Even though this is a sonnet, it doesn't have a formal rhyme scheme. To make up for this lack of formality, Rita Dove weaves in some sneaky sound effects to make her poem sing. Let's get a quick line by line of what's going on with sound:
Line 1 flows along pleasantly with lots of O and N sounds. The higher-pitched verb sounds (the ee in 'ordinary' and in 'beautiful') help the line feel like a rising melody.
Line 2 echoes back some of the same words and ideas as the first line, so it makes sense that we still have short O's and N's. The L sound echoes on this line and gives a partial rhyme to line one. See? It's all coming together.
Lines 3 and 4 repeat several P sounds, which pump up the pain of Persephone pulling. (See what we did there?) It's a sound that builds momentum behind the lips and then pops with a sudden effort. Isn't that the same sort of sound you'd expect to hear pulling a bulb out of the ground?
Lines 5 and 6 both have consonance, or repeated consonant sounds, but with different effects. The phrase "glittering terrible" repeats those liquid R's and L's that combine with the T to sound all bright and sparkly. Then we get that harsh K sound from "carriage" and "claimed" that really gives Hades's entrance an edge.
The last two lines of the first stanza give us the ol' familiar O's and N's as well as the rhyming pun of "heard" and "herd."
The four lines of the parenthetical statement (9-12) use two sound techniques to make us hear a mother speaking. First, there's the alliteration https://www.shmoop.com/poetry/how-to-read-poem/poetry-glossary.html ("straight to school") and consonance ("answer to strangers") that makes these demands sound like well-worn sayings. Dove also very sneakily makes it sound like the mother begins to yell at her child by placing shorter vowel sounds at the beginning of the phrase and letting them grow longer and louder at the end ("Stick with your playmates. Keep your eyes down").
The end of the poem reminds us that this is a cautionary tale, because almost all the vowel sounds are low oo's and ow's. Also the more predictable rhyme scheme at the ends of lines in this stanza gives us a more motherly, formal sort of feel. This feels more mature, wiser. It resonates with a somber tone.
What's the point of all this? We're glad you asked. It's clear that Dove is a master of matching the sounds to the meaning of the poem. So make sure you read this one out loud, paying close attention to the music of the poem, as well as its words.
With a short poem like this one, it's not likely that the poet would waste words in a title. Rita Dove makes sure to tell us an awful lot about her poem before it even starts. Here's a quick rundown:
We immediately know the main character. Persephone is kind of a weird name (sorry to all you Persephones out there). We definitely understand from the name that this is a character with a history we ought to know before we'll really understand the poem. So go do some mythological snooping, and then proceed.
We immediately know the setting. It's the part of the story when Persephone falls. It's a present moment. It's not after she fell or even right before. The whole poem is capturing one present-tense moment. It's what happened right then.
It's a double meaning. Persephone fell into the pit, sure, but she is also falling metaphorically. Falling from grace, falling from innocence, falling away from her mother's protection.
It heightens Persephone's responsibility for her downfall. Most versions of this story describe what Hades did: "The Rape of Persephone," "The Abduction of Persephone," or Ovid's "The Rape of Proserpina." (Ovid was a Roman poet, and the Romans called her Proserpina—not Persephone—just to make things more confusing.) In this version, the title makes it seem like she fell on her own, or at the very least, wasn't entirely innocent—at least according to her mama.
There are two settings at work in "Persephone, Falling." The first setting is the allusion itself—Persephone's fall into Hades. We discuss that over in the "Shout-Outs" section.
The other setting, though, is Rita Dove's position as she writes this poem. As an African-American woman born in 1952, she certainly has some living memories of the civil rights era. And much of Dove's poetry tackles these issues (check out "Lady Freedom Among Us," or "Rosa" for more).
We see a glimpse of that in the mother's attitude in the second stanza, encouraging her daughter to stick to her playmates and keep her eyes down. It's a self-preservation mechanism. She wants her daughter to be safe in a world that's very dangerous for young, innocent girls.
More importantly, though, at the time this poem was written, Dove was in her early forties, and her own daughter was about twelve years old. The whole book in which "Persephone, Falling" appears (Mother Love) is a reflection on that cycle of motherhood. She used to be a daughter wanting to escape; now she is a mother wanting to hold on. And that's the real setting of this poem—the psychological one.
