Study Guide

Demeter's Prayer to Hades

By Rita Dove

Demeter's Prayer to Hades Introduction

Up for a little challenge, Shmoopers? Here goes: name the top ten celebrity poets in the world (and no Googling!). Go ahead… we'll wait right here.

Nothing?

Yeah, we get it—poetry doesn't exactly produce mega-superstars. You won't find any paparazzi following them around, and they aren't getting any product endorsement deals or reality show contracts.

That doesn't mean poets aren't dynamic or interesting, though. Just look at Rita Dove: she was the first African American, the first woman, and the youngest person ever to become Poet Laureate, which is just about the biggest thing that can happen to a poet. She's also written a bunch of books and won a Pulitzer prize, among other major awards.

One of the books, Mother Love, examines the roles of mothers and daughters through the use of Greek mythology. Despite being mostly short and formally simple poems, they still manage to tackle some pretty huge and universal subject matter. "Demeter's Prayer to Hades," which is part of that 1996 collection, is only fifteen lines long, but it contains the universal themes of selfishness, responsibility, and the repercussions of our actions. It's about how people in power don't always consider the people below them before they act.

Yep—it's about the rest of us, us puny little mortals with no superpowers to speak of. Despite the title, we are the real subject of the poem. See, Dove is never afraid to dig deep into what makes us act the way we do. She may have written a book about Greek gods, but she's far more concerned with what makes us human. All that, and she managed to change the face of poetry forever.

Talk about a superstar.

What is Demeter's Prayer to Hades About and Why Should I Care?

Good Lord!

By Jove!

OMG!

Ever notice that we often invoke a deity or two when we are shocked, amazed, or exasperated? (After all, "Jove" is another name for Zeus, god of thunder.)

There's just something about those higher powers that makes for a good exclamation. Could it be their dramatic, powerful nature? Or are we actually asking them to show up and pay attention?

Most likely, it's just habit. We do it so often that we don't even notice it most of the time. After all, it's not like we are actually talking about a higher power or asking them to intervene. They're just sayings.

But imagine if deities played as big a role in our daily lives as they do in Greek mythology. Those gods and goddesses regularly fight, break up, fall in love, and cause all sorts of trouble for the poor mortals under their care. Every day is practically an entire soap opera, where each character has the power to control one of the elements or wields some sort of giant weapon.

The story of Hades, Demeter, and Persephone is one of those dramatic tales. It has love, scandal, revenge, and destruction, with a dash of motherly anger thrown in.

But it's not about the gods, Shmoopers. It's all about us, and how we deal with our own choices here on Earth. Rita Dove uses this myth to build a poem worthy of the epic figures therein, one that invites us to take good hard look at ourselves and the way we live our lives—heavy stuff. Now, as you read the poem, consider what life would be like if we actually called down a god every time we say one of their names.

OMG, right?

Demeter's Prayer to Hades Resources

Websites

Dove's Next
Check out the poet's page at the University of Virginia.

More on Dove
Here's her biography at the Poetry Foundation, with links to some more poems.

Dove at the Library of Congress
Enjoy this load of Dove links and information.

Video

Dove and Old Dominion
See the poet speak and read her work.

If You Can't Be Free, Be a Mystery
Check out this video on the poetry of Rita Dove.

The Reason for the Season
We kind of dig this student art animation project, telling the story of Demeter, Persephone, and Hades.

Audio

Advice: Zero Cents
Hear the poet offer some of her own wisdom—for free.

Images

That's Our Rita
Here's a classy snap of the poet herself.

God-Napped
Here's a painting by Rubens that depicts Hades snatching Persephone away from her mother.

Articles and Interviews

Poet at the Dance
Here's Dove on dancing, and poetry.

The Importance of Poetry
Here's an interview with the poet about how poetry works in our lives, as well as her time as Poet Laureate.

Books

Mother Love
Want more Demeter and co. poems? Dove has you covered.

Twentieth Century Poetry
This anthology of essential modern poetry is edited by Dove herself. It's pretty crucial.