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.
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:
To understand each desire has an edge,
to know we are responsible for the lives
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...
(The entire section is 706 words.)