‘Demeter’s Prayer to Hades’ was included in Dove’s 1996 collection Mother Love, which examines mother-daughter relationships using mainly Greek mythology as a source. The majority of the poems in the collection are relatively short, but Dove still manages to address some incredibly essential themes. Dove uses the stories of the gods and goddesses of Greek mythology to talk about human beings, our failings, and our frailties. She is not the first poet to attempt such a feat, but she is one of the more successful, especially when incorporating her feminist viewpoint.
The mythology surrounding this poem is quite crucial to understanding its content. The myth tells the story of Persephone who is abducted by Hades and forced to come to live as his bride in the underworld. Her mother, Demeter (who is the speaker of this poem), tries unsuccessfully to find Persephone. Eventually, with Zeus’s help, it’s decided that Persephone can spend six months in the underworld and the other six months with her mother. Although this is not the worst of all outcomes, it still brings Demeter sorrow. This is the starting point for this poem as she addresses Hades.
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Summary of Demeter’s Prayer to Hades
In these lines of the first stanza, Dove’s speaker, Demeter, talks directly to Hades. She tells him that no matter what he thinks, his impulse to act upon his desires is not going to work in his favor one day. There is a knife’s edge that’s going to cut him at some point. In the end, she tells him that she isn’t going to curse him. Its not curses that gods and mortals have, its mirrors. She leaves him alone with these thoughts, suggesting that he “believe” in himself and see what it costs him.
You can read the full poem here.
Themes in Demeter’s Prayer to Hades
In ‘Demeter’s Prayer to Hades’ Dove engages with a number of interesting themes. These include power, and knowledge/wisdom. The latter is something that Demeter has and that she’s trying, passive-aggressively, to pass on to Hades. This is less so that he might improve his own life and more so that it might stop damaging other people’s lives, like her’s and her daughter’s. He has true power in the world, something that he wields without considering how it impacts anyone else. Eventually, she tells him, this is going to come back to haunt him.
Structure and Form
‘Demeter’s Prayer to Hades’ by Rita Dove is a two stanza poem that is separated into one set of ten lines and another set of six. Dove chose to write this poem in free verse. This means that there is not to structure this piece with a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, that doesn’t mean the poem is entirely without form. There are numerous interesting literary devices, some of which help to create the feeling of rhyme and rhythm, while also controlling the way that one reads the lines.
Dove makes use of several literary devices in ‘Demeter’s Prayer to Hades’. These include but are not limited to examples of enjambment, caesurae, and imagery. The first of these, enjambment, concerns the way that Dove chose to use line breaks. There are several good examples. For instance, the transition between lines three and four of the first stanza as well as lines one and two of the second stanza.
There are a few examples of caesurae in these lines as well. This literary device is used when the poet chooses to separate a line with punctuation, or the meter. For example, line one of the first stanza reads: “This alone is what I wish for you: knowledge”. There is another example in line four of the same stanza. It reads: “we change. No faith comes without cost”.
Lastly, there are numerous important uses of imagery in these lines. It is one of the most noteworthy techniques at play in ‘Demeter’s Prayer to Hades’. The last four lines of the first stanza are a great example, especially “wealth / of flowers”.
Analysis of Demeter’s Prayer to Hades
This alone is what I wish for you: knowledge.
though you dreamed a wealth
With prior knowledge of Greek mythology, its quite clear from the first lines of ‘Demeter’s Prayer to Hades’ that the speaker is Demeter, mother of Persephone. She starts by talking to “you,” someone who ends up being Hades, king of the Underworld. She tells him directly that she wishes him to have one thing “knowledge”. Hades is not someone who’s known for controlling himself very well. While Demeter is remembered for the loss of her daughter and the sorrow she suffered. So, she is the perfect person to lecture him on the subject. She wants him to know that “each desire has an edge”. This is a beautiful way of describing the fact that actions have consequences.
It’s important to remember that “we are responsible for the lives / we change”. She goes on, adding that “no faith comes without cost”. Everything someone does, believes in, or works for, is going to have a reaction. Believing in something comes at a cost, depending on what that thing is. And “no one believes without dying”. No matter how the faithful one is, or the stock that one puts in a certain way of life, it will end in one inevitability–death.
Hades has a great deal of power over many people and she wants him to know that all these rules apply to him, even more so, then they do to everyday mortal people.
At the end of this stanza, the speaker tells Hades that she is not immune to what he’s done. She can see the path he’s been walking and the “trail [he] planted”. She can see the destruction that he’s caused through his ignorance and disregard for consequences. The repercussions are clear. She describes this as a “ground“ that’s been “opened to waste. “ This might not have been his intention, she suggests, but it’s what occurred.
There are no curses – only mirrors
go ahead – see where it gets you.
The second stanza of ‘Demeter’s Prayer to Hades’ is shorter than the first, only five lines long. She tells Hades that she’s not going to curse him for stealing her daughter. Instead, she tells him to look in the mirror. They are “held up to the souls of gods and mortals“. This is her way of saying that no matter who you are, no matter what power you hold, you will face the same consequences. The poem concludes with the speaker telling Hades to “believe” in himself and see where that gets him. This colloquial ending is quite memorable. It drives home the point that Demeter was making in the previous more figurative and poetic lines.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Demeter’s Prayer to Hades’ should also consider reading some of Rita Dove’s other poems. For example, ‘Rosa’ and ‘Voiceover’. The latter explores the beauty of nature and how impossible it is to truly experience and remember what one has seen. The former is one of her most famous. It is a tribute to the late Rosa Parks, leader of the Civil Rights Movement. Another poem that can very easily be paired with ‘Demeter’s Prayer to Hades’ is ‘Persephone, Falling’. It touches on the same myth and was published in the same collection, Mother Love.