Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 438

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 sexual awakening becomes clear in the change of subject in stanza 2. By this abrupt shift, the poet underscores the extremity of Demeter’s repressive mental state. Her denial and repression of memory are acted out without a single mention of her daughter: Since Persephone was taken from her, she will take another’s child—a son rather than a daughter who might remind Demeter of her own; because Persephone was violated by the underworld of death (Hades), she will make sure that this surrogate child is made impervious to death and destruction.

In Demeter’s foiled substitution and in the searing understatement of her final sentence, the poet accentuates the open-endedness of Demeter’s dilemma: To remember her daughter the child and her daughter the vulnerable, sexual, autonomous adult is to be forced back into an ambiguous, even ruthless circle of love and life. As the poem, young Demophoön, and Demeter demonstrate, this is a place that cannot be “cured to perfection.” Nevertheless, this is the charged circle into which the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Rita Dove places herself and this collection; her dedication in Mother Love makes that clear from the start: “FOR my mother TO my daughter.”

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