The speaker of a poem (or any work of literature) is always tricky. Obviously, the speaker of the poem is always technically the poet. We mean, they wrote the thing. But this poem gives us some other options, too.
The first stanza is told from an outside observer. However, distant as they may be, they still totally have an opinion on what's going down. The speaker uses exclamations to describe the flower just the way that Persephone saw it and strongly emphasizes her isolation (7-8). In line 8, the speaker pronounces judgment on Persephone, so this is someone who knows her well, either literally or metaphorically. They can get inside her brain a bit, and then they feel confident enough to say tell us why this all went down.
It's the parenthetical statement (9-12) that gets really murky. The speaker is absolutely a mother, or at least a child remembering her mother's words. She demands and commands even to the point of overprotection. We can imagine a lot of eye-rolls going down on the part of the listener.
This could be Demeter, Persephone's mother, but might also be the poet Rita Dove connecting with Persephone's experience by remembering her own childhood. The final two lines sound like that same voice at the end of the first stanza that knows, but is above both of these figures and is able to comment on the whole scene. Lucky her.
Yeah, sure, you need to go look up the myth to really understand it, but the vocabulary is simple and the sentences aren't complex. It takes a little bit of a turn after the first stanza, but probably won't lose most readers. This is a good example of a poem that isn't difficult to approach, but keeps rewarding a careful reader.
There are a few things that make this poem so Rita Dove. The main thing is the content. Much of her work focuses on individuals in relationship to their families. She looks closely at growing up and how that change affects relationships.
She also really enjoys giving a modern spin to older situations, whether it's Greek mythology or history in general. In another poem, she gives Beethoven a contemporary voice as he travels. Plus, this isn't the only time she has tackled the whole Persephone-Demeter-Hades dynamic. Check out "Hades' Pitch" for another example.
Finally, Dove uses a lot of sneaky formalism. She writes lots of sonnets, but does so with lots of enjambments, internal and slant rhyming and a lack of regular meter. Think of it as ballroom dance (and check out our "Best of the Web" for a glimpse at Dove actually dancing): there are formal steps, but beyond that, it's all about how she riffs off of them.
"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.
Persephone, who's at the heart of this poem, is a daughter. Her mom Demeter is never mentioned, but her presence looms large. In fact, she serves as a stand-in for all overprotective mothers everywhere, who fear their daughters' independent streaks.
When you've got a poem with the name Persephone in the title, you know you're gonna be dealing with the ancients for at least a line or two. Readers in the know will make some immediate associations after reading the title, but for those less in the know, let's take a closer look.
Given that Narcissus the youth was the vainest of the vain, we can't be too far off in assuming that the Narcissus flower here represents vanity. Are we right or are we right?
There's nothing really explicit here, but there are some second meanings to some of the lines. Either way, let's face it: the poem's about Hades having his way with a teenage goddess. Any poem about a story often called "the rape of Persephone" is one you read after the kids have gone to bed.
The main allusion, which begins in the title, is the story of Persephone's abduction by Hades. In Ovid's version of Persephone's capture, she is pictured as picking flowers in a far more innocent way. In fact, when Hades snags her, she cries to her mommy because her flowers are spilling, as if that were her only problem. Dove is obviously taking a slightly different spin on this.
The title itself is a minor allusion to the notion of sin as "falling," which comes to us from the biblical story of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. John Milton's Paradise Lost emphasizes that this disobedience (along with Satan's) caused the world to fall. This adds a nice double meaning to the title. Of course, it's no sin to get kidnapped (duh). We can really only read this from the mother's point of view. She's an overprotective woman who disapproves of her daughter's wandering off alone.
Line 1 contains a double-meaning shout out to Narcissus, the man who couldn't stop gazing at his reflection. Although ultimately we find out that Dove is referring to the flower, the reference sets us up for a story about a reckless teenager who wants to be unique and beautiful.
Line 7 also has a word-for-word allusion to Christ's final words on the cross as recorded in the New Testament. Dove ties Persephone's fall to this blunt statement to heighten the finality of the tragedy. Interestingly, in the New Testament, Jesus rises again, and in mythology, Persephone is able to escape the underworld (at least for eight months of the year).