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Image of Orpheus with beasts and birds

Roelant Savery
Orpheus with beasts and birds
Dutch, 1622
The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
no. 342


Painting to Daydream to Vision to Poem to Song to Clay Sculptures in a Theatre Tent full of Children in Tokyo

My good friends Helen Taylor and Frances Sword invited me to run a poetry workshop in the Fitzwilliam Museum.* All kinds of people, all ages. When I’d used a few of my own poems to make friends with them, each of us set out to explore the galleries, with pens and clipboards at the ready. The idea was to find a work of art we liked, think and daydream about it and let a vision and maybe a poem emerge.

Image of Orpheus with beasts and birds

All I could do was smile and then begin to write a poem which was little more than a description of Savery’s wonder, listing the animals and birds in order and then trying to imagine the song of Orpheus. I read it to my new friends and they liked it, but I knew it really needed music. It soon did.

I was asked, by a children’s theatre company in Tokyo, to write three plays based on Greek myths to be performed for Japanese children. The plays were about Theseus, Orpheus and Perseus – and two children who took turns in helping them.

In the second play Orpheus, after losing Eurydice the second time, sits down with a guitar and begins to play. The small girl who is his assistant steps forward and performs my poem – in Japanese, of course. And all the animals gradually gather round.

The animals were little clay figures, all of them made, baked and painted by primary schoolchildren in Tokyo. They were brought on silently by actors and placed where they could listen to Orpheus. Gentle music played throughout, composed by my old friend Andrew Dickson. And at the end, Orpheus broke into a song of mourning.

About a year before the first performance, when I was starting to write the three plays, my adopted daughter died suddenly in California and I thought I would never write again. But the death of Eurydice took on a new meaning, and I was writing about Boty. And when I wrote out the grief of Orpheus, I was writing of my own grief and my wife Celia’s grief. And so, because the play became relevant to our broken hearts, I could write it. And it helped us bear the pain.

When I published the poem in my collection All Shook Up (Bloodaxe, 2000), the Fitzwilliam Museum allowed us to reproduce Savery’s painting on the cover. And, whenever, I’m lucky enough to read my poems on the same bill as Andrew, he plays the piano while I read the poem:


Guitar in his hands
Leaning on an Elephant
Orpheus sings

A Wolfhound and St Bernard
At his knees

A grey Ox
Cocks his ear

Two Swans
Lift their snaking heads
Towards the music

The Geese are paddling in the shallows
Gathering peppery green weeds

A flowering Ostrich on a rock
Throws back her wings
In ecstasy

The Waterfall bounces
Silver notes

A Leopard reclining
Like a streamlined blonde

A Lion and Lioness
Roll their golden eyes

A Heron taking off
On a journey to the hidden stars

The Peacock flaunts
His starry blue
Waterfall of a tail

A million Birds
In proud mid-flight
Scattering their colours
All over the sky

A lurking Buffalo
With guilty eyes

A family of Deer
Guarding each other with their branches

Birds and Animals
Feeding Drinking
Singing Resting

The Trees are dancing
Stretching and swirling
And the Sky is a dance
Of speeding blue and white

It is all a dance
And as its centre
The wedding of two Horses
They have a special temple
Of grass and flowers
Among the shining rocks

The Grey Horse looks at me
The Chestnut turns away
Their flanks are touching
Silver flank against
Chestnut flank
Two Horses
So glad and close together
It can only be love

Never lose it

Guitar in his hands
Leaning on an Elephant
Orpheus sings

I lost her once
I lost her twice
I lost her once in Paradise


I lost her once
I lost her twice
In a dark tunnel
Made of ice


I looked back
And for the second time she died
Oh grief comes in and out like the tide


Guitar in his hands
Leaning on an Elephant
Orpheus sings

© Adrian Mitchell, 1999 / 2007 [text]

* Helen Taylor is the Cambridgeshire Literature Development Officer and Frances Sword the former Head of the Education Department at the Fitzwilliam Museum.


Image of Adrian Mitchell

Adrian Mitchell
Photograph by Sophie Baker

Image of All Shook Up

courtesy Bloodaxe Books

Adrian Mitchell (b. 1932 - d. 2008)

Named Shadow Poet Laureate by Red Pepper magazine in 2002, Adrian Mitchell was a writer since childhood and latterly wrote increasingly for children. The author of a great number of novels, plays and poems, he is best known for his political poem To Whom It May Concern. Composed at the height of the Vietnam War, Mitchell first read it at the International Poetry Reading in the Royal Albert Hall in June 1965:

I was run over by the truth one day,
Ever since the accident I’ve walked this way;
So stick my legs in plaster,
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

Taking a personal view at the past and present Mitchell stated:

'I was born near Hampstead Heath in London in 1932, the second son of an English nursery school teacher and a Scottish research chemist. I was educated at schools in Hell and Heaven, served as a pacifist in the RAF for 21 months and spent three years ignoring the syllabus at Oxford University where I wrote, acted and generally treated the place like an artistic Adventure Playground.

After ten years as a reporter, theatre, pop and TV reviewer I was sacked by The Sunday Times. Since then I've made my living by writing novels, stories and plays for children.

I have performed my poems in seven continents.

So I count myself a very luck man – I live happily near Hampstead with my wife Celia, my Golden Retriever Daisy the Dog of Peace and our cats Moonlight and Pinky. I also enjoy the company of my five children and nine grandchildren.'

UCP 2008

Sadly, Adrian Mitchell died in December 2008.

Related Links

Selected Bibliography

A. Mitchell, If You See Me Comin', Cape, 1962

A. Mitchell, The Bodyguard, Cape, 1970

A. Mitchell, Wartime, Cape, 1973

A. Mitchell, Man Friday, Futura Publications, 1975

A. Mitchell, Heart on the Left: Poems 1953-1984 (ill. by Ralph Steadman), Bloodaxe, 1997

A. Mitchell, Balloon Lagoon, (ill. by Tony Ross), Orchard, 1999

A. Mitchell, Daft as a Doughnut (compiler; ill. by Tony Ross), Orchard, 1999

A. Mitchell, All Shook Up: Poems 1997-2000, Bloodaxe, 2000

A. Mitchell, The Shadow Knows: Poems 2000-2004, Bloodaxe, 2004

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