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Analysis of Poem "Demeter's Prayer to Hades" by Rita Dove

Updated on February 9, 2017
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Rita Dove
Rita Dove | Source

Rita Dove and Demeter's Prayer to Hades

Demeter's Prayer to Hades is a short poem from the collection Mother Love. It's central theme is that of the mother-daughter relationship and the complex issues surrounding.

Issues such as leaving home, disappearance, premature marriage, coming of age, feminism and parental control are all involved.

Rita Dove has used the ancient Greek myth of Demeter, Persephone and Hades to help anchor the modern text, giving it historical weight and context. It's important to know a little about this myth to get a better understanding of the poem.

When Demeter, goddess of the harvest and fertility, discovered that her daughter Persephone had been captured by Hades and taken to the underworld, she was angry and distraught. For a year she caused the crops to fail.

It was only when Zeus commanded Hades to let Persephone go that Demeter regained hope and joy. But Hades gave Persephone some pomegranate seeds to eat knowing that this meant she would have to return to the land of the dead at least for a part of each year.

Demeter was overjoyed to get her daughter back but equally became sorrowful when the time came for her to descend to the underworld again. This was why the crops did not grow. When Persephone returned to the earth each time, life sprang anew again and the crops grew.

The message is that, despite anger, frustration and sadness felt when someone close goes missing, or leaves home, or comes to a decision, understanding motive or outcome is always possible; the cycles of life will continue to bring a kind of hope.

Demeter's Prayer to Hades

This alone is what I wish for you: knowledge.
To understand each desire has an edge,
to know we are responsible for the lives
we change. No faith comes without cost,
no one believes without dying.
Now for the first time
I see clearly the trail you planted,
what ground opened to waste,
though you dreamed a wealth
of flowers.

There are no curses - only mirrors
held up to the souls of gods and mortals.
And so I give up this fate, too.
Believe in yourself,
go ahead - see where it gets you.

Analysis

Demeter's Prayer to Hades is a free verse poem of fifteen lines, in two stanzas. There is no rhyme scheme as such, but the first two lines end in full rhyme knowledge/edge, as do lines thirteen and fifteen to/you, although these seem almost accidental.

There is no clear meter, so the suggestion is that of a non traditional form of expression. The poem is one of a collection that focuses on femininity, the mother and her love for family.

Tone

This poem has a conciliatory tone to begin with, the speaker's anger is suppressed and all she wishes for her tormentor (Hades) is knowledge and understanding. In this she implies that ignorance has been a major factor in the actions of Hades, who took her daughter away. In the last two lines she sarcastically urges the perpetrator to just get on with life, perhaps hinting that no good will come out of false self-belief.

Diction/Language

The early part of the poem is full of the language of worth, the price we pay for being human. Trust, understanding, knowledge - as humans we need to have these three fundamental pillars to function in society. The speaker is appealing to Hades (to society, to an individual) to consider the consequences of the deed, in this specific case, the abduction of her daughter.

Note also the use of earthy words in the latter part of the first stanza. Demeter is goddess of the land's fertility so planted, ground, waste, flowers are all related to the earth.

Further Analysis

A prayer is an unusual offering from a mother who has lost her daughter. It is delivered in a calm, softly spoken manner - there are no angry words, there is no abrasive language - the speaker is suggesting that it is the ignorant ones who cause the damage to others when they act irresponsibly.

So how come the wish is for knowledge? Why want the guilty party to have knowledge? Are we talking about education here, facts, experience, or is it more like wisdom? It's important, note the colon to emphasise the word : knowledge.

Just what is the mother, Demeter, thinking about? What we can infer is that Hades doesn't yet have this knowledge; she wishes it for him.

The combination of desire and edge suggests that there's some kind of threshold we reach, at the edge of the cliff perhaps, facing the sharp edge of a blade? Once the fall occurs, once the cut is made, there's no going back. It is pain and even blood that results from the transformation.

The speaker is imparting her own kind of wisdom - borne of grief no doubt - think before you act or suffer the consequences, and remember that whatever you choose to do will have a knock-on effect. Others will be hurt.

Faith has its price the speaker implies, perhaps because she doesn't yet know if her daughter is dead or will ever return? Think of the mother whose daughter has gone missing, how difficult to muster up faith and believe in a higher power trusted with a satisfactory spiritual ending.

  • There is some ambiguity. This is a prayer yet it reads like a letter or note; there is no personal appeal or heartfelt plea for help from any god. The mother is being critical yet at the same time wants to enlighten.

If Hades and the underworld is the equivalent to modern society, male dominated, then the path the daughter took through that society has led her to this crucial point in her life - it all becomes clear to the mother for the first time.

  • Is the speaker referring to the trail Hades left when he burst out of the underworld? In other words, is this the destructive reality left by men (who play the role of gods) as they go about their business. Living the dream, pretending to grow flowers, the flowers of innocence, or experience?

Everything is at stake now. The daughter's life might be wasted or go on to bloom. The mother is somewhat helpless - what good would cursing do? Better for those involved to look in the mirror and reflect on their selfishness. They need to ask some really soul-searching questions.

She'll leave it to the fates; the choices her daughter makes may bring suffering and grief but isn't this is the only way to learn about all things spiritual? Life resurrects itself somehow, spring returns; resentment is useless.

Is this a cynical ending, or is the mother, Demeter, simply suggesting a positive attitude to the future is best? Believe in yourself. Either way, this prayer is based on love and faith.

© 2017 Andrew Spacey

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