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Persephone, Falling

Persephone, Falling

by Rita Dove

Analysis: Form and Meter

Italian Sonnet

"Persephone, Falling" is a sneaky sonnet. We know it's a sonnet because it is fourteen lines long and has a clear turn after the eighth line, just where we would expect it in an Italian sonnet. But where's the iambic pentameter? Where's the rhyme scheme?

Before discussing what isn't sonnet-like, though, let's cover what is. First, we expect that an Italian sonnet will have a clear, eight-line unit called an octave that will establish a problem or pose a question. In this case, the octave establishes the story: Persephone picks a flower and is kidnapped by Hades. Just for fun, we could divide this in half and say that the first four lines show the seemingly innocent action of Persephone and the last four lines show the consequences of that action—which are not so innocent.

The last six lines (called the sestet) are expected to give a solution to the problem or answer to the question. In this case, the sestet takes us out of the mythological narrative and into an intimate look at a mother's heart.

The last two lines are more like the final couplet you might find in an English or Shakespearean sonnet, because they summarize and re-interpret the whole poem. Here, the last two lines leave us with a sense of ambiguity. We aren't sure exactly who—the mother, the daughter or both—is responsible for the fall.

Italian sonnets traditionally have a rhyme scheme, usually ABBAABBA CDECDE (with lots of possible variation on the sestet). Dove has lots of near rhymes (some of them are really a stretch), but they don't conform to a clear pattern. We'll discuss more of the internal rhyming in the "Sound Check," but here's a quick breakdown of the end rhymes:

Lines 1-2, 5: "beautiful", "pulled", "terrible"
Lines 3, 7-8: "harder", "her", "herd"
Lines 10, 12, 14: "around", "down", "ground"
Lines 11, 13: "Stick", "pit"

Although most sonnets are written in iambic pentameter, this poem is written in free verse, meaning it has no consistent meter. Why? For one thing, the language is so casual and informal that a sing-songy rhythm and rhyme scheme would distract.

But there's also this nifty contrast Dove manages to create between the high subject matter (gods and goddesses) with a lower style (the imperfect sonnet). So we get a formal sonnet with informal elements, which helps bring this ancient story into our modern world—a world where mothers tell their daughters to always go to school, instead of, you know, don't pick flowers that happen to be attached to the underworld.

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