Procedures for Underground

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood

Nationality: Canadian

Margaret Atwood is a well-loved contemporary Canadian author.

She’s written numerous fiction, nonfiction, and poetry books.

In the poem, ‘Procedures for Underground‘, Atwood takes the side of the weak and downtrodden. She thinks it is her responsibility to reveal the ugly deeds of her own countrymen, even her own ancestors, as though she must make them admit their guilt and bring them to task.

Procedures for Underground by Margaret Atwood

Procedures for Underground Analysis

Stanzas One to Three

The country beneath
and the rivers flow backwards;

the trees and rocks are the same
Those who live there are always hungry;

from them you can learn
if you can descend and return safely.

In ‘Procedures for Underground‘, which is taken from the collection of the same name, the poet issues a dire warning to those who are listening to her as she talks about the “country beneath the earth”– which means the other world, the untouched place below the earth. The other world here is the world of those who are still downtrodden and are even now hungry.

Atwood addresses her audience in very conversational tones to describe this strange land where rivers flow in the wrong direction and the sun glows green in its dark confinement. The meaning of “green sun is mythical, imaginative light in the absence of real sunlight; green is also a colour that is nourishing, soothing, and innocent.

The “Underground” of the poem must be Hell itself where people are sent for punishment. However, Atwood conjures up the procedures a person may adopt to go there for the knowledge of human consciousness, and then return above.

She doubts that this adventure can be performed easily as she writes, “if you can descend and return safely”, she probably remembers the Greek myths of Persephone and Eurydice. And then she warns her traveler from the audience that “Those who live there are always hungry”, as though the dead are a metaphor for unfulfilled desires. Of course, the dead can impact the living with great wisdom about life.

By “descend and return safely”, she means to warn her people that it could be dangerous to travel “underground” for one cannot always come back from there. It is suggestive of the myth of Persephone and Demeter where Persephone was taken away by the King of the Underworld, and only allowed to come back because of the pleas of her mother, Demeter. That too, Persephone was allowed to return from Hades or Hell for only six months of the year because she had eaten that number of pomegranate seeds during her captivity. This Greek myth is linked to the cycle of seasons in each year, with Persephone returning in the Spring and going back to her husband in Autumn.

Here Atwood may also have the other Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in mind. Orpheus, the legendary Greek poet and musician, was the husband of Eurydice who died of snake-bite and was taken to the Underworld. Orpheus followed her there and persuaded Hades to return her to Earth. Hades agreed on the condition that Orpheus would not turn and look at Eurydice during the upward journey. Unfortunately, she he was almost at the point of stepping out on earth, he could not resist the temptation to see whether Eurydice was still following him. She was immediately whisked back into the Kingdom of Hades (the Underworld).

Stanzas Four and Five

You must look for tunnels, animal
guarded by the stone man;

when you are down you will find
but they will be changed and dangerous.

In the next few lines, Atwood gives some vague directions when she says: You must look for tunnels, animal/ Burrows or the cave in the sea/ Guarded by the stone man. The reference to the sea the previous line indicates that the present life comes from a fish. This line has various implications of the stages of human evolution and points out the final part of the Epic of Gilgamesh where Gilgamesh travels the waters of Death in search of immortality. He also dives to the bottom of the ocean in search of a plant that would make an old man young again.

It is a sort of advice as well as a warning to the prospective traveler. The poet actually indicates human history, lands with ancient civilization, and the beginning of man’s civilized state, a person must understand before she/he can find what she/he is looking for.

The journey is, once again, a search for identity, but rather than an individual identity, a universal human identity. The search is both realistic and risky. Traveling to the Underworld may not be a simple victory, for the traveler is cautioned.

Stanza Six

Resist them, be careful
Afterwards, if you live, you will be able

Again, there is a warning “never to eat their food” as Persephone did (it means reminiscent of Persephone who did not eat anything in the Underground except pomegranate seeds. She had to pay for her mistake for having to return to Hades every year). Now she can never return permanently to this earth again, but has to live in the darkness of Hell for six months every year. The meaning of changed and dangerous in the above stanza means that they may not allow a traveler to come back as they would want him/her to join their ranks.

Stanzas Seven and Eight

to see them when they prowl as winds,
tell us their names, what they want, who

has made them angry by forgetting them.
suffer: those from the underland

It is very likely that this traveler, too, may not return, or in other words, die before she/she reaches the goal. In case she/he can accomplish his/her mission, then the return to earth will not be an unmitigated satisfaction either. The ghosts of those who have died and gone before will “prowl as winds” (prowl means moving around stealthily in search of prey), and “you will tell us their names, what they want who has made them angry by forgetting them”. The poet suggests that the dead are vindictive and they do not like those that are living. The greatest crime committed by the living against the dead seems to be of forgetting.

Stanzas Nine and Ten

will be always with you, whispering their
back down; while among us here

you will walk wrapped in an invisible
with love, none without fear.

After having a glimpse of the dead, the traveler would lose his/her piece of mind, and the ghosts of the dead would follow the intruder (traveler) “whispering their complaints” and he would always move around “wrapped in an invisible cloak”.

Atwood sums up the poem by warning the so-called traveler, who seeks knowledge from “beyond life”, that she/he would find himself/herself in supreme isolation.

The ultimate warning comes in the words: “Few will seek your help, with love, none without fear”

There will be rejection from all sides, and this individual who has dared all for the sake of knowledge from beyond life, will now find himself/ herself in supreme isolation. Atwood seems to tell him/her that the adventure will ultimately prove to be futile as she/he will lose her/his place in human society having, in a sense, sold his/her soul to the Devil.


There may be undertones of the Christian faith in this poem, and the verse-pattern is regular three lines from start to finish, echoing the terza rima technique. It makes one wonder if Atwood had Dante in mind when she composed this poem.

The journey described recalls faintly the first book of Divine Comedy, Inferno and another journey to underworld.

Of course, there is no rhyme in Atwood’s poem. Despite the experimental configuration of lines, there is something disturbing in the theme as though human beings must look for self and identity even beyond this world, and still they may not find it in the supernatural one. The paradox is that any identity found may prove intolerable.

Ultimately, she/she will realize that his adventure has proved futile as she/he will be losing his/her place in human society by selling his soul to the Devil.

Works & Life of Margaret Atwood

Born and raised in Ottawa, Margaret Atwood considers herself a poet first, and her poetry focuses on the question of identity with as much passion as Neruda and Walcott. All these poets share very meaningful relationship with words that only a recessive reading of their poetry can highlight further. Atwood’s writing has a style and force. The writing boasts of a peculiarity of its own because she is precise in delineating her subject matter.

Atwood is most interested in the concepts of self-awareness and self-consciousness. There is constant metamorphosis in her image, but a recurring cycle is maintained, where the same metaphors, similes and personification resonate through her work across genres.

The use of images in Atwood’s poetries are the lenses through which she perceives life as a force so persistent that it too needs to constantly change into other forms of self-expression.

In terms of poetry Atwood has a wide collection, out of which some are as follows:  Double Persephone, The Circle Game, Expeditions, Speeches for Doctor Frankenstein, The Animals in That Country, Procedures for Underground, Power Politics, You Are Happy, Two-Headed Poems, Love Songs of a Terminator, Interlunar, Eating Fire: Selected Poems, The Door, and so on.

Dharmender Kumar Poetry Expert
Dharmender is a writer by passion, and a lawyer by profession. He has has a degree in English literature from Delhi University, and Mass Communication from Bhartiya Vidhya Bhavan, Delhi, as well as holding a law degree. Dharmender is awesomely passionate about Indian and English literature.

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