The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Persephone in Hell,” a sequence of seven poems, forms the third of seven sections in Dove’s collection Mother Love. The sequence and the collection explore the Greek myth of Demeter: With almost no witnesses and with the permission of her father Zeus, the supreme Olympian deity, Persephone has been abducted and raped by Hades, the ruler of the underworld and her uncle, who subsequently makes her his queen. Unable to find her daughter, an angry and inconsolable Demeter wanders among mortals, disguised as an elderly woman. She comes to Eleusis, where she meets the four lovely daughters of Celeus, king of Eleusis, and his wife Metaneira. Demeter, at Metaneira’s urging, becomes nurse to the couple’s only son, the infant Demophoön. Determined to make the boy immortal, each night Demeter secretly places him in the fire. One night Metaneira discovers this and screams in terror, thus thwarting Demeter’s plans. An angry, radiant goddess reveals herself and disappears, but not before ordering the people of Eleusis to build a temple and altar in her honor and promising to teach them rites that became known as the Eleusinian Mysteries. Still inconsolable, Demeter lets the crops die and refuses solace from the other Olympian gods and goddesses. Eventually Zeus agrees to return Persephone, but because she has eaten pomegranate seeds offered by Hades, she must spend fall and winter with her husband and spring and summer with her mother, thus ensuring the seasons, agriculture, and partial consolations.

The focus of “Persephone in Hell” is the riveting episode with which the ancient account of the myth, the “Homeric Hymn to Demeter,” begins: the abduction and rape of Persephone by...

(The entire section is 700 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The “Persephone in Hell” sequence is linked by theme rather than form. Dove gives each of the seven poems a distinctive format, using the varied forms, lines, quotations, and typography for crucial purposes. They identify multiple voices and personas that move in and out of the poems. They also intensify a driving sense of order that moves below the seemingly random surface of Persephone’s experiences and responses. The result is an intense unit. While none of the seven poems of “Persephone in Hell” is in the sonnet form, the closely linked thematic unit suggests that Dove may have had in mind a seven-poem form known as a “crown of sonnets.” Whatever the case, “Persephone in Hell” ends with Persephone being claimed sexually as the queen of the underworld.

Surprising appearances of formal language in the dominant informality of the sequence support its unsettling effect. In addition, although Dove occasionally uses irregular end or internal rhymes, most of the lines are unrhymed. This decision, as well as the poet’s mixtures of other devices, emphasizes the poems’ nuanced informality. For example, Dove frequently sets up terse catalogs of details. Just as often, she uses a consonant emphasis, such as s, to carry a barrage of details and partial and irregular rhymes: “Through the gutters, dry rivers/ of the season’s detritus./ Wind soughing the plane trees./ I command my knees to ignore the season/ as I scuttle over stones.” Similes, used sparingly but strategically, combine tension and details. Typical examples include Persephone’s description of Paris’s sewer system (“like some demented plumber’s diagram/ of a sinner’s soul”) and her initial impression of Hades (“He inclines his head, rather massive,/ like a cynical parrot.”) A more important device is Dove’s repetitions of images and emphases. To trace, for example, her use of Africans, “way,” light/dark, Mother/Our Lady, food and drinks, and autumnal references is to study the poet’s craft and the poems’ themes.


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Bellafante, Ginia. “Poetry in Motion.” Time, May 31, 1993, 73.

Carlisle, Theodora. “Reading the Scars: Rita Dove’s The Darker Face of the Earth.” African American Review 34, no. 1 (Spring, 2000): 135-150.

Conde, Maryse, and Rita Dove. Interview by Mohamed B. Taleb-Khyar. Callaloo 14, no. 2 (Spring, 1991): 347.

Dove, Rita, “A Poet’s Topics: Jet Lag, Laundry, and Making Her Art Commonplace.” Interview by Felicity Barringer. The New York Times, June 20, 1993, p. E7.

Ingersoll, Earl G., ed. Conversations with Rita Dove. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003.

Lofgren, Lotta. “Partial Horror: Fragmentation and Healing in Rita Dove’s Mother Love.” Callaloo 19, no. 1 (1996): 135-142.

Pereira, Malin. Rita Dove’s Cosmopolitanism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003.

Righelato, Pat. “Geometry and Music: Rita Dove’s Fifth Sunday.” Yearbook of English Studies 31 (2001): 62-73.

Vendler, Helen. “A Dissonant Triad (Henri Cole, Rita Dove, August Kleinzahler).” Parnassus 16, no. 2 (1990): 391.