Demeter's Prayer to Hades

by Rita Dove

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Last Updated on December 10, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 706

Rita Dove’s poem “Demeter’s Prayer to Hades” is part of her 1995 collection Mother Love, which explores relationships between mothers and daughters through the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone. In this poem, however, Persephone is not mentioned and is only indirectly present as Demeter addresses Hades.

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The word “Prayer” in the title seems incongruous. Although it is addressed to a god, the tone of the poem does not make it sound like a prayer. It contains neither praise nor petition. Also, of course, it comes from a speaker who is herself a goddess.

The poem is in free verse, though it begins with a rhyming couplet, and its meter is irregular. It is fifteen lines long, making it slightly exceed the length of the sonnet, and this refusal to exactly follow formal conventions extends to the almost-sonnet’s division at a volta, or turn, between its first and second stanzas.

The ironic lack of prayerfulness is emphasized from the first line. Demeter wishes one thing not for herself but for Hades: knowledge. One might assume that the god of death and the underworld would have an immense store of knowledge, much of which must be exclusive, since he rules a kingdom. However, the following lines make Demeter’s point clearer:

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To understand each desire has an edge,
to know we are responsible for the lives
we change.

The type of knowledge to which Demeter refers is understanding. This is the knowledge that the gods lack. Paradoxically, the god of death is himself immortal. He has no understanding of what he inflicts on others. Every soul in his kingdom knows death in a way that he does not. Since Dove uses the structure of the myth as a way to examine human relations, we might understand the references to the immortal ignorance of Hades as a description of a certain type of masculine selfishness and inconsequence. He has no idea of what he has destroyed by his abduction of Demeter’s daughter.

Although the first ten lines are printed continuously, there is a clear thematic and tonal division between the first five lines and the second five. In the first half of the stanza, Demeter wishes knowledge for Hades and tells him what he does not know: about desire, responsibility, faith and belief, and most of all about dying. The language here is conceptual and abstract.

In the stanza’s second half, Demeter tells Hades what she herself has realized. This employs the diction and imagery one would expect from the goddess of the earth. The “ground opened” conveys a double meaning relevant to both of them in different ways. One must till the soil, opening the ground, to plant crops. Hades, however, opened the ground in a much more radical and cataclysmic way to bear Persephone down to his kingdom, below the surface of Demeter’s earth. The line endings “waste” and “wealth” are opposed, and since “wealth” comes so soon after “dreamed,” there is an aural suggestion of a symbolic wreath of flowers—that is, the ghost of a potential rhyme—amid the flowers’ profusion.

The second stanza begins with the idea that “There are no curses.” A curse might be regarded as the opposite of a prayer, and even the mention of the word lends a sharper tone to the stanza, particularly as the suggestion is that holding up a mirror to certain souls performs much the same function that a curse would (if there were any). The tone here is one of resignation—but this resignation seems to have been hard-won, still carrying a certain residual bitterness. The final couplet is unrhymed, but the two end words are almost the same: “yourself” and “you.”

Believe in yourself,
go ahead—see where it gets you.

Self-belief carried to excess would be the characteristic fault of the type of arrogant, insensitive man Demeter appears to be addressing (who, ironically, is able to believe in himself precisely because he lacks self-knowledge). However, when taken as an address to Hades, there is another kind of irony in telling a god in whom others believe to believe in himself. Either way, where it gets him is the underworld, the kingdom of death he rules without understanding it.

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