Poetically Speaking about The Return of Persephone by A. D. Hope

This year I am doing a stripped down version of Poetically Speaking. Check back every Friday in April to chat about poems with me.

Gliding through the still air, he made no sound;
Wing-shod and deft, dropped almost at her feet,
And searched the ghostly regiments and found
The living eyes, the tremor of breath, the beat
Of blood in all that bodiless underground.

She left her majesty; she loosed the zone
Of darkness and put by the rod of dread.
Standing, she turned her back upon the throne
Where, well she knew, the Ruler of the Dead,
Lord of her body and being, sat like stone;

Stared with his ravenous eyes to see her shake
The midnight drifting from her loosened hair,
The girl once more in all her actions wake,
The blush of colour in her cheeks appear
Lost with her flowers that day beside the lake.

The summer flowers scattering, the shout,
The black manes plunging down to the black pit —
Memory or dream? She stood awhile in doubt,
Then touched the Traveller God’s brown arm and met
His cool, bright glance and heard his words ring out:

“Queen of the Dead and Mistress of the Year!”
— His voice was the ripe ripple of the corn;
The touch of dew, the rush of morning air —
“Remember now the world where you were born;
The month of your return at last is here.”

And still she did not speak, but turned again
Looking for answer, for anger, for command:
The eyes of Dis were shut upon their pain;
Calm as his marble brow, the marble hand
Slept on his knee. Insuperable disdain

Foreknowing all bounds of passion, of power, of art,
Mastered but could not mask his deep despair.
Even as she turned with Hermes to depart,
Looking her last on her grim ravisher
For the first time she loved him from her heart.

Sometimes finding a new poem is a bit like magic. My mom and I have a Tuesday night ritual: we watch mysteries on PBS. Recently that has included The Doctor Blake Mysteries which is set in 1959 Australia and follows the eponymous Doctor Lucian Blake as he investigates murders around Ballarat in his capacity as police surgeon. Anyway, it’s a great show and The Return of Persephone by A. D. Hope was a pivotal part of this week’s episode. Despite being fascinated by the myth of Persephone since I was a teen, I had never encountered this poem (or the poet) before. I was relieved when I later found the entire thing online (having heard only the last stanza on the episode).

“The Return of Persephone” doesn’t focus on the usual part of the Persephone myth in that it doesn’t start at the beginning. We don’t see Hades get struck by one of Cupid’s arrows (at Aphrodite’s urging) and fall in love with Persephone. We don’t see him kidnap her although it is alluded to in the middle of the poem. We don’t see Demeter’s search for her daughter and the subsequent famine when she refused to allow anything to grow until her daughter is returned to her. Hope doesn’t even show Persephone eating a pomegranate seed forever binding her to the underworld for half of each year.

Instead Hope assumes readers have that knowledge coming into the poem beginning at what is typically the end of the story. The bargain has been struck and Persephone now splits her time between the underworld with Hades and the world above with her mother Demeter. Hermes is coming to bring Persephone back to the land of the living.

I really like that even with a knowledge of the myth, this poem feels unexpected. When I read it for the first time I didn’t realize we were starting with Hermes’ arrival and the revelation feels like a shock–the same jolt Hades and Persephone must have when they realize it’s time.

Hades is, to put it mildly, kind of awful. He kidnaps Persephone and holds her captive. Depending on the version of the story you read he also rapes her and then, to add insult to injury he forces her to eat a pomegranate seed to bind her to him forever. Hope hints at that here when Persephone looks back on Hades and thinks of him as “Lord of her body and being” while he watches impassively from her throne.

I also love the third stanza as it describes Persephone’s transformation back into the maiden of spring as she prepares to leave with Hermes and the way it seamlessly blends into the next stanza about her initial abduction.

And then we get to the end of the poem. Persephone is leaving with Hermes but she’s also watching, waiting, to see if Hades will try to stop her (again) or if he will react at all. And maybe it’s my abiding love for this myth or maybe it’s Hope’s deliberate choice, but it feels like Hades has resigned himself to this parting. He closes his eyes to it and let’s it come to pass. He’s used forced, he’s schemed, but he has to let Persephone go and now he’s left with only “deep despair” as she goes to Hermes and prepares to leave.

Writing this I’ve also realized that my love of Persephone’s story is all folded up with my fascination with Fire and Hemlock–one of my favorite books of all time. In it, Jones offers up a sly retelling of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer borrowing elements from various versions of the story. Like Hades in Hope’s poem, Polly–the heroine of Fire and Hemlock–has to make a choice to let someone go (though Polly’s intentions are purer and her choices stems from hoping to save Tom and not a mandate issued from the gods). As Polly let’s Tom go she realizes with striking clarity that it has to be forever because “To love someone enough to let them go, you had to let them go forever or you did not love them that much.” And Hades doesn’t do that, of course, because Persephone will be back in half a year.

But it still gives Persephone pause. “Looking her last on her grim ravisher  / For the first time she loved him from her heart.” I love this last couplet. It’s the reason I tracked down the poem after hearing it on Doctor Blake. Hope cuts right to the heart of the dynamic between Persephone and Hades–all of the problems, all of the reasons it’s such an enduring story–in those two lines. Persephone looks at Hades and she knows everything he has done, all of the horrible things that she can’t forget or forgive, but she also sees him letting her go and regretting their parting. For the first time she’s seeing that there might be more to him. Because of that choice to let her go and the vulnerability in watching it, Persephone cares for the first time. It’s such powerful imagery. I can’t stop thinking about it and it is but one of the reasons I absolutely love this poem.

Have you heard of A. D. Hope? Was this your first time reading “The Return of Persephone”? What did you think of it? Am I crazy for thinking Hades has some redeeming qualities (or at least the hint of some)? Let’s talk in the comments.