Website of poet Elizabeth Rimmer


  • The Orpheus Tradition

    Someone suggested that my Eurydice Rising Sequence was so complicated and illusive that I should write a whole essay on the romance and ballad tradition, so I have. I’d be interested in comments from anyone who knows about it.

    The Orpheus Tradition

    The classical story of Orpheus is simple and well-known – Orpheus’ beloved wife is stolen by Hades, and dies. Orpheus goes to the underworld to rescue her and plays so well that he is allowed to take her back, so long as he does not look behind to see if she is following him. He does look back, and she is lost forever, and Orpheus, distraught, is killed by Maenads because he refuses to play for them. It is told in many cultures and many formats, from Boethius’ allegorical understanding of Eurydice as Soul, beguiled into Hell by the pleasures of the senses, rescued by Orpheus as Reason, but lost through his weakness and want of dedication, to Offenbach’s irreverent satire on marriage and conventional thinking, in which both Orpheus and Eurydice are glad of the opportunity to set up with someone new. Everyone seemed to have their own take on what was happening, whether like the Orphic cultists, they believed that Orpheus had established the belief in life after death, or like Ovid, that he was the first homosexual.

    What fascinated me most of all as I got to know more about the tradition, was that as the story was dispersed and retold, many versions did not end with tragedy. As the story moved north, it happened more and more that Orpheus actually got Eurydice back.

    In the Breton lai, Sir Orfeo, Orpheus is both a knight and a king of England. His wife Herodys (I did recently hear an undergraduate without any classical background pronounce Eurydice like this – it made my day) is kidnapped by the King of Fairy as she slept under an ‘ympe tree’. This is a grafted tree, distrusted because such tampering with nature was thought to be unnatural. In medieval times such a tree was believed to leave anyone who slept there vulnerable to the otherworld, and the image of a grafted tree was sometimes used, as Perdita does in A Winters Tale to symbolise a lack of integrity. Orfeo is so distraught with grief that he leaves the court and goes into the wilderness for ten years – a ritual time of trial called a ‘moniage‘ . In Moniage 1 I have referred to the best known example of moniage in medieval English literature – the obscure but charming poem Maiden on the Mor Lay.

    At the end of the ten years, Orfeo sees the a hunting party and discovers that it is the Wild Hunt (slua sidh in Irish folk tales) – the Fairy people on an expedition to the everyday world. Oddly enough, he does not recognise who these people are, but is reawakened to his own identity by remembering his former hunting days. He sees Herodys among the court, but she is not able to respond to him, and he follows the hunt into an underground world filled simultaneously with horrific visions of lost people, those dead by misadventure, or women dead in childbirth, murder victims, and lunatics – people who ‘are thought dead and are not’ – and beautiful visions of the wealth and luxury of a royal palace. He sees Herodys both sleeping under her tree, and as a queen dressed in gold at a banquet.

    Orfeo performs as a minstrel and is promised whatever he likes as a reward. When he names Herodys, the King questions his fitness to marry her, but acknowledges that he has to be bound by his word, and he places no obstacle placed in the way of Herodys’ return. When Orfeo returns to Winchester to reclaim his throne, he disguises himself as a beggar to test his steward’s loyalty, and his welcomed out of loyalty to the absent king. The story ends with both marriage and kingdom restored, and the steward rewarded.

    The Shetland ballad, King Orfeo, although similar in many ways, is a more simple ‘fairy-taken’ story which draws on the Celtic bardic tradition. The king of Ferry pierces King Orfeo’s wife Isabel with a ‘dart’ and takes her away with him. Orfeo pursues them, but they disappear, leaving only a grey stone – the traditional gateway to the other world. He plays his pipes and is invited inside. Once there he demonstrates his expertise in the three modes of music expected of a bard : Goltraighe, ‘the weeping strain’, here called ‘da notes o’ noy’; or lament, Geantriaghe, ‘the laughing strain’, here called ‘da notes o’ joy’, or dance music; and Suantraighe, and ‘the sleeping strain’ or lullaby, which the ballad describes as ‘da god gabber reel/dat meicht ha made a sick hert hale’. In Irish tradition the suantraighe makes anyone who is awake fall asleep, and anyone who is sick becomes well. He claims, and is granted Isabel as his reward, and on his return, not only his wife but his kingdom is restored to him.

