Persephone (Roman Proserpine) is the Greek goddess associated with the seasonal death and rebirth of Nature. Daughter of Demeter (Roman Ceres) she was abducted by Hades (Roman Dis), the god of the Underworld, while gathering flowers as immortalised in Milton’s beautiful lines                                         .nor that fair field
                                   Of Enna, where Proserpine gathering flowers,
Herself a fairer flower, by gloomy Dis
Was gathered…”                                                                                                                                                             (Paradise Lost, Book IV, v.207-272)    
Demeter wandered about distraught looking for her vanished daughter with the result that the  flowers faded, the plants  stopped growing and humanity was in danger of  extinction from famine. Eventually, Persephone was traced to the Underworld and a modus vivendi  was reached : Persephone  was to stay for four months of the year in the Underworld and return to Earth for Spring and Summer — the Greeks do not seem to have bothered with autumn. In some versions of the legend, Persephone is tricked into remaining at least part of the year in the Underworld, because she accepts some pomegranate seeds at the hands of Hades and is thus doomed by the decree that everyone who partakes of food in the Underworld must stay there. The pomegranate thus gained its reputation of being a “dangerous fruit”  and as such is celebrated in the song (music by John Baird, CD Aquarius) which appears in my play The Pomegranate Seeds (Samuel French,  2000)

“You the fruit of Dis have taken
You have eaten of the dangerous tree,
Of the pomegranate taken, taken, Y
our mother calls, your mother weeps Persephone.

Not for you the blaze of summertime,
Sunlit meadows you will never see’
Nevermore the blaze of summertime, summertime,
All that is gone, all that is gone, Persephone.

Now you have crossed to the land of despair,
To this shadowy realm,
Never to return.

You the fruit of Dis have taken,
In these regions you must always stay,

In the twilight of the Underworld, Underworld,
Those that you love, those that you love are far away.”  

Persephone, or Proserpine, has been a frequent subject in Western poetry and paintings, though, somewhat surprisingly, as far as I know no opera has ever been written about her — I could easily imagine Mozart or Glück writing one.

The figure of Persephone was so central to the poetess Anna de Noailles (see website annadenoailles.com) that Catherine Perry entitled her recent interpretation of this remarkable Belle Époque French poet, Persephone Unbound. The figure of Persephone doubtless resonated with Anna de Noailles because of its ambivalence : on the one hand Persephone’s association with flowers, youth and a carefree existence and, on the other, with violence, sorrow, separation, darkness and death. Persephone belonged to two worlds, to the light and to the dark and may thus be seen to symbolize the “willingness… to encounter the fateful aspects of existence” (Catherine Perry) : this aspect of the myth would have appealed far more to Anna de Noailles, as a follower of Nietzsche, than the more traditional fertility goddess persona.    Like Orpheus, Persephone has a shamanic role as ‘crosser of boundaries’ , since, like all humans she crosses the fateful river of Lethe but, unlike ordinary mortals, she is eventually granted the power to return to Earth at will.  There is, interestingly, a late version of the Greek myth in which Persephone, having belatedly fallen in love with her kidnapper, Dis (a strange anticipation of the so-called Stockholm Syndrome) declines to return to Earth and only accepts to do so most reluctantly by order of Zeus.

The positive side of the myth of Persephone as personifying the rebirth of Nature and return of Spring has largely been obscured in Romantic and post-Romantic literature  by her role as Queen of the Underworld.  As such she is a formidable figure since, along with her husband Dis, she is Judge of  Souls, deciding impartially whether they deserve reward or punishment. Rimbaud alludes to her in Une Saison en Enfer “Elle ne finira donc point cette goule reine de millions d’ames et de corps morts et qui seront juges! » which, given the mention of “le port de la misere, la cite enorme” two lines earlier suggests that the poet identifies Persephone with Queen Victoria presiding over the hideous ‘City of Night’ that is nineteenth-century London in Rimbaud’s eyes !

George Gomori sees her as the inevitable figure of destiny that awaits us at the end of the line                         “There are no saving miracles — Nor can remorse win you grace.
                                 There’s no one to deflect the track
Of the knives whistling straight for you.
                                 Persephone, standing at your back,
Proffers her hand. Hold yours out too.”

However, for Swinburne, a vastly underrated poet incidentally, she represents not so much Justice or Destiny as the (welcome) negation of everything vital :

“She waits for each and other,    She waits for all men born; Forgets the earth her mother, The life of fruits and corn; And spring and seed and swallow Take wing for her and follow where summer song rings hollow    And flowers are put to scorn.”

Swinburne makes it quite clear what he is promoting : a Buddhistic total negation of the entire life-process in favour of the permanent quiescence of Nirvana.

“From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.

The star nor sun shall waken,
Nor any change of light:
Not sound of waters shaken,
Nor any sound or sight;
Not wintry leaves nor vernal,
Nor days nor things diurnal;
Only the sleep eternal    In an eternal night.”

Vyvian Grey takes a more nuanced position in her charming Proserpine since although she presents the Underworld in a surprisingly light and asks her mother not to ‘weep for me’, she  does not entirely exclude the idea of eventual return.

Persephone

Here there are no days,
Only a night —
A sort of shimmering half-light
That no sun ever dazzles through;
And the sky — not blue,
No, never blue,
As in the world that once I knew,
But something like a skein of softest grey;
A blossom of white.  

Still are the rivers, are the lakes
Of this quiet land,
Whose silver waters offer up no sound,
Where I have never seen
The summer-coloured sails of mighty ships,
Or their distant gleam;
Only shrouded barges
Gliding soundlessly along through silent mists,
Each like a dream
And by lone oarsmen manned.

 Yet flowers grow here,
For I have plucked such quantities
Of sleepy-headed poppies,
Swarthy hellebores
While this weird countryside I roam.
True, they are not the primroses,
The violets of home,
They are not the roses:
Even so, they have their beauty,
A loveliness all of their own.

 And do not think that music never plays
Where I have come,
For music plays always its hum
Is heard, not in raucous revelries,
But between the cypress trees
Where souls of those departed sit and chant
Their melodies
In voices like a sigh,
So tenderly that I must dwell to hear them
Whenever I pass by.

 O mother, do not weep for me,
Though in this world I must abide:
Within the year I shall be yours again
And earth will gladden at the sight;
Until then, grieve not for me,
For here I shall remain
With my dark husband by my side,
Although the night is long;
Mother, it is a pleasant night.

Roger Hunt Carroll for his part , in the Envoi of his Hymns for Persephone considers that mankind has ‘lost’ not Persephone herself, but the ‘vision’ of Persephone

You are not lost, no, not you;
never could you be robbed from the orchard of earth,
not from flowers in the fields, the high grasses,
no, nor from soft shrubs that sway along the riverside.

It is we who have misplaced you,
dear and most-loved daughter of the world.
We loosened the cords of your summer gown,
and in our vision you fell in the evening light,
your hair shaded by leaves, your face behind a mask, hidden from our careless sight.

Sebastian Hayes

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