Persephone, Falling Summary
The poem requires a basic understanding of a few characters from Greek mythology. Fortunately, Shmoop already has you covered. So first thing's first: go read all about Persephone, Demeter and Hades. Done? Great. If you're still fuzzy, we'll give you the gist: Persephone gets kidnapped by creepy Uncle Hades and Momma Demeter gets so mad she refuses to make any plants grow. Bummer.
Now for the poem. The speaker focuses our attention on the precise moment that Hades kidnaps Persephone. The poem begins with a girl (Persephone) off on her own picking flowers. She tugs and tugs at one particularly beautiful blossom and up pops Hades, who snatches her down to the underworld with him, which no one notices, because Persephone had "strayed." Uh oh.
Then the speaker addresses us, or at least reminds us of what the girl had always been told by Demeter: to be careful, to watch out for danger. The chilling last two lines explain why her mother had always been so overprotective—the world is a scary place and bad things can happen in the blink of an eye.
One narcissus among the ordinary beautiful
flowers, one unlike all the others! She pulled,
- Whoa, whoa, whoa. This poem is about the myth of Persephone. Narcissus was the mythical pretty boy who got stuck forever looking at his own reflection. What is he doing here?
- Well, he isn't really here. Rita Dove tricked us. The title tunes us up to expect mythological figures and then the second word is a reference to a classic character. Dove cleverly breaks the first line before completing her thought (that's called enjambment, folks). We realize on the second line that this isn't really pretty boy, after all. A narcissus is a flower.
- Quick, all future florists step to the front of the class: What is a narcissus? That's right! A narcissus is a daffodil, a flower that grows out of a bulb buried deep in the ground. Remember that. And oh by the way, it's toxic.
- The first two lines do a lot to tell us about the mindset of a teenage girl. We mean, the first word of the poem is "one." As in the only one. Totally unique. Then we get the reference to narcissus.
- Do you know any teenage girls who also spend a little too much mirror time? (No, not you, of course. Heavens, no.) And then there's that delicious little juxtaposition that ends the first line: "the ordinary beautiful." That might as well be a Taylor Swift song.
- The second line makes all of those little subtle hints very obvious. The speaker tells us that this flower is "one [there's that word again!] unlike all the others!" The exclamation mark really seals the deal.
- Clearly, it's important to know that this girl is off on her own, trying to find something that will make her special, make her unique, make her unlike everyone else. Welcome to high school, Persephone.
- English teachers everywhere gnash their teeth at that first sentence. It's a fragment! No verb! Someone alert the grammar police! (We've met those guys—you do not want to mess with the grammar Five-O.) Actually, though, Dove has a couple of reasons she doesn't want to give us a verb yet.
- First, the lack of a verb forces us to pay attention to that one pretty flower, rather than start running away with the story. She shows us the exact picture, like a photograph, that Persephone saw.
- Second, by withholding the verb in that first sentence and then ending that second line with a specific, strong action, we pay extra attention. We've been waiting for something to happen.
- And this first, simple action ("She pulled") tells us that Persephone made a choice. She acted. She's not just a passive character here: she did something.
stooped to pull harder—
When, sprung out of the earth
- We at Shmoop are really lame dates at horror movies. We're the ones you hear yelling at the screen. "Don't open that door!" "Look out behind you!" "I want my mommy!" Look, we're working on it.
- But we all know that feeling. We know something awful is about to happen, we can just feel it, but the character just keeps making it worse and worse. The technical name for that is dramatic irony, and that's what Rita Dove is putting to good use in the third line.
- The allusion to Narcissus and the emphasis on being all alone already told us it was a bad idea to pull at that flower. Now, in the third line, we see Persephone stoop down to pull even harder. Notice the repetition of that word, pull. There is also a repetition of the R sound, which sounds like someone straining and growling. You can feel her hand on the stem as she's trying to get that big bulb to come free from the dirt.
