The Orphic Principle: Comments on a Poem

Jon Fry, a student studying The Secret, recently asked me about the poem ‘The Orphic Principle.’

I started writing ‘The Orphic Principle’ when I was working with an experimental performance poetry group led by the poet David Hart. Encouraged to share poetry in languages other than English with the group , I turned to a poem by Dafydd ap Gwilym about a girl who made an ache under his ribs:

Y ferch a wnaeth gwayw dan f’ais,

A garaf ac a gerais.

Gweniaith brydferth a chwerthin

Erioed a fu ar dy fin.

Gwae fi, gwn boeni beunydd,

Weled erioed liw dy rudd. (See the Library of Wales website).

Stripping some lines from the poem, I also added some of my own that referenced Blodeuwedd, the woman of flowers from Welsh mythology. I had been thinking about her story at the time, thinking about Blodeuwedd as a figure of female power. Because the poem began as part of an experimental performance to be spoken aloud, when I came to write down the poem, I gave it musical notation (pp, mf and f). The three speakers were piano, mezzoforte and forte, and three is, of course, a mystical number which recalls the triple goddess or the three fates.

The poem as a whole seeks to rediscover power, independence, self-sufficiency for women. It references an essay by the American writer Henry Adams (1838-1918) called ‘The Virgin and the Dynamo’, in which he compares the power of the dynamo to the power of women:

“The Woman had once been supreme; in France she still seemed potent, not merely as a sentiment, but as a force. Why was she unknown in America? For evidently America was ashamed of her, and she was ashamed of herself, otherwise they would not have strewn fig-leaves so profusely all over her. When she was a true force, she was ignorant of fig-leaves, but the monthly-magazine-made American female had not a feature that would have been recognised by Adam. The trait was notorious, and often humorous, but any one brought up among Puritans knew that sex was sin. In any previous age, sex was strength. Neither art nor beauty was needed. Every one, even among Puritans, knew that neither Diana of the Ephesians nor any of the Oriental Goddesses was worshipped for her beauty. She was Goddess because of her force; she was the animated dynamo; she was reproduction—the greatest and most mysterious of all energies…” (See ‘The Virgin and the Dynamo’).

I had also been reading Johann Jacob Bachofen’s theories from the nineteenth century on matriarchy. Bachofen tried to prove that before the current patriarchy, there had been a matriarchal society from which our current civilization emerged. Eventually, his theories were discredited, but in Adams and Bachofen, there is a fascinating preoccupation with restoring female power. Adams and Bachofen are also very much in touch with the ancient world, bringing us to the story of Orpheus.

The main speech in the poem (mezzo forte) is very much bound up with the Orpheus myth, and her words might even be spoken by Eurydice. It’s as if Orpheus has carried something of Eurydice up from Hades after all, though she is invisible. A kind of broken villanelle, this section hinges on two images – the speaker “making myself invisible” and a sense too of female anger “seething in darkness”. The Orphic principle is an inevitable return, but in this case, it is feminine power which emerges as a slow but powerful force.

‘The Orphic Principle’ was written as part of a sequence of poems based on the Major Arcana in the Tarot pack. It was to correspond with the symbol of the moon, which is so much bound up with femininity, fertility and the virgin goddess Diana. When the moon appears as a tarot card, it suggests dreams or nightmares, or dream-like states in one’s waking life.