Persephone and Anna de Noailles

March 2, 2010 at 7:26 pm (Uncategorized)

Persephone (Roman Proserpine) is,  you may recall, the goddess associated with the seasonal death and rebirth of Nature. Daughter of Demeter, the Greek Earth Goddess, she was abducted by Hades (Roman Dis), the god of the Underworld, while gathering flowers on the hillside, 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 concluded thanks to the intervention of Zeus (Hades’ elder brother and king of the gods)  : Persephone  was to stay for four months of the year in the Underworld and return to Earth during  Spring and Summer — the Greeks do not seem to have bothered with autumn.

The myth of Persephone doubtless resonated with Anna de Noailles because of its ambivalence : on the one hand Persephone’s association with flowers, youth and carefree existence and, on the other, with sorrow, separation, darkness and death.  Persephone, like Anna de Noailles herself,  belonged to two worlds, to the sunlight but also to the dark.  The blaze of summer had its equivalent  in the brilliant social life of Countess Anna de Noailles who hosted one of the leading salons of the time attended by Proust and Cocteau, but other parts of her life were spent in depression and solitude — at one time her husband had her sent to what seems to have been a kind of mental hospital in all but name. All her life, Anna de Noailles was obsessed with death

“I know not where I come from, where I am going; sometimes, in the centre of a garden, I hear the universal veins singing and rushing; my ears are familiar with the sound of things germinating and dying. Cybele and Persephone, when they listened to the earth, must have caught this sound.”

(La Domination by Anna de Noailles, p. 262, it is the heroine who is speaking Catherine Perry tells me)

Like Orpheus, who also visited the Underworld and returned, Persephone has a shamanic role as ‘crosser of boundaries’ and it was  this aspect of the myth that appealed to Anna de Noailles rather than the more simplistic role of fertility goddess. Like other mortals,  Persephone entered the land of perpetual darkness but, unlike ordinary mortals, she acquired  the power to return to the world above.  “She [Persephone] has the freedom to overstep these boundaries at will”, as Catherine Perry says  in her biography of Anna de Noailles significantly entitled Persephone Unbound

Also,  in the context of Anna de Noailles’ Nietzschean philosophy, Persephone represents the “willingness… to encounter the fateful aspects of existence” (Catherine Perry op. cit.) and there is, interestingly,  a version of the Greek myth in which Persephone, who has belatedly fallen in love with her captor Hades, declines to return to Earth at all and only accepts to do so reluctantly by order of Zeus.

Persephone, or rather Proserpine, has been a frequent subject for poets and dramatists but in the last two centuries at any rate, it is more her role as Queen of the Underworld that has inspired writers rather than her role as giver of life.

Roger Hunt Carroll has very kindly sent me his Hymns for Persephone specifically dedicated

‘To the memory of Anna de Noailles’

Here are some extracts from Roger Carroll’s elegant and soulful work :

Hymns for Persephone

3

The transcribed flower opens in her.
Its paraphrase carries her motive
through a drunken melody—
and in it all opulent petals ring.

Serenely the sounds circle
a shining silence and cover the plain:
“Persephone! Persephone!” the grasses sing
as they race toward noon.

If no other thing is sure, this is sure:
in her body’s apparition,
leaf and blossom rise again.

6

She is leaving her delicate land,
setting her eyes against the day
in which liquid reds of poppies ran
and shimmering silver birches
framed in silver the shivering hour.

From within where her reign was still
and calm, though in defeat,
she slips away, letting drafts of time
blow her gently toward autumn’s night.

But even in this exit, she must know
it’s but a moment she is gone—
a silent, almost breathless retreat.

9

There can be no farewell.
Particles of former lives she cannot leave
she treasures as her ancient charms
drawn out to enchant the dark.
She has kept them all.

It is at such appointed time
announced to her heart alone
that she takes these pieces in her hands
and hides them from the frightening sky.
She does not refuse the pounding apparitions
that rise from summer’s death:
in the antiphons of mourners’ eyes
which will not let her from their sight,
she makes the solemn retreat in her grief,
going as one deaf to hymns dying grasses sing,
deaf to the wizardry of locusts’ wings,
not hearing sad bells her forced leave-taking
rings over long shadows of the earth.
Tightly in her grasp, she holds her charms
close against her trembling breast.
Thin folds of her summer gown sheathe
her secrets and catch the predicted tear
she lets fall from her cheek.
Hers are the saddest steps in this
most sad cortège.

But listen: under her breath, in music
almost too soft for the sharpest ears,
she intones her versicle and response:

“There can be no farewell:
I will come this way again in forms
created from other lives,
bound with lilac and softer flowers
whose breath will speak my advent and reprise.”

10

Envoi

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.

O were it not so!
All rules that hold you are wrongly formed,
for there is nothing we may have but what deludes;
now though we think the world without song,
it is our deafness that stops earth’s tongue:
your songs continue sweet beyond our ears.

Persephone, you are not lost, merely gone aside—
but what of you would we know at all,
if the old Ancient Ones had blindly lied?

Roger Hunt Carroll

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