- The dash at the end of this line is totally unnecessary as far as the grammar of the sentence goes, but it serves the same function as the DAH-DUMP, DAH-DUMP, DAH-DUMP music in scary movies. It helps us anticipate what's going to happen next.
- Just from knowing the story, we know that Hades is the "bad guy," but notice how Dove keeps withholding him from us by the way she constructs her sentence. She delays giving us a main subject as long as she can.
- We are told that this something has "sprung out of the earth," but that could be anything. That might just be the daffodil bulb popping loose. Little does she know what her innocent little flower-picking has dredged up…
on his glittering terrible
carriage, he claimed his due.
- Line 5 begins to give us a glimpse of something new, but Rita Dove deliberately keeps things nice and vague. Unlike so many of today's gore-fests, older filmmakers knew it was always better to leave more to the imagination of the viewer.
- So here, we only see "the glittering terrible." Hey! That's another juxtaposition. Somebody tell Taylor Swift! We're really putting together an album for her here.
- The next line completes the thought (after another enjambment) and we finally are told that this glittering, terrible thing is Hades's carriage.
- This is where things get a little murky for Persephone. We're familiar with magical carriages suddenly appearing to young girls who feel trapped, right? The problem is that in Cinderella, that's a happy moment—the fairy godmother is there to rescue the girl and make her dreams come true. Hades?… not so much.
- The speaker is giving us an insight into Persephone's mind. Hades's appearance isn't immediately awful to this girl. It's "glittering." At first, it's new, dangerous, exciting.
- That's part of the reason for the last clause: "he claimed his due." The hard alliteration with "carriage" emphasizes that Hades might be a trickster, but he knows the rules.
- She fell for the trap and in this bizarro mythological world, that means she belongs to him, fair and square (at least, in his mind. Shmoop begs to differ). The speaker is making it clear that Persephone's actions led her to this predicament.
- Does that sound a bit extreme to you? We mean, we definitely shouldn't blame victims.
- So why is the speaker implying (rather unfairly) that Persephone is at fault? As we'll see, this is the voice of a protective mother who wants her daughter to stay out of dangerous situations.
It is finished. No one heard her.
No one! She had strayed from the herd.
- These lines wrap up the octave, the first part of an Italian or Petrarchan sonnet. Wait a minute. This is a sonnet? Don't worry, don't worry, we tell you all about it in the "Form and Meter" section.
- In any case, in traditional sonnet fashion, these lines end Persephone's side of the story.
- The first thing to see in line 7 is that it contains two complete sentences. We barely got in two sentences over the first six lines and now we get two on one line? What's going on?
- She's slowing things down. The first six lines, with their enjambments and actions, flow quickly down the page.
- But now we get short. Declarative. Sentences. We have to pause and process. Line 6 was the climax of the story; now it's all over but the shouting.
- The speaker heightens this with a sneaky little allusion in that first sentence. Those words ("It is finished") are the last words spoken by Jesus Christ in the Christian New Testament as he dies on a cross. So these words carry a whole boatload of tragic baggage with them, giving the reader a heavy sense of the magnitude of this loss.
- The other sentence here ("No one heard her.") reminds us of Persephone's problem in the first place. She wanted to be one—unique, special, "unlike all the others." So when she is kidnapped, she's all alone. And in case you missed it, the speaker shouts it at you in line eight.
- Also, we don't know about you, but we at Shmoop generally frown on folks referring to us as cattle. Call us sensitive about our figures, but it hurts. So it's a little strange that the speaker says that Persephone "had strayed from the herd."
- Now, she may have just been making a sneaky rhyme with the previous line (more on that in the "Form" section), but she is probably also telling us something about human nature.
- We are not lone wolves. No man is an island. We need others around us, not just to love us and tell us we look good in a two-piece (and we do), but to keep us safe and keep us in check. The speaker is reminding us that when we stray, we make ourselves vulnerable.
(Remember: go straight to school.
This is important, stop fooling around!
