Don’t Look Back

Here is a portion of Virgil’s account of what happened after Orpheus, escorting his wife from the underworld, turned around to look at her:

Virgil., Georgics, IV. 494-506

She said: “What folly, Orpheus, what terrible folly
Has destroyed me, a wretched woman, and you too?
Look, the hard fates are calling me back again.
And look, sleep is closing my swimming eyes.
Now, farewell! I’m borne away in the vast encircling
Night, and I reach out to you with helpless hands
That, alas, are no longer your hands.”

That’s what she said. Then suddenly, from his sight,
Like smoke amid light breezes, she was gone.
She did not see him vainly clutching shadows
And trying to say ever more things to her.
What’s more, Death’s boatman did not let him cross
The swamp stretched before him.

What could he do? Where was he scrambling to
With his wife snatched away a second time?
With what tears could he move the gods?
Which divinities could he move with words?

No matter. She was afloat the Stygian raft, already cold.

Illa “Quis et me” inquit “miseram et te perdidit, Orpheu,
quis tantus furor? en iterum crudelia retro
fata vocant conditque natantia lumina somnus.
iamque vale: feror ingenti circumdata nocte
invalidasque tibi tendens, heu! non tua, palmas.”
dixit et ex oculis subito, ceu fumus in auras
commixtus tenues, fugit diversa, neque illum
prensantem nequiquam umbras et multa volentem
dicere praeterea vidit; nec portitor Orci
amplius obiectam passus transire paludem.
quid faceret? quo se rapta bis coniuge ferret?
quo fletu manis, quae numina voce moveret?
Illa quidem Stygia nabat iam frigida cumba.

Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein.
Orpheus and Eurydice. 1806.
Glyptoteket, Copenhagen.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at

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