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References to the Greek Underworld A loo

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Ann and Kirby Kenny
Myth Studies
General Humanities
11 December 2016
References to the Greek Underworld:
A look into its use as a literary device in contemporary female poetry
The Underworld, or Hades, which held particular importance in Classical society and was
paid much attention by such epic poets as Homer and Virgil, serves as an extremely prominent
locale in Greek myth. Homer and Virgil in their respective works characterize Hades as having a
dark gloom and wretchedness. Both give voice to the Classical conception that, apart from the
idea of eternal wandering, descent into Hades (katabasis) is the worst possible fate reserved
especially for humans, but spared for the Gods. In Classical theology there is no equivalent to the
Christian conception of Heaven; indeed Greek myth contends that Hades is one’s unavoidable,
inescapable doom. The Greek fear of death was therefore particularly acute. The closest
equivalent in Hades to the Christian Heaven is Elysium, though it resides within the realm of
Hades thus is not its obverse the way Heaven is Hell’s. A distinction should be made between
Hades the place and its eponymous ruler: “Hades is not only the personification of the
Underworld god [...] but also refers to his extensive Underworld kingdom. Mythological
tradition and epic clearly differentiate the Underworld and the god Hades, who is regent of this
place” (Clark, 1). While modern conceptions depict Hades the god as being full of malice and
scorn, analogous to the conception of the Christian Satan, in Greek myth and in Classical literary
tradition Hades is simply ruler of the Underworld in the same way Poseidon is of the sea or Zeus
of the skies. For the purpose of this analysis Hades as a locale (i.e. the rivers Lethe and Styx) and
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its notable inhabitants (namely Medusa, Cerberus, and Persephone) will be of chief concern. This
analysis will examine Hades the Underworld and its utilization as a literary device in
contemporary poetry to convey meaning as illustrated by, and within the context of, the Classical
works of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, as well as Virgil’s Aeneid, and the following works of
contemporary poetry: Sylvia Plath’s collection Ariel, Rachel Zucker’s “Letter: [Persephone to
Demeter],” and Hilda Doolittle’s “Lethe.” It is fitting that references to the Underworld should
be viewed within the context of contemporary poetry, as epic poetry was the preeminent medium
of Classical literary tradition.
The conception of the Underworld being the worst possible and utterly unavoidable fate
terrified members/readers of Classical society whose fears of death and of katabasis were strong.
Such disquietude concerning death and the afterlife is well articulated in Homer’s Odyssey when,
upon entering the Western shore of Hades to converse with the spirits of the dead, Odysseus
hears the lamentations of the spirit of Achilles (famed hero of Homer’s Iliad): “Glorious
Odysseus, don’t try to reconcile me to my dying. I’d rather serve as another man’s laborer, as a
poor peasant without land, and be alive on Earth, than be lord of all the lifeless dead” (XI.
472-473). The utilization of Hades as a metaphor for pain and suffering is a motif in
contemporary poetry, as this analysis will prove. Of the three contemporary examples being
analyzed, the most notable work in which the Greek Underworld is utilized for the purpose of
conveying suffering is Sylvia Plath’s posthumous collection, Ariel; though Rachel Zucker’s
“Letter: [Persephone to Demeter]” and Hilda Doolittle’s “Lethe” also utilize the connotations of
the Greek Underworld for such metaphorical purposes. Moreover, the Underworld is employed
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by these poets to represent certain themes which are uniquely feminine in both a social and a
literary context.
References to the Underworld in Plath’s Ariel abound. While references to the larger
Greek mythic tradition are abundant in the collection as well, such as to those of Nike, Apollo,
Iris, and so on, it more acutely focuses on the Greek Underworld in particular and utilizes it in a
literary capacity to convey emotional meaning. Indeed several Ariel poems, namely “Getting
There,” “Amnesiac,” “Medusa,” and “Fever 103°,” invoke the Underworld––the themes,
inhabitants, and locales thereof––to communicate and also accentuate the broad condition of
‘suffering.’ Because hers is a confessional volume, ‘suffering’ becomes Plath’s ‘personal
suffering’––though it is of tantamount importance the analyst not confuse speaker with author.
