‘Demeter’ is one of many popular poems published in Duffy’s well-loved volume, The World’s Wife. It was her fifth collection of poetry, published in 199 by Anvil Press Poetry. Like ‘Demeter,’ all the poems focus on women from history or mythology and present their stories through a feminist lens. They are always the counterparts of famous male figures/characters. Other poems in this collection include ‘Mrs. Midas,’ ‘Anne Hathaway,’ and ‘Medusa.’
In the first lines of the poem, Duffy paints a dark picture of Demeter’s situation. She’s alone, cold, in a world that’s filled with grief. She’s done everything she can to get her daughter back from the Underworld, and now she’s forced to wait for her return. The deal she’s struck with Hades means that she can’t have her daughter back until half the year (or one-third, depending on the version) is over. When Persephone finally returns, the entire world lightens. Duffy uses personification and juxtaposition to emphasize how different the new season is. Winter is over, and now spring can begin.
You can read the full poem here.
The Myth of Demeter
This particular poem, like others in The World’s Wife, delves into an alternative viewpoint from mythology. Duffy uses Demeter, the Greek goddess of fertility and the harvest, as the speaker. The poem alludes to the most commonly told myth around Demeter’s life. That is the loss of her daughter, Persephone, who was forced to accompany Hades to the Underworld. He abducted her with Zeus’s permission in some accounts. Persephone traveled looking for her, halting the seasons. This resulted in the deaths of many living things. Eventually, in order to return things to how they were before, it was decided that Persephone would live in Hades either one-third or one-half of the year. She was bound there for (depending on the version) for the dry summer or the autumn and winter.
Structure and Form
‘Demeter’ by Carol Ann Duffy is a fourteen-line poem that is divided into stanzas of two or three lines. It could be considered a sonnet (because of how many lines are in the poem). But, it does not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, two things that are most often a part of a traditional sonnet. It does end with a rhyming couplet, though, something that’s a feature of Shakespearean sonnets.
- Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line. It can be seen several times in ‘Demeter.’ For example, in line one where Duffy writes, “Where I lived – winter and hard earth.”
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “flat” and “frozen” in line three of stanza two and “feet” and “flowers” in line one of stanza four.
- Allusion: this piece is an allusion to the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone.
- Enjambment: a common literary device that occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines two and three of the first stanza and lines one, two, and three of stanza four.
Stanzas One and Two
Where I lived – winter and hard earth.
I sat in my cold stone room
flat, over the frozen lake.
In the first stanza of ‘Demeter,’ the poet begins by addressing the darkest period of Demeter’s life, that in which she is without her daughter. It’s only one part of the year she has to suffer this way, but while it’s occurring, everything is “winter and hard earth.” Her room is “cold stone.” These words are wonderfully evocative and suggest a very clear atmosphere of grief and loneliness. When her daughter isn’t there, Demeter’s life is hardly worth living. She has to think about Persephone in the Underworld, and it makes her miserable.
She tried, the next lines state, to break the ice of her world with “tough words, granite, flint,” but it just “skimmed” over the “frozen lake.” This is a beautiful metaphor that depicts how helpless Demeter feels in her situation. She can’t do anything to retrieve her daughter earlier. An agreement has been struck (as explained above), and she has to wait until her daughter returns.
She came from a long, long way,
my daughter, my girl, across the fields,
In the third stanza, Demeter recalls what it was like to see her daughter arriving. She came from a “long, long way” (an allusion to the Underworld). She was “walking…across the fields,” not unlike those she was in when she initially disappeared. While Persephone is a grown woman, Demeter still refers to her as “my girl.” This is a tender term of endearment that’s used on Duffy’s part to make the reader feel Demeter’s humanity. This is an integral part of the poems in The World’s Wife. The poet is trying to give a voice to the women throughout history and within the most popular mythological stories who don’t have one.
Stanzas Four and Five
in bare feet, bringing all spring’s flowers
to her mother’s house. I swear
with the small shy mouth of a new moon.
While the first line of the fourth stanza sounds like hyperbole, it could be taken literally. It’s not until Persephone arrives that Demeter’s spirits are cheered, and the seasons change. Readers can look back to the myth for more information about what happened when Persephone was first abducted, and Demeter had no idea what happened to her.
Now, juxtaposed with the cold and dark images in the first stanza, Persophone brings with her “air softened and warmed.” She brings “spring’s flowers” into Demeter’s home, and everything seems to be right in the world.
The final stanza is only two lines long and is a perfect rhyming couplet (almost like that one would expect to find at the end of a Shakespearean sonnet). There is a great example of personification in these lines. Demeter describes the sky smiling with the “shy mouth of a new moon.” This is an image that’s meant to symbolize the vast change that’s come over the world since Persephone came home. Everything is light and beautiful.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Persephone’ should also consider reading some other Carol Ann Duffy poems. For example:
- ‘The Map-Woman’ – uses a metaphorical depiction of the female body to describe how inescapable identity is.
- ‘Beautiful’ – focuses on the damage beauty can cause. Duffy speaks on Helen of Troy, Princess Diana, and others in these lines.
- ‘The Light Gatherer’ – explores motherhood and the happiness a child can bring. The latter is represented by light.
Also, be sure to check out our pick of the top 10 best Carol Ann Duffy poems.