- The beginning of the sestet (the final six lines of the sonnet) marks a sharp shift in tone and speaker. That's obvious because, well, there is literally a break in the stanzas.
- But those parentheses really stick out. It's as if the speaker is taking us aside, or taking someone aside, and telling us the point of all this. This isn't just a big story of some mythical goddess. This is an intimate, confidential conversation between the speaker and the reader.
- Who's talking to whom, though? This could be the voice of Demeter, wishing she could remind her daughter all these things before she gets hurt. This could be a flashback of Persephone being told how to act. This could be a flashback to the poet's own childhood, hearing her own mother lecture her. Or maybe this is the poet telling us, speaking to each of us as if she were our mother. Either way, we've definitely got some mommy issues.
- The first clue that this is classic mom-talk is that all the verbs switch to the imperative mood. She's giving orders now: "Remember...go...stop." Sound familiar? It's supposed to! These clichés connect Persephone's story with our own. She's brought this eons-old myth and dropped it right in your living room, with your mom wagging a wooden spoon at you before you leave to catch the bus.
- Line 10 in particular gets our attention. It's easy to picture this speaker having to grab her child's cheeks and bring her face close: HEY! Listen to momma! Quit jumping on the bed! Quit repeating everything I say! Quit picking your nose! (No? Just us? Fine.)
- The two commands here, though, accuse the reader (us) of not paying close enough attention. She demands that we lean in and hear her advice.
Don't answer to strangers. Stick
with your playmates. Keep your eyes down.)
- The next line of the poem extends the same idea established in the previous two; clichéd advice from a motherly figure. Dove tosses in a slant rhyme ("answer" and "stranger") to add in a little extra sappiness, but we definitely get the point by now.
- The interesting thing about these two lines is the new shift at the end of the parenthetical statement. After all the straight-forward lines we've come to expect, suddenly Dove enjambs line eleven, leaving that verb "stick" off on its own.
- Up until now, the advice this mother has given has been practical and obvious. But now things get a little fuzzy. She recommends that the daughter stick with her own playmates. Doesn't that sound a little biased? A little over-protective? This is also the first time we get explicitly called out with the second person pronoun "your."
- This is the moment when we begin to see that this mother isn't some god-like, perfect, always right figure. She has her own issues.
- The final piece of advice is probably the most suspicious: "keep your eyes down." Do parents really want to teach their children this? These last two commands are probably the best indication that we're listening to the poet's own experience as an African-American girl growing up in the middle of the Civil Rights era.
- Just as we saw the complexity of Persephone's desire to live dangerously, we see the psychological conflict of a mother who would limit her daughter's experience just to be sure she was safe.
This is how easily the pit
opens. This is how one foot sinks into the ground.
- The last two lines of the poem seem obvious enough. It's like a fairy-tale or a fable—it ends with an easy moral to make sure kids don't misbehave. "See how scary the world is? Eat your cooked carrots!"
- Well, we're about to blow your mind. With pronouns.
- All pronouns, including the relative pronoun "this" that gets repeated twice in these final lines, have what is called an antecedent. That's the word that came before that the pronoun refers back to.
- We know what you're thinking: "I came here for a poem analysis and I got a free grammar lesson? Sweet!" We know. Just wait—it gets even better.
- See, in the poem, a lot rides on what "this" is. "This is how easily the pit opens. This is how one foot sinks into the ground." If we don't get what this is, we don't know what the moral is.
- So, wise guy, what is "this"? It's the daughter's supposedly careless, dangerous desire to be special, to go off on her own pulling up poisonous flowers that turn out to be the devil. Easy enough.
- Is it possible, though, that Dove is also implying that the mother's oppressive over-protection helped pave the way for her daughter's recklessness? Maybe Demeter pushed her daughter away by nagging her all the time.
- Aren't parents responsible for their children? Who's really at fault? Not so easy now, huh?
- Ultimately, this is a poem about a daughter and a mother and their desires that are both undeniable and dangerous. Also, totally conflicting.
- In other words, this is Serious Business.