To be sure, however, the poetess in this case is a master of confessionalism and her deft use of
the personal pronouns “I,” “me,” and “my” allows the analyst some freedom to form certain
ideas about the biographical nature of Ariel’s content. In its entirety, Ariel is characterized by
such morbid themes as death, disease, torture, madness, murder, betrayal, suicide, occurrences of
violence, of sexual abuse and rape, and of suffering and vengeance. The prevailing tone of the
collection is one of despair.
Confessional poetry is an eminent mode of literary catharsis. Ariel is Plath’s personal
expression of insurmountable suffering and grief. Plath utilizes the Greek Underworld, the very
representation of suffering in Greek mythic tradition, to convey meaning and tone which, in
Ariel, is both grieved and angry. As the suppliant, Ariel’s speaker welcomes and even begs some
higher power for death, such as in “A Birthday Present,” in which she likens death to a birthday
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gift, “shimmering” and “timeless” (2, 57). This idea of the suppliant is often exhibited in Greek
mythology (for instance by Tithonus who, after achieving immortality but not eternal youth, begs
for death to overcome him, or by Thetis to Zeus regarding the fate of the Achaeans).
Traditionally the irreversibility of death is essential to the fear thereof. Greek mythic
tradition largely presents mortal characters who cling to the experience of life. Mythic tradition is
also full of references to Hades being the most unforgiving God, as he represents death and death
forgives no mortal. Such is typified in Book IX of Homer’s Iliad when Agamemnon, leader of
the Achaeans, presents offerings of peace to Achilles. In the passage, the doomed Achaean
reveals to Achilles that he never touched Briseis, Achilles’ war prize, as was believed. In
disclosing such information Agamemnon undermines a good deal of his own authority (though
ultimately in vain) in the interest of softening Achilles’ steadfast anger: “I solemnly swear”
Agamemnon asserts, “I never once went up into her bed / Or had sex with her, as is men’s
custom, / Where men and women are concerned / […] / Concede, for only Hades / Is totally
relentless and unyielding. / That’s why of all the gods, he’s the one / Men hate most” (160-2;
Virgil in Book VI of the Aeneid speaks to the fear of death, and thus of Hades (the place),
as stemming from its permanence:
“This is the region of the Shades, and Sleep, / And drowsy Night / […] / The drear hateful
swamp / Has pinned all down here, and the Styx that winds / Nine times around exerts
imprisoning power. / […] / Hither voices crying loud are heard at once–– / The souls of
infants wailing / […] / And torn from the breast, as black day took them off / And
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drowned them all in bitter death / […] / And next were those sad souls, benighted, who
contrived / Their own destruction, and as they hated daylight, / Cast their lives away.
How they would wish / In the upper air now to endure the pain / Of poverty and toil! /
But eternal law stands in the way” (523-4; 575-9; 585-93).
The ideological abstention of death makes Plath’s yearning for it all the more anomalous
within the context of the Greek mythic tradition. And Zucker’s “Letter: [Persephone to
Demeter]” likewise speaks to the wasteland of the netherworld lovingly: “Here bodies are lined
in blue against the sea. / And where red is red there is only red. / I have to be blue to bathe in the
sea. / Red, to live in the red room with red air sex in all / […] / My longing for red furious,
sexual” (3-9). Accordingly, the poem’s speaker––as the voice of the Underworld’s Queen
Persephone––yearns for the infernal red of Hades (the place) as she does for sex with its
eponymous ruler. Whereas Zucker’s “Letter…” is more an ironic tribute to lust within the
Plutonian landscape/context, Plath’s Ariel is tantamount to one sprawling death wish, serving as
a romantic tribute to the idea of katabasis. In Zucker’s “Letter…” the speaker is determined to be
one with Hell; to be accepted into and loved by it. Zucker’s libidinous tone in “Letter…”
characterizes the entire collection to which the poem belongs: Eating in the Underworld.
