Jonathan Cape, £17.99, 262pp. £16.19 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Orpheus: The Song of Life, By Ann Wroe

Lyric poetry is poetry sung to a lyre; the figure of Orpheus embodies it. So what does his myth tell us about how lyric poetry connects to life and what poetry offers modern lives today? Orpheus emerged from a culture intensely aware of its own communality. Ancient Greeks wove into their poetry and philosophy what it means, politically and imaginatively, that different people play different roles in society. "Music", which meant poetry as well as melody, symbolised the way many different elements combined to make harmonia. Harmonia - from harmottein, "to join or fit together" - was an important concept in moral philosophy and medicine as well as music. It was the taut balance of different forces in one body, either our own bodies or the body politic.

Orpheus is about voice and strings making music together. His instrument is not flute or drum but the lyre, with its different strings. He too stands for combining, for drawing disparate elements together. Appropriately, several features of his myth combine to generate its power.

One, Orpheus was a lyre-player and singer from Thrace, the wild north of Greece. Two, animals, people, trees and rocks came close to him, therefore closer to each other too, to hear his song. Three, he was an adventurer: he accompanied the Argonauts on their voyage. Four, he was a priest who founded a mystery religion.

Fifth, of course, he was a lover. When Eurydice died, he went to the underworld to get her and was allowed to lead her up to life as long as he did not look at her. On the brink of success, he glanced back to make sure she was there and lost her for ever.

Six, when he returned to Thrace the maenads, mad female followers of Dionysus, tore him to pieces; possibly out of jealousy because he kept singing about Eurydice and wouldn't look at other women. Finally, seven, the maenads threw his head into the Hebrus River where it floated, still singing, to the sea. His singing head became an emblem of poetry's power to transcend death. As Auden puts it in his "Elegy for WB Yeats", poetry is "a mouth" which "survives". It "flows on" after the poet dies.

Ann Wroe's beautifully crafted study explores Orpheus's myth and its origins in ancient Greece. She guides us through a tangle of narrative, beliefs and theories about Orpheus in antiquity and on into his myriad appearances in modern art, photography, film, philosophy, sculpture, opera and poetry. Like her 2007 study of Shelley, this is not so much a biography of a poet (in this case a legendary one) but an evocation of his roles, bringing out particularly the way lyric poetry through the centuries has spoken for and to Earth, and all Earth symbolises.

Like the Italian mythographer Roberto Calasso, she wears a lot of learning lightly, blending multiple interpretations of her subject into a rich and almost cinematically beguiling narrative. The story as she presents it has seven parts which she aligns with the seven strings of his lyre. Each "string" vibrates to a different image.

Her first is Winter: for Orpheus's childhood in bleak mountainous Thrace but also for February 1922, when Rilke began his extraordinary Sonnets to Orpheus. Her second string is Trees - for Orpheus's legendary alphabet whose 13 consonants s derived from 13 trees, but also for the trees (and everything else, animate and inanimate) which Orpheus draws as he sings. Third comes the Sea for his voyage with the Argonauts, foreshadowing the sea into which the Hebrus runs. Love is the central string; the fifth is Death. Not his own death, not yet: his experience of the underworld. Then comes Fame when loss and desolation are transfigured in song and in his Mysteries.

The seventh string is Scattering - Orpheus torn apart. (Some poets have interpreted this as torn to pieces by reviewers.) The maenads scattered his limbs; the head floated downstream. Afterwards, Orpheus had no fixed place or monument because, says Wroe, "he was in everything that flowed or grew or changed."

She opens and closes with Rilke writing Sonnets to Orpheus. Like Rilke, she treats Orpheus as if he were about to waft into the room. The alchemy she performs on his myth almost turns at times into a ghost-raising. Rilke becomes Orpheus's avatar, whispering in her ear what Orpheus is really like, for those who can bear his presence.

By the end we feel that this haunting and luminous figure, who stands for lyric poetry and the many roles it plays, embodies our most intense and concentrated response to life. We come to see Orpheus as our own best answer - to earth and nature, each other and the world, death, loss and going on. "Orpheus, we say, wherever the true song is manifest," Rilke's lines run, in Don Paterson's version. "He comes and goes." 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.

Ruth Padel's most recent book is 'Silent Letters of the Alphabet', her Newcastle Lectures on poetry (Bloodaxe)

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