ENGLISH 9130A ~ The Orphic Tradition: Gender, Genre, And Genius

Professor James Miller

Fall Half Course.

Firebrand of hell first tynd in Phlegeton,
By thousand furies, and from thence out throwen
Into this world, to worke confusion,
And set it all on fire by force vnknowen,
Is wicked discord, whose small sparkes once blowen
None but a God or godlike man can slake;
Such as was Orpheus, that when strife was growen
Amongst those famous ympes of Greece, did take
His siluer Harpe in hand, and shortly friends them make.

The Orphic fantasy of a “godlike man” with musical powers, a genius capable of imposing concord on the chaotic world with his “siluer Harpe” or any other instrument he happens to play, decisively animated Spenser's grand project to sing Gloriana's ideal civilization into existence amid the barbarous forces threatening Elizabeth's realm with “confusion.” The first half of the course will trace the complex  development of the Orphic tradition from its origins in Ancient Greek religion and philosophy through its culturally influential variations in classical Latin poetry to its mystical, erotic, and political allegorizations in Late Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance. The second half of the course will consider Modern and Postmodern treatments of the Orpheus Myth with a critical focus on issues of gender and genre within the Paragone or “Inter-Arts Debate.” While the reading list will lean heavily towards works written in English, certain key Orphic texts in the wider tradition of Western literature – e.g. the anonymous Orphic Hymns, Virgil's Eclogue IV, Ovid's Metamorphoses, Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, Dante's Purgatorio 28-30 – will also be studied from a comparative perspective in English translations. Among the modern treatments of the Orpheus Myth, three works representing three different genres (drama, lyric, novel) will be given sustained attention in the course: Orpheus Descending by Tennessee Williams; The Orpheus and Eurydice Cycle by Margaret Atwood; and The Ground beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie. Since the Paragone debate between the arts (as to which art is “supreme” over all the others) will be a unifying critical concern in the course, some attention will also be paid to the contributions made to the Orphic tradition by opera, dance, painting, and cinema. Screenings of Monteverdi's Orfeo, Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, Cocteau's Orphée, and Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire will be scheduled in tandem with the course.

View the course syllabus here: English 9130A.