    The many symbolic values encompassed by Eurydice, who represents soul, conscience, maturity, muse and social identity, as well as lover, and the different outcomes gave me a lot to play with. It gave me the opportunity to see Orpheus as many different artists – Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Thomas the Rhymer and Gerald Way from the emo-band My Chemical Romance. I could use the multi-layered tradition to examine the use of poetry – and art in general; the role of an artist in society, the way an artist integrates – or fails to integrate – the practice of his art with his personal life, the nature of love, and the very odd relationship between artist and muse. The old-fashioned exclusive language here is deliberate. Women, particularly women of my generation, negotiate this terrain differently – maybe I should try a Rumpelstiltskin or a Baba Yagar sequence next time!

    In my version, Eurydice is not dead or stolen by fairies;she is mad, and she and Orpheus are locked in a co-dependent relationship which may or may not destroy both of them. Whether either one of them gets out of hell depends on Orpheus’ willingness to come to a sound understanding of who he is, and set Eurydice free.

    This might be a good time to acknowledge the influence of my supervisor way back when I did my MLitt. Felicity J Riddy is not only a brilliant medievalist, but was also a wonderful teacher and mentor. And she wrote an essay on Sir Orfeo (The Uses of the Past in Sir Orfeo published in the Yearbook of English Studies vol6 1976) which started me on my interest in the Orpheus tradtion

  • February already

    January got eaten by family illnesses, de-cluttering the house, preparing the next chunk of work for the Lúcháir project and structuring Recusant – which I think I might have to call Who Time Sleeps Withal, and learning how to use my new, very shiny, and very complicated phone. It seems to do everything but make me a cup of tea.

    Also I am now convinced that cheese causes migraines. Coffee and chocolate do too, but somehow I seem to find substitutes for them.
    Let’s hope that February gets better. I have plans —

  • family stuff

    Work seems to be grinding slowly to a halt. I get distracted by Christmas shenanigans (our village Christmas lunch and carols, catching up with friends before we get too busy, shopping, cooking, cleaning —)and also by family stuff. We have one daughter at home, and her erstwhile flat-mate staying for a while, and a grand-daughter not far away who wants to play a lot. Plus a vast extended family who are moving into Facebook along with the poets I like to keep up with.
    So there’s not much new work going on. About four poems started, another three in prospect, and a short story called Lithic Flake. But mostly I’m reading, and I’ve come across some excellent new fiction – Sue Gee, John Banville, Stevie Davies. They have given me a lot of ideas for Recusant, which is going to be a more multi-layered and multi-centred novel than Saracen Woman ever was, and is going to let me put in some more of the things I’ve learned from poetry.
    Poetry is strugglng. I seem to be reading more rhetoric about it than poems, which can’t be right.Hugh Macdiarmid is a discovery though. His Lallans poetry (despite the neologisms and obscurity) is so much better than the English. It is more direct, more simple, and so can carry so much more than more writerly stuff. This seems counter-intuitive. Perhaps it suits his mind-set better, or perhaps using a familiar culture he is able to imply more without stridency.

  • tidying up

    I’ve spent all week cleaning and tidying stuff. There seems no end to the waste paper a family can generate. Not to mention other stuff – out of date packets of semolina and glace cherries, guarantees and packaging for things you don’t even possess any more, six types of mismatched glass tumblers, redundant cables and keyboards, souvenirs whose provenance you don’t even remember.
    I have also spring-cleaned (odd how often spring-cleaning happens in autumn) my office, my accounts, my filing system and my work projects. I’d been getting bogged down in research (so many interesting things seem important and relevant – I think I was a jackdaw in a previous life)and not really thinking what exactly I wanted to do. But once you know that, the how and the when fall into place so neatly.
    I’m working on a collection of poems and short stories for the Lúcháir project while I put my notes together for Recusant and experiment with dialogue and layers of narrative and a more evolved and involved form than the one I’ve been used to.