As the female reputation precedes, such romanticizing of death could exist as a natural
extension of the female perspective. Such can be viewed either as uniquely feminine and fragile,
or perhaps as unflinchingly powerful. Which is to say the embracing of death, which is uniquely
a part of the female experience as demonstrated by these contemporary poets and others––
namely Anne Sexton, Virginia Woolf, Sara Teasdale, and Emily Dickinson––is either
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representative of weakness or of strength. Some would argue that welcoming death with such
fervor points to a weakness in constitution (as in an inability to endure life), while others still
would maintain that a yearning for death signifies strength (in the sense that one does not cower
from most-feared death, but begs for and embraces it). Whether the female tendency to
romanticize death connotes weakness or strength is purely subjective on the part of the reader.
The writer likewise chooses how she views death; Hilda Doolittle’s meditation on the
Underworld is far more objective than Plath’s and Zucker’s are in that her speaker does not beg
for Hades but simply describes its barrenness: “Nor skin nor hide nor fleece / Shall cover you, /
Nor curtain of crimson nor fine / Shelter of cedar-wood be over you, / Nor the fir-tree / Nor the
pine. / […] / Nor word nor touch nor sight / Of lover, you / Shall long through the night but for
this: / The roll of the full tide to cover you / Without question, / Without kiss” (1-6; 13-18). Such
is the typification of resolute bluntness toward death.
Part of the Greek tradition of resisting death comes from the ethos of Classical mythology
which purports that there is no distinct Heaven but just a more joyful, empyrean corner of Hades,
Elysium, reserved for those especially good souls. In accordance with this principle, mortals in
Classical literary tradition were to prepare for an afterlife that––unlike the Christian conception
of Heaven––did not offer absolute and eternal happiness, but merely a respite from anguish. This
aspect of Classical mythology differs notably from Judeo-Christian theology which endows the
afterlife with either absolute goodness or absolute badness. Because mythic tradition did not
allow the attainment of a conception of a kind of Heaven, death was more acutely feared and
represented a more dismal reality; as such death carried more weight because it brought a fate of
unavoidable misery; this lends Plath’s adoption of the Greek Underworld intrigue. In Ariel,
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“Getting There,” “Amnesiac,” “Medusa,” and “Fever 103°” deftly show Plath’s favor of Hades.
“Getting There” and “Amnesiac,” poignantly consider the river Lethe, the river of forgetting.
Lethe as a place and the waters thereof allow the tortured soul to forget her suffering, to become
blind to it. When the river is crossed, “the experiences of the other world are lost to [her]
conscious memory” and she is free to exist unencumbered by the torment and grief under which
she has been laboring for so long (Clark, 10). “Medusa,” and “Fever 103°” consider her
immensely personal connection to, and place within, Hades.
The idea of the journey is central to Classical historical and literary tradition. Nostos, or
homecoming, represents the best kind of journey (consider Odysseus in his journey to
enlightenment); and katabasis, the journey to hell, represents the worst (consider Eurydice’s
journey to Hades). Plath’s “Getting There” communicates a longing for death within the context
of katabasis. The poem’s speaker narrates her journey to an initially undisclosed location. She
can hardly contain her excitement, rhetorically asking “How far is it?” to the destination a
number of four times. The poem concludes with: “Let [the dead] souls writhe in a dew, / Incense
in my track. / The carriages rock, they are cradles. / And I, stepping from this skin / Of old
bandages, boredoms, old faces / Step to you from the black car of Lethe, / Pure as a baby” (1;
62-8). The speaker likens the forgetful state awarded in Lethe as being akin to a baby’s
ignorance, to Locke’s tabula rasa. This ignorance becomes purity, as the unknowing and
untroubled figure is pure, free from the burden of suffering (and the memories thereof). She
arrives at a place of unblemished sterility, the skin of “old bandages,” or injuries, gone. The
carriages of the train car are not seats, but cradles; and Lethe is not merely the destination, but
the journey, like the passage through the womb. The journey described in “Getting There” echoes
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the journey to Lethe, the transit of which sheds worn layers of the self, allowing the traveller the
chance “to move forward without the haunting memory of something unfinished. Forgetting
implies the conscious self is ready to move forward, no longer weighed down in a state of
darkness” (Clark, 11).
