In honor of Louise Glück’s birthday (April 22), I want to share one of my favorite poems of her’s: “The Myth of Innocence”. This poem comes from Averno, a collection of Glück’s works based on the idea of “Avernus”, the place that the ancient Romans believed held the entrance to the underworld. In addition to the video above, the full text of the collection can be found at The Floating Library.
“The Myth of Innocence” uses the story of Persephone and Hades to engage with several major themes including love, disappointment, dreams for the future, and what it means to go from childhood to adulthood, a bittersweet coming of age story.
It begins with Persephone as not-quite-woman who has the “horrible mantle/of daughterliness still clinging to her.” That mantle combined with the awareness that her uncle is watching her causes Persephone to observe that she is never alone, never wholly herself, never quite existing except through the eyes and dreams of another. She simultaneously craves and loathes that lack of solitude.
Then Hades, “the dark god”, appears and irrevocably alters who Persephone is. Later, she returns to the last place where she was innocent, young, “the girl who disappears”, and tries to make sense of her life. The last stanzas encapsulate this with utter grace, and I won’t do them an injustice by merely summarizing them. They are as follows:
She stands by the pool saying, from time to time, I was abducted, but it sounds wrong to her, nothing like what she felt. Then she says, I was not abducted. Then she says, I offered myself, I wanted to escape my body. Even, sometimes, I willed this. But ignorance cannot will knowledge. Ignorance wills something imagined, which it believes exists All the different nouns - she says them in rotation. Death, husband, god, stranger. Everything sounds so simple, so conventional. I must have been, she thinks, a simple girl. She can't remember herself as that person but she keeps thinking the pool will remember and explain to her the meaning of her prayer so she can understand whether it was answered or not.
Persephone begins to question the value and the price of never being alone, and she begins to wonder if she ever knew what it was that she wanted.
It’s a beautiful and poignant poem that uses mythology to explore what it means to gain and lose the dreams of childhood. If you haven’t read much of Glück’s writing, I hope you’ll give her a chance now.
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This post was originally published August 7, 2016.