Orpheus, the Poetics of Silence, and the Humanities

Document Type


Digital Object Identifier (DOI)


Journal Title

International Journal of Literary Humanities

Publication Date



In the Vergilian version of the katabasis of Orpheus, spatial and interpersonal silences serve to punctuate both the extraordinary poetic triumph of Orpheus and the tragic consequences of his failure. The katabatic hero is a recurring archetype in classical poetry: the ability of a living being whose soul is still attached to corporeal flesh to enter the realm of the dead and return alive marks the hero as one who possesses exceptional status. Unlike the successful journeys to the underworld of other epic heroes like Odysseus and Aeneas, the tragic failure of Orpheus’ katabasis ultimately results in the brutal silencing of his art. His failure to meet the objective of his katabasis leads to a failure of poetics, a failure ironically foreshadowed by the success that he encounters at various stages of his journey, which are marked by curious silencings, as the custodians, criminals and topographical features of the Underworld give way into total quiescence upon hearing his song. This paper will examine the rhetoric of silence in the Vergilian adaptation of the myth of Orpheus, and suggest that Vergil’s unique adaptation of the myth may be read as allegorically relevant to the struggle of the Humanities disciplines to survive in the contemporary academy.


The International Journal of Literary Humanities analyzes and interprets literatures and literacy practices, seeking to unsettle received expressive forms and conventional interpretations.

This article is openly available at: https://academics.hamilton.edu/documents/Orpheus_Humanities.pdf.

Publisher Statement

© Common Ground, Angela Pitts, All Rights Reserved