Lethe is further referenced in “Amnesiac” (meaning a person who is affected by
amnesia)––and appropriately so, given the implication of amnesia with regard to the river Lethe
(of forgetting). The speaker bemoans the futility of the doting female archetype, and laments her
position as one. She’d sooner leave behind all the grievances of sisterhood, motherhood, and
wifehood than be burdened by them anymore. Her roles as a sister to her brother, a mother to her
children, and a wife to her husband, are utterly exhausting: “There is nothing to do with such a
beautiful blank but smooth it,” the speaker says, “Name, house, car keys, / The little toy wife /
Erased” (2-5). In her exhaustion she seeks total refuge in Lethe, the river of oblivion. Referring
to her selves, she declares: “O sister, mother, wife, / Sweet Lethe is my life. / I am never, never,
never coming home!” (25-27)––as if her various personas have no say in the matter. The
speaker’s pain is such that, in referencing Lethe––and moreover in characterizing it as being both
“Sweet” and “[her] life”–– she not only seeks to erase her memories of pain, but to eradicate all
her memory entirely.
In Greek Mythology Medusa is a creature who represents the sea, and is also an
inhabitant of the Underworld. She is associated with water and the sea for several reasons: she’s
the daughter of the ancient sea-god, Phorcys; she’s said to have incurred Athene’s wrath by
profaning one of the virginal goddesses’ temples (either willingly or unwillingly) with famed
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Poseidon, god of the sea; and her decapitation by Perseus is said to have colored the sea bloodred, hence the same “Red Sea.” She inhabits a lair at the outermost edge of the Underworld,
overlooking the river Styx, the “most poisonous and fearful of all the rivers.” Styx literally
means “hatred” in Greek (Clark, 10). In Greek myth Medusa is a Gorgon, a merciless and
vengeful wretch. Ariel’s “Medusa,” which concerns Plath’s mother, Aurelia, reveals the
tremulous relationship between mother and daughter. Plath’s Medusa resembles that of mythic
tradition in that she is similarly vexing. In the poem the creature’s influence pervades every
aspect of the speaker’s being and life. The tone is resentful and acerbic, and “explore[s] the
surreal landscape of her imprisoned psyche under the looming shadow of a dead father and a
mother on whom she was resentfully dependent” (Hamilton). The speaker of the poem
analogizes her mother to Medusa, the metaphorical inhabitant of the sea; but in this case a
dweller in the Atlantic, between Massachusetts and England: “Did I escape, I wonder?” the
speaker rhetorically asks, “My mind winds to you, / Old barnacled umbilicus, Atlantic cable, /
Keeping itself, it seems, in a state of miraculous repair” (12-15). The speaker overtly resents this
creature, denying it any shred of tenderness: “I didn’t call you. / I didn’t call you at all. /
Nevertheless, nevertheless / You steamed to me over the sea, / Fat and red, a placenta /
Paralyzing the kicking lovers / […] / Off, off, eely tentacle!” she exclaims, “There is nothing
between us” (21-26; 44-45). Plath utilizes the broad concept of the Underworld to vent
aggression and to connote representations of pain, suffering, and unhappiness. Moreover, the
poet associates themes of motherhood (in “Amnesiac” and in “Medusa”) to the Greek Hell in all
its annihilating power.
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Ariel’s “Fever 103°” is an inquiry into the meaning of purity: by fire, by smoke, by
radiation. “Fever’s” speaker considers purity within the context of sin: She says, “The tongues of
hell / Are dull, dull as the triple / Tongues of dull, fat Cerberus / Who wheezes at the gate.
