The Saturday poem: Mythistorema, by Derek Mahon

(for Charles Tyrrell)

Dark in the dark entrance of a mindshaft
(gunpowder, picks and shovels, the quartz veins),
miners climbed daily down to their hard graft –
locals and tin-men brought in from Penwith
two hundred years ago; and what remains?
A copper-mine museum, a ghost of myth.

Lanyon's 'Lost Mine' with its decrepit timbers,
its grey rubble and dying crimson embers
of an old life, reflects a time when ground
was blown apart without a qualm. A wised-up
part of the landscape, we consumed landscape
in the days before ecology came around.

We try to grasp it but the past dies back
to a grainy line-up of old photographs.
Eurydice retreads the downward path
while Orpheus comes out at a rough door
to disused engine houses, chimney stacks
and a full moon shining on ruined Kôr.

The struck lyre ripples as a stricken voice
sings out to heather and bog asphodel,
sandstone peninsula, island, sea and sky.
The very choughs are silent, a cliff face
listens amazed to the euphonious wail;
the rocks relax their ancient obduracy.


A happy outcome really, each one saved
for a harmonious fate befitting both –
she, beyond tears, definitively received
into the infinite; he, having failed
in his heroic bid, condemned thenceforth
to sing on in the clear light of the world.

What of the miners? When the pits shut down
they took off for Montana and Colorado.
Eurydice, had she much of mourning? No:
Orpheus, still in love with her lost shadow,
soon came to a sticky end. Now everyone
whispers together in the dim fields below.


  • This poem by Derek Mahon is from from "Rising Late" (The Gallery Press, 2017)