Heidegger, "On the Essence of Truth," Basic Writings, Edited by David Farrell Krell
(San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1977), 125.

[11] Heidegger, Early Greek Thinkers, Translated by David Farrell Krell and Frank A.
Capuzzi (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1975), 73.

[12] Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus, I, 2, ll. 1-5, p. 229.

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