Incapable / Of licking clean / The aguey tendon, the sin, the sin” (2-7). The imagery of Hell is
stark. The title evokes images of heat, fire, suffering, and of agonizing and purifying flames.
Cerberus is the multi-headed canine who guards the gates of the Underworld, preventing escape.
In her broadcast for the BBC (1962), Plath reveals “Fever 103°” as a poem “about two kinds of
fire––the fires of hell, which merely agonize, and the fires of heaven, which purify. During the
poem, the first sort of fire suffers itself into the second” (Plath, 197). The poem is a “controlled
hallucination, the autobiography of a fever” (Alexander, 342), and its ascension into something
else. Plath’s allusion to Greek mythic tradition by referencing Cerberus further portrays her use
of the Underworld and its symbols and inhabitants to convey personal suffering and agony. She
relates Cerberus, a symbol of the Underworld, to the kind of fires which purely agonize, but do
nothing to abate torment, pain, or sin.
The contemporary use of the Underworld in poetry is extremely prevalent. Female
writers, in particular, focus on the Greek Hades predominantly in a romantic capacity. This idea
is representative of a kind of passion, which can be both sexual and fatalistic in nature. Consider
the speaker in “Letter…” who sexualizes the very idea of death and the personification thereof in
the form of the god Hades, or the speaker in Ariel who loves death to the point of delusion. This
passion for death and for the Greek Hades takes on significance when one considers that these
poets use Hades, also, to represent suffering and aggression. As passion refers to any emotion
that is uncontrollable, the link between death, suffering, lust, and aggression is quite sensible.
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For these poets, moreover, this passion is not merely uncontrollable, but annihilating. The female
reputation is largely characterized by passion, romanticism, sex, and perhaps even drama; these
female writers demonstrate such characteristics uniquely in their respective authorial voices.
Consider Doolittle, whose meditations on the Underworld are the most objective of them all, and
yet even she considers the river Lethe within the context of a lover and a lover’s kiss (as in the
lack thereof). Whether or not the female writer’s tendency to embrace death is connotative of
strength or weakness is, again, up to the reader to decide. What is nonetheless common among
these female writers is the treatment of the subjects of death, pain, love, grief, and so on, in an
intense and personal manner. There does exist in Classical literary tradition a connection between
females and the Underworld: Persephone is Queen; Circe guides Odysseus there; and likewise
does the Sibyl of Cumae guide Aeneas. Queen Dido of Virgil’s Aeneid effectively represents the
confluence of the precedent themes as she, a female, forfeits life and embraces death voluntarily
in response to having been abandoned by her lover, Aeneas. In Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid, “The
Passion of the Queen,” she cries, “Give me respite from these agonies. / I lived my life out to the
very end / And passed the stages Fortune had appointed. / Now my tall shade goes to the
underworld / This way, this way, a blessed relief to go / Into you, into the undergloom” (906-9;
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Works Cited
Alexander, Paul. Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath. 2nd ed. New York: Da Capo, 2003.
Clark, Brian. Hades as Place: The Landscape of a Pluto Transit. Astro Synthesis, 2001. Web.
Doolittle, Hilda. “Lethe.” Gods and Mortals: Modern Poems on Classical Myths. Ed. Nina
Kossman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Web.
Hamilton, Ian, ed. The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-century Poetry in English. Oxford:
Oxford UP 1994. Web.
Homer. Iliad. Translated by Samuel Butler. NY: Barnes & Noble Inc., 2013. Print.
Homer. Odyssey. Translated by Samuel Butler. NY: Barnes & Noble Inc., 2013. Print.
Orr, Peter. Interview with Sylvia Plath. The British Broadcasting Company (1962). Web.
Plath, Sylvia. Ariel: The Restored Edition: A Facsimile of Plath's Manuscript, Reinstating Her
Original Selection and Arrangement. New York: Harper Collins, 2004. Print.
Virgil. Aeneid. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Random House, 1990. Print.
Zucker, Rachel. “Letter: [Persephone to Demeter].” Eating in the Underworld. Middletown:
Wesleyan University Press, 2003. Print.