The Books of My Numberless Dreams

To the underworld cont..d

Posted on: July 18, 2007

One can’t have a title like Averno without some Greek mythology. Shakespeare was all over this as well in the seventh sonnet, a clear front runner after twenty poems and counting.

Lo in the orient when the gracious light
Lifts up his burning head, each under eye
Doth homage to his new-appearing sight,
Serving with looks his sacred majesty,
And having climbed the steep-up heavenly hill,
Resembling strong youth in his middle age,
Yet mortal looks adore his beauty still,
Attending on his golden pilgrimage:
But when from highmost pitch with weary car,
Like feeble age he reeleth from the day,
The eyes (fore duteous) now converted are
From his low tract and look another way:
So thou, thy self out-going in thy noon:
Unlooked on diest unless thou get a son.

He limited the nagging to the last two lines. (Hooray!) When I first read the poem I was so excited about the fact that this sonnet wasn’t about babies. Until the end. Shakespeare invested his depiction of Apollo with a transcendent grandeur that made that easily forgivable. I’m finding it hard to explain precisely why it works like the literal equivalent to Tiepolo’s Apollo and the Continents for me. (Here’s a helpful detail.) Aesthetically it just…hits my sweet spot. (I don’t care about the ageing thing. In fact I thought it would have been more effective if Shakespeare had made Apollo look great even when his “weary car” descended, in contrast to ugly old people who everyone shunned, but suggesting improvements on Shakespeare’s work is very cheeky. If there’s anything I’m not, it’s cheeky. Maybe Elizabethans didn’t enjoy sunsets.)

“Persephone and the Wanderer” has Glück displaying an arch tone as well, but it’s not playful, it has bite. She’s not interested in sly romance. In the poem she explores the Persephone myth, relating it to her sphere of knowledge. We know that the Greek deities were known for the human foibles, but Glück takes it a step further by taking Demeter off Mount Olympos and treating her as a human, despite her immortal powers.

In the first version, Persephone
is taken from her mother
and the goddess of the earth
punishes the earth — this is
consistent with what we know of human behavior

that human beings take profound satisfaction
in doing harm, particularly
unconscious harm:

we may call this
negative creation.

So Demeter and Persephone are uprooted from their mythic origins and placed in a modern context.

Persephone’s initial
sojourn in hell continues to be
pawed over by scholars who dispute
the sensations of the virgin:

did she cooperate in her rape,
or was she drugged, violated against her will,
as happens so often now to modern girls.

The caustic tone cannot be missed. Glück does not believe that anyone involved in the drama — Demeter, Hades, or the modern day scholars — are truly interested in Persephone’s perspective. Neither is Glück for that matter, except in so far as doing so helps to clarifies her thoughts on the experience of death, if there is such a thing, and the fractured nature of the soul. Simply treating them as characters misses the point.

You are allowed to like
no one, you know. The characters
are not people.
They are aspects of a dilemma or conflict.

The dilemma is whether Persephone was anguished about her abduction. Did she and Demeter have a good relationship? The goddess’ vengeful actions tested one’s sympathy, to put it mildly, near putting the whole world to ruin. (In the complete story she went so far as to enter a mortal family’s household in disguise in order to steal a child. Really now.) Glück surmises that she “has been a prisoner since she has been a daughter”.

But it is no less sure that she was happy with Hades in the underworld either. The only sure thing, perhaps, is that she was neither happy, nor sad, not really living, eternally caught in a cycle of “terrible reunions”.

The resolution of the dilemma is important because on a conceptual level Glück views the myth as a struggle among the ego (Persephone), superego (Demeter) and the id (Hades). Or rather a struggle between the superego and the id because the tale “should be read/as an argument/ between the mother and the lover –/ the daughter is just meat”. Instead of the mind she sees them as divisions of the soul. We are caught between material and more primitive, spiritual concerns which often clash, especially when the earthly seeks to deny or inhibit the spiritual, as Demeter did to Hades. When one considers death it’s hard to ascertain what that means when one has no real means of learning that, beyond stories. She contemplates Persephone in the Underworld, who is for all purposes “dead” then and wonders if she was cognisant, did she feel fear, or pleasure or, linking back to “The Night Migrations”, is “not being…simply enough,/ hard as that is to imagine”.

They say
there is a rift in the human soul
which was not constructed to belong
entirely to life.

Glück feels that rift for she admits that, though she ages, she is clinging to life despite that “rift” in her soul. Death came and abruptly took Persephone, finalising the rupture, effectively claiming her soul. It was inevitable.

What will you do,
when it is your turn in the field with the god?


9 Responses to "To the underworld cont..d"

What an interesting couple of posts! I’m not well-versed in how to approach poetry (I tend to just read it aloud and revel in the rhythm of it), so it’s a pleasure to watch you go about it!

The Persephone myth has always been a favourite of mine-the way that Gluck weaves analysis into poetry is quite striking. While I don’t necessarily agree with everything she’s saying, at least it makes me think! I’ve always loved mythology, and for awhile I thought about majoring in comparative religion. Have you read Calasso’s The Marraige of Cadmus and Harmony?

On a completely unrelated note, Byatt’s Harry Potter comments seem pretty ridiculous! Apparently someone isn’t in touch with her inner-child. 😉

I’m not well-versed either, especially when it comes to contemporary poetry, believe me. It’s common for me to pick any sort of collection written since the 60s/70s, feel happy at more or less grasping the first poem then being abysmally puzzled by all the rest. It can be frustrating.

If you like do tell me what you disagree with. It may be that I’ve misrepresented her or that I think I interpreted her correctly and wouldn’t mind getting a nice discussion out of that. I have not heard of Calasso before. Is he a critic or academic?

Yes, I had the same reaction when I read the column, but we all have to be daft about something and that’s her thing. 😀

What interesting comparisons you make between Gluck and Shakespeare in both these posts! You make me want to re-read Sahkespeare’s sonnets and read Gluck. I’ve never read her poetry before. Thanks for writing so wonderfully about them!

Thanks for posting on this book — I loved Gluck’s book The Wild Iris, and I’d like to read more at some point.

Stefanie I’m glad it made such an impression on you! I found it pretty convenient that I was reading both at the same time and saw the similarities.

Dorothy that’s the one that won her the Pulitzer isn’t it? I hadn’t heard of her before until a blog friend sent me Averno and now I’m really fascinated.

Wouldn’t it be fun if we all still talked like Shakespeare, thou, thy, doest, fore duteous? Not.
Very interesting statement, “they say there is a rift in the human soul which was not constructed to belong entirely to life.” Interesting that she used the word soul that means the spiritual part of a person, and that she did not use the word heart instead. But soul is the deeper part of a person, the heart is the emotions, the personality.

Hahahahaa. I laughed when I read “Not” because at every word before that I was shaking my head thinking No way in hell would that be fun.

Yes, so far she is more interested in the mind and the soul, the heart hasn’t figured it anything much, although in “Prism”, the poem after “Persephone” she does mention romantic relationships.

[…] other Summer Poetry Challenge entries here are my posts on “Persephone the Wanderer” by Louise Gluck and Paradise Lost by John Milton. (I may eventually list then in the sidebar but […]

[…] of Devotion”. Averno is split into two parts, the first of which contained one poem, “Persephone the Wanderer“, that directly addressed the Persephone myth. In part two we have three. “A Myth of […]

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