To celebrate our Pre-Raphaelite Poetry week, poet and MA creative student Ellora Sutton responds to ‘Demeter Mourning Persephone’ by Evelyn De Morgan with her beautiful words.
am medieval with grief.
You shall have no wheat, no hops.
You shall have no oranges.
I want to watch the ribs of this land
rise. I want
this land to reliquary. I want
no harvest songs
no other women’s daughters
dancing harvest dances
offering their hearts for fruit
Kisses to grazed knees,
I am razed cornfields with grief.
Originally published in The Cannon’s Mouth.
I first came across Evelyn De Morgan at the Watts Gallery in Surrey. I know it’s a cliché, but it was definitely love at first sight – her rich jewel tones, her portrayal of strong or powerful women, the vivid stories within her pictures. I knew immediately that I wanted to write some ekphrastic poetry after her work, and a couple of years later I’m still doing just that. I believe that there are great parallels between visual art and poetry, both being methods of creating a shared experience through somewhat economic means. To me, poetry is a language of images. De Morgan’s art especially lends itself to poetic treatment because the stories are already there. De Morgan’s paintings always have something to say. There is both immense beauty, and immense truth – two vital ingredients for a good poem.
When I sat down to write this poem, I chose Demeter Mourning for Persephone as my subject because it had been stuck in my throat for a long while. The most striking aspect of this painting is, for me, the corn growing from Demeter’s hair. It is a painting ripe with metaphors. Often when I write from art, I will ask myself a series of questions about the piece – who does it depict? where are they? what time? what can’t be seen? – with the aim of breaking down the main image into the building blocks of several precise images or observations with metaphoric potential. For example, the rocky crag where Demeter is kneeling, becomes “I