Critical Commentary on Sir Orfeo Poem

Categories: Poems

The passage begins with a description of sixty ladies practicing falconry. From afar, Sir Orfeo marvels at the ‘fair game’, with a nostalgic state of mind, as he would have done this in happier times, when he was king and with his wife, Heurodis. Sir Orfeo then sees his ‘quen’ and ‘Dam’ who has been separated from him for ten years, a decade of which he has been relentlessly searching for her, giving up his kingdom in the process.

The two ‘word no speke’ as they are either; afraid they will be caught together thus destroying any possibility of her rescue from the fairy king; are completely awe-struck or are submissive regarding the fairy king’s power over her.

The passage concludes with Sir Orfeo, now alone, wanting his life to end now he has seen his wife and that he has no hope of rescuing her, ‘Allas, whi nil min hert breke? ‘ The passage begins with line 305 and concludes with line 338.

This is approximately halfway through Sir Orfeo, thus all characters have been firmly established and the conflict of Heurodis’ kidnap has already occurred. The extract is the rising action of the romance, as after ten years of hardship and loneliness, Sir Orfeo is rewarded with the chance to ‘biheld hir’ and thus continuing the chivalry displayed throughout, he devises a plan to rescue his wife using his music as his only weapon against the fairy king. The section is made up of three different styles, which coexist with and exemplify Sir Orfeo’s state of mind.

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Lines 305-320 are written in the third-person narrator, thus giving the piece an objective and descriptive style. This can be seen in the use of a natural semantic field, which emphasises his oneness with nature and his separation from his wife and kingdom, ‘Maulardes, hayroun and cormeraunt. ‘ This objective style is effective as its use of adjectives, gives an unbiased perspective whilst equally setting the scene for the reunion of Orfeo and Heurodis. Lines 322-327 are again narrated in the third person, as the plot does not allow either character to speak.

However to make this powerful scene more emotive, the writer has made use of interior monologue, portraying their emotions to the reader and to one another in their silence, ‘For messais i??at sche on him sei? e’. Lines 328-338 are solely made up of Sir Orfeo’s monologue, which gives the reader the opportunity to absorb a more subjective, emotive perspective. This monologue adds emphasis to his loneliness as well as acting as a stark contrast to their silent reunion.

Imagery is used throughout the Breton Lay to illustrate the intensity of Orfeo’s love for Heurodis and to make parallels between nature and the former king. The passage begins with the simile, ‘Gentil and jolif as bird on ris’. This makes a comparison between the ladies and the ‘faucouns’; simultaneously depicting the fairies as being savages that prey on the innocent, whilst associating the ladies with nature, the elelment which he has relied on in his quest to find Heurodis. Similarly, onomatopoeia is used to portray nature, ‘And ridden on haukin bi o rivere’ (my emphasis).

This creates a phonetic dimension to the romance, making the falconry scene more vivid and imperative to the text. Sir Orfeo, uses metaphor, exclamative and interrogative sentences in his monologues, which adds realism to his desperate predicament, ‘”i??ider ichil, bi Godes name! “‘ and ‘”Allas, whi nil min hert breke? “‘ The protagonist personifies death which reveals his feeling of powerlessness to the reader, ‘”Whi nil dei?? now me slo? “‘ The use of tone is important to the style of the romance as this depicts Sir Orfeo’s state of mind to the reader.

The passage begins with a nostalgic, wistful tone which symbolises his wish to return to his old way of life and his hopeless search for his wife, ‘”Ich was ywon swiche werk to se”‘. This is a form of the homiletic tradition in medieval writing, it is an ‘effective set of contrasts between wealth and poverty’ (Burrow and Turville-Petre 2003: p. 121). This technique is again used by Heurodis when she looks upon Sir Orfeo and cries for his hardship, ‘i??at had ben so riche and so hei? e’.

The middle of the passage has a more melancholy, spiritual tone as man and wife seem to communicate with one another despite their silence but are torn in their ability to be so close without reuniting. The latter section of the passage has a more submissive and sombre tone as Sir Orfeo appears to give up hope and believes that his life is not worth living now he has seen Heurodis, and lost her again. This is an allusion to the original story of Orpheus and Eurydice, where Orpheus after rescuing his wife from the ‘other world’ loses her for a second time when he looks back at her and releases the curse.

Rhetorical devices such as repetition are used to emphasise the significance of the falconry scene. The falcon represents the earth’s cycle, which symbolises the changing of the seasons during Orfeo’s quest and also the high points and low points of their love. ‘Allas’ is repeated throughout the latter section of the extract to emphasise Orfeo’s loss of his wife and of his spirit. The syntax is useful in representing the urgency of Orfeo’s situation.

Longer sentences are used when Orfeo and Heurodis meet, creating a slowing of time in which each character cherishes. However shorter sentences are used in Orfeo’s monologues, in the first half portraying his love of nature, and in the latter half, describing his anger and loneliness. As this passage is an imperative scene, there are certain themes which are discussed in both the passage and the text as a whole. Firstly, love, is the driving force behind Sir Orfeo, however ironically, it is also the cause of his hypothetical demise, ‘”Allas, to long last mi liif”‘.

Secondly, nature is depicted as an alternative to love and has aided Orfeo in his search for his wife, however it was the setting of her kidnap in the first section of the romance. Lastly, mysticism is portrayed in this section, by the silent communication of Orfeo and Heurodis. This is paradoxical, as such mysticism, such as the superior power of the fairy king was the reason behind Orfeo’s inability to rescue his wife. However, the magical music of Orfeo’s harp enables the reunion of man and wife, which constitutes the happy ending which is imperative to the genre of the Breton Lay.

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Critical Commentary on Sir Orfeo Poem. (2020, Jun 01). Retrieved from

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