  • editors’ comments

    I noticed a link on Emma Darwin’s blog to an editor’s comments on rejection, which made me think some. Saracen Woman got rejected not long ago, and the note that came back with it was kind and polite, though bland. But then said editor blogged about the novels she had rejected, saying that the only reason anyone wrote most of them was for the vanity of being published. This was below the belt.
    It seems to me that no-one writes 70,000 words plus out of vanity – life is too short. You put years of your life into your first book, and if your heart and soul isn’t in it, you’d never finish it. Or send it to people. It’s been your life and love and constant obsession for years, otherwise it would be just too hard to do.
    So why did she say such a thing? Ruling out the possibility that she was being mean and spiteful, or just blowing off steam, what was the point?
    Perhaps she was just exasperated at seeing the same old, same old stuff. A first work is often hackneyed, unoriginal, naive, and over-familiar. Everyone’s first work, like everyone’s first love, is almost always just the same as everyone else’s. You think it’s new and special and wonderful because it’s your first, because you have too little experience to know better, too little craft to transcend the basic thrill of creation.
    You can’t expect a publisher to accept work like that, and you should expect them to tell you so.You won’t learn how far you have to go to be publishable until you set out and see the distances for yourself. It’s how you learn, right?
    So I’m not saying a publisher should indulge new authors, and certainly not publish them. Joy Hendry, who said this about my early poems, was, frankly, my greatest benefactor.
    You can work with criticism of your work, even if it’s devastating (at least once you get over the adolescent hissy fit). Being told that you are both vain and venal is something else again.

    So, five years after I got that wise rejection from Joy Hendry, is Saracen Woman an unpublishable inexperienced first novel? I honestly don’t think so. I had several weeks of soul-searching about it. And then Eurydice Rising got reviewed by Steve Sneyd, who said exactly what I would have hoped to hear about my work. Saracen Woman is still going out there.

  • new work

    Today I started work planning the new novel. I thought I would give myself a break and spend some time just doing poetry and short stories, but no. I appear to have a novel compulsion, and I’m going to give in. It is going to be called Recusant, at least at the moment, though as it has already had three working titles in its short and flickering life I don’t see that lasting. It is going to be set in Scotland and in the present day, which is something of a relief after all the historical research I had to do last time. It’s going to have music in it, because I can’t do any more art, and archaeology, and wildlife. And it is going to feature one of my favourite characters from a story I wrote two years ago which got rejected a lot.

    There is a poetry project going on too, which I will talk more about as it happens, both here and on the Lúcháir blog, about Scotland and Ireland, the links between them, the shared traditions, the common history, the things that divide and separate, and my own journey from my Irish past to my Scottish present.

  • still revising

    Almost completed the tinkering with Saracen Woman and she will be trying her luck again next week.
    Now I am re-thinking the Lúcháir blog, as life seems to have overtaken me, and beginning to think very hard about some elemental poems. Also about a holiday in Ireland which may actually happen. Also about Poetry in the Garden which is very much happening. I will need to read some new stuff, I think. We have had Eurydice for two years now.
    The ‘x’ key on my keyboard is sticking and it’s amazing how often you get to use it, and how odd your text looks without it. Is there anything you can do about sticky keys, or is it just time to cut my losses? I have the tiniest keyboard in the world, as I have very small hands, and though there are several normal keyboards in the house, I will certainly miss this one.

  • playing with Lucy

    Not much work is getting done today as I am spending it with my grand-daughter. Saracen Woman is recovering from the shock it got from agents. Note the change in title. Who was I kidding – it was always Mab’s story.
    The next novel is growing at the back of my mind. I’m thinking of calling it Recusant. It’s going to be a bit Jungian, and about music.
    But I’m also thinking about poetry for Lúcháir. There are several poems about water happening.

  • fingers crossed

    I finished the last revisions of Saracen Women this morning, and have made the first approach to a publisher.
    Now what are the odds? Pretty poor, I’d say from all you ever read about this process, but you have to try. And I really believe in this book, I’ve worked hard on it, and I’ll just have to hope for the best.
    But my goodness, I’m going to miss all those characters. Some of them have been in my head for over thirty years!

  • after the gap

    Blimey it’s a long time since I posted. It isn’t that I haven’t been working, though – at least it isn’t only that!
    We had family shenanigans, as some of us went to see Bruce Springsteen in Cardiff ( and yes, they were as impressed as all the people who have written in to Radio 2 were) and we all went to a silver wedding celebration. This involved mixing Granny, a five-month old baby, a lot of relations who don’t see each other very often, and someone’s new significant other – a recipe for trouble if ever you heard it! Actually, no. In fact it was all very enjoyable, though it felt like a very long journey home.
    Then there was all the catching up with the NHS. Don’t know why it is, but when you get one appointment you often find you have several all in a bunch. Like buses.
    But I have been working very hard on the revisions for Saracen Women, which are almost complete. I have discovered the temptations of cut and paste, which gives you the illusion of easy editing, but in fact just encourages you to think in terms of cool little pieces instead of a smooth flow and careful construction. It’s beginning to iron out, and I am beginning to feel pleased with it.
    Lúcháir is up and running now, though I have been rather slack at posting (same reasons, lame excuses). However, I am just going to remedy that one.

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