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Orpheus: The Song of Life Hardcover – 14 Jul 2011

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Jonathan Cape; First Edition edition (14 July 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0224091360
  • ISBN-13: 978-0224091367
  • Product Dimensions: 14.2 x 2.4 x 22.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 313,083 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


"This insightful and visionary study, treading a perfect line between imagination and scholarship, is as readable and necessary as a fine novel. Ted Hughes, another mythographer, would have loved it." (Independent)

"Ann Wroe has an acute eye for pastoral detail...and takes a novelist's care in exploring character and evoking atmosphere... [Orpheus] will leave you dancing." (New Statesman)

"This is a most remarkable book... most rewarding... [a book] that will surely enhance Ann Wroe's already considerable reputation." (The Irish Times)

"Orpheus: The Song of Life is a book of wonders, learned, playful and passionate...For all her studies, her wide reading, her historical dilligence, Wroe's method is instinctive, as she searches for inspirations and connections across the millennia." (Guardian)

"Marvellous subjects can still, sometimes deliver leaden books. This one, though, really is a song ... It evokes, but it also embodies, its subject." (The Times)

Book Description

A powerful and poetic work of history on the figure of Orpheus: his life and myth, and his representation and imagining from the sixth century BC to the present day.

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By K. M. Brown on 15 Aug 2011
Format: Hardcover
...but if you can tune into Ann Wroe's fine poetic prose, this is a real gem. Her style is particular, but absolutely consistent and very beautiful. This is not a history book, nor a sociological analysis of a meme. It is founded on a great deal of erudition, the old-fashioned kind, eclectic, deep, emotionally and intellectually responsive, not the modern academic kind, which scientifically eviscerates its subjects in order mostly to score points off other academics. It's not a book about Orpheus, it is a meditation on, in, around Orpheus. I've been reading it at bedtime all this week, while riots rage outside and ongoing family tragedies play out inside, and its gentle flow and precisely woven structure have been nothing short of a life saver. It's not for everyone, I don't suppose it will sell like Stieg Larssen, or even the amber-eyed Hare, but if it floats your boat, then bon voyage, a ravishing cruise is yours.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By travelswithadiplomat on 13 Oct 2011
Format: Hardcover
It's pretty rare I find myself reading aloud excerpts from a non-fiction book to anyone within earshot but this study by Ann Wroe has impinged on me in a manner that caught me entirely by surprise. The author's aim is to bring us all to understand the power of Orpheus that permeates Western Literature and Art. She achieves this by letting us not just empathize with her subject matter, but sympathize to the point we are caught up in a glorious swirl of colour, pattern, song and poesy that is breathtaking.
I have found myself re-reading passages just to savour the poetic prose, the eclectic daub of a wordsmith who commences by telling us how the German poet Rilke finally experienced his Orphic epiphany. Yet, by the end, we realise that Wroe herself has experienced the same literary empyreal ascent and that Orpheus speaks once more through a select group of artists. I would give some examples of the subtle brilliance of word play, of the history we learn about Orpheus, about the mythical man, the ascribed Hymns and tantalising touches of verse in those who tried to quote him and, at the last, examples within this book of the real impact he has had on our artistic consciousness...but they are too bountiful to choose.
I found this book by chance in an independent bookshop and I am reluctant to take it from my side table and place it on a bookshelf. It and the author just keep on giving with every glance at its pages. As a previous reviewer suggests, if you like your analysis and history delivered in a dry manner then this will not suit you. However, if you wish to taste the power of Orpheus, then this book is very much for you.
A stunning effort by Ann Wroe.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By K. Lester on 9 Sep 2012
Format: Hardcover
The author charts an impressionistic journey into the many pathways followed by the myth of orpheus over two and a half millennia. Each of the seven chapters is based on a separate string of Orpheus lyre, with explorations of the different interpretations on themes of love, death made by authors from different cultures and periods. The result is something of a maze of twisting pathways written in a somewhat heady literary style that threatens to leave the reader wandering like a lost soul in Hades. I found the result alternately intoxicating and confusing as references from different authors are mixed together without any attempt at an evaluation of the source material as all becomes grist to the author's personal vision. The result is a useful introduction to the range of material on the myth composited into a sustained poetic narrative. Wroe covers an impressive range although her modern sources are seriously dated, unfortunately including the speculations of James Fraser and Robert Graves - so references to 'vegetal gods' and 'moon goddesses' abound. Also she quotes widely from the 'Orphic' gold tablets whose connection to Orpheus' mystery cult is doubtful. I would recommend Segal's 'Orpheus: myth of the poet' or Henry's 'Orpheus with His Lute: Poetry and the Renewal of Life' for a more scholarly approach that covers a similar range or material with more discrimination.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Roman Clodia TOP 100 REVIEWER on 18 Dec 2013
Format: Hardcover
I enjoyed Wroe's Perkin and Pilate: The Biography of an Invented Man but really disliked this. Whether you will get on with it or not depends entirely on your expectations. If you're looking for a scholarly excavation of the various Orpheus myths, or a work organised by literary reception or intertextuality then I suspect you'll be severely disappointed.

This is a kind of 'biography' of Orpheus, but one which flits blithely between the multiple versions of Orpheus from his earliest Greek incarnations, via Rome, the medieval and renaissance periods, and into modern embodiments in Cocteau and Yeats. Part of the problem is that Wroe treats all these various myths, fragments and after-lives as if they're all parts of a single story, as if there's only one Orpheus, and that's the one recuperated here.

The other problem I had is with the fey, faux-poetic prose style: "Orpheus remained... edgy and abstracted: wrapped up in his music, following his own rules, so picky about food that he lived for days on wild plums and sorrel, grabbed from the stalk as he passed".

So I guess this is a kind of meditation on Wroe's Orpheus: melancholy, ethereal, misunderstood.
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