Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The title of the poem “Mother Love” announces its purpose: to explore Demeter’s fierce maternal love and grief. In this exploration, particularly in the poem’s second stanza, Dove closely follows one of the episodes included in the ancient Greek “Homeric Hymn to Demeter.” However, the poet’s complicated treatment of Demeter opens up the larger subjects of the collection Mother Love: the complex nature of maternal love and the even more complex nature of relations between mothers and daughters.

The description of Dove’s portrayal of Demeter as complex is not based on the poem’s horrifying simile: “a baby sizzling on a spit/ as neat as a Virginia ham.” It is important to remember (as several critics have not) that the account of the Demeter-Demophoön episode in the “Homeric Hymn to Demeter” does not end with the baby being roasted alive but with an angry Demeter promising that since she was not allowed to make him immortal, the child will, at least, receive “imperishable honor” as a man. The knotty qualities of Dove’s Demeter surface in the last three lines of stanza 1: Demeter’s pride in her maternal skills and her delight in children give way to an intense denigration of adolescent maturation (girls with their immature “one-way mirrors” of romance and boys as “fledgling heroes”) and sexuality (“the smoky battlefield”). That the goddess-mother will not face either this natural cycle or Persephone’s...

(The entire section is 438 words.)