Sexual Awakenings and the Loss of Youth in Eavan Boland’s “The Pomegranate”

Sexual Awakenings and the Loss of Youth in Eavan Boland’s “The Pomegranate”

Through the use of heavy symbolism, Eavan Boland’s The Pomegranate portrays the different aspects of Ceres’s pained perspective as mother of the young goddess, Persephone. The poem weaves a tapestry, using threads from both myth and personal experience to explore Persephone’s tale. For in the various versions of this Greek myth that I have read, while it is mentioned that Demeter is heartbroken at losing her daughter, it never delves into why she’s so desolate at losing Persephone. The authors of the other interpretations of Persephone’s myth presumably assume that losing your daughter to Hades is difficult enough, but through Boland’s poem, it adds another, more personal layer to the tale, emphasizing the loss of youth and innocence, especially in regards to Ceres herself.

Looking first at structure, when analyzing the text, the phrasing is composed primarily of wraparound sentences and broken fragments, interspersed at time with periods, indicating solid stopping points. This makes me think of long versus short sentences, creating the sensation of parent and child with the contrast between the lengths symbolizing that relationship. In the first sentence of the poem, it says that the legend is that of a daughter lost in hell with a period, then “and found and rescued there” is tacked on almost as an afterthought (1-3). It makes one think that Persephone herself is adding on a reminder that she was finally found to her mother’s lament.

The poet goes on, explaining that “Love and blackmail are the gist of it” and one can safely make the assumption that the author means the love of Ceres for her daughter, but what I find fascinating is the phrase a couple of lines down, saying “I can enter it from anywhere”, making me wonder if the speaker identifies with both characters of the story, having once been a young Persephone herself, “an exiled child in the crackling dusk of/ the underworld, the stars blighted”(7, 11-12). The mirroring of phrases in lines seven through eleven, gives the reader the impression of role reversal, and nostalgia, for the time that Ceres was a young Persephone herself.

Then, with no line break, we take a jump in time, from the speaker’s childhood to her daughter’s youth, the summer twilight referring to her own age in the seasons, spring being youth, summer adulthood, fall being middle age and winter being old age (13). Her daughter comes running towards the safety and solace of Boland’s (Ceres’s) arms. However, what strikes me in the scene is the nature imagery. “I carried her back past whitebeams/ and wasps and honey-scented buddleias.” (17-18). This line is rich with flower symbolism, as it should be, seeing as Persephone is the goddess of flowers and Ceres was goddess of agriculture, fertility and motherly relationships.

Whitebeams symbolize safety; they represent Ceres’s relationship with Persephone. Demeter is a safe haven from not only being stolen or lost, but also from men and sexuality. Buddleias are butterfly bushes, the flowers of which are known for their phallic shape, and wasps have stingers, which will cause a sting, ironically the same phrase often used to describe the sensation of losing one’s virginity. So as young Persephone is being carried out of the garden (perhaps a bit of Biblical imagery in the setting), she is being distanced from the temptation that men hold.

However, while Ceres knows she can shield her daughter, and make that “bargain to keep her” (16) for now, she knows the moment is fleeting, and that “winter was in store for every leaf… /was inescapable for each one we passed. /And for me.” (20-24).  Even now, in the summer, she knows that her old age will come, that the day will come where she has to give her daughter up to whatever fate she chooses. This line captures half of the two part theme of the poem, since it succinctly summarizes Ceres’s dual struggle against old age and losing her daughter.

The next stanza is not only separated, but also holds an indent, as if to emphasize that long stretch of time. When we next see our Demeter, it is winter and once again, there are no stars, resembling Hades in its bleakness. Her Persephone is no longer a child, but is now a maiden, a teenager asleep beside her magazines, possibly home from a night out on the town with her friends, or a date, distanced from her mother emotionally. She is no longer held close and safe in her mother’s arms, but lying on the bed, not completely innocent anymore.

The temptation is right there, lying beside the benign soft drink, still uncut. The untouched fruit represents her virginity, still intact, but the fruit lies just within reach of the bed, the tough outer skin waiting to be broken, exposing the crimson seeds inside. The pomegranate itself is an incredibly sensual fruit, and it’s interesting because the pomegranate holds double symbolism for sexuality, and in Biblical terms, in both literature, and specifically in the eleventh and twelfth lines of the second stanza, for the fall of Adam and Eve, where Boland states “She put her hand out and pulled down/ the French sound for apple.” (34-35). This line is solidly reminiscent of Eve reaching out and picking une pomme, an apple from the tree of knowledge (which some say was actually a pomegranate), tasting the fruit from the forbidden tree, giving her that forbidden knowledge, and losing her place Paradise. Perhaps this parallels how Persephone, upon tasting the fruit of knowledge was condemned to spending four months of the year in the Underworld.

This is the meat of the matter, seeing as the title of the poem hangs upon this portion, for Boland could easily have labeled it “Ceres” or “A lost Daughter”, but instead, she chooses to entitle the poem after a luscious fruit, rich and ripe with fertility and sensuality, representing in its own way, Persephone’s coming of age and loss of virginity. After all, Hades stealing Persephone has always been a tale of violence, almost rape, but in this poem, I sense that she goes with him willingly, for the same reason Pandora opened the box- curiosity. A young maid, curious and eager to love, falls into the arms of a dark god, who takes her for what she represents- the lush ripeness and fertility of the Earth, in hopes that she will bring such beauty and fertility to his barren world.

However, Persephone is young and cannot sense the heartbreak that lies in store for her, either the heartbreak of leaving her mother, or later when she must return to Earth, the heartbreak of any teenager forced to return home after running away and losing herself in a night of pleasure with her boyfriend, not caring about the “Mother knows best” lecture she’ll receive. Going further into the sentence, Boland delves deeper into the heartbreak of not only Persephone, but also into the pain of every mother who watches her daughter crying over a man (34-42). For even in a place as cold as Hades, there is still the passion and pain of heartbreak, as Boland explains in the next few lines “in the midst/ of rocks full of unshed tear/s ready to be diamonds by the time/ the story was told”  (38-41). I view this line as Demeter knowing Persephone’s heart will break, as her own did once long ago, once again making the contrast between Ceres’s age and her daughter’s youth. Furthermore, in this line, Ceres strikes me not only as older, but more worldly, while Persephone comes across as a young maiden on the brink of being debauched, her innocence (or virginity) hanging on by a mere thread.

It’s fascinating how Boland has this incredible run-on line, and then at the end of it, she states “a child can be hungry”, as if that simple phrase is an excuse, an explanation, or even a wistful lament (41-42). The question left unanswered is “hungry for what?”, making me wonder about the different possibilities a young woman can be hungry for. Love, lust, company, or even a different kind of enslavement? After all, Ceres is very protective of her daughter, so perhaps Persephone simply wants a different companion holding her captive figuratively.

Then once again in line 42, we are in Demeter’s thoughts, as she struggles with herself, debating whether or not to warn her daughter of what is to come, warning her of the heartbreak she will face. However, she knows deep down that it is time to let her daughter go, to let her face the world, make her own mistakes and face her own heartbreaks, just as Demeter did once.  She makes her decision, saying “What else/ can a mother give her daughter but such/ beautiful rifts in time?” (47-49), leaving it be, not warning her daughter because “If I defer the grief I will diminish the gift” (49), acknowledging that to love is the most beautiful kind of pleasure-pain one can experience, knowing that it will hurt her, because whether Hades himself hurts Persephone or not, to love is to hurt.

We see an example of that in lines forty three to forty five, when Demeter’s world is cold and dark, her daughter in Hades, married and moved out, experiencing the same empty-nest syndrome that many mothers do, the struggle not confined to this one tale, but like the other conflicts in the poem, a timeless one, shared by generations. Persephone has gone, moved out, presumably to the suburbs, leaving behind the countryside she grew up in, causing winter to descend upon Ceres (44).

The story comes full circle with Persephone’s (sexual) awakening. Ceres knows that she will wake, and taste the fruit of sensual knowledge; just as Ceres herself did once, emphasized by the description of the pomegranate, saying that “She will wake up. She will hold /the papery flushed skin in her hand./ And to her lips.” (52-53). I find it fascinating how the pomegranate is sexualized, but at the same time, it brings that theme of loss of youth, as Boland describes the papery skin of the pomegranate, paralleling Demeter’s old age, bringing her sexuality to a close, as Persephone discovers the world of sensual pleasure, effectively summing up the theme of the poem in her final line.

Works Cited:

Boland, Eavan. “The Pomegrante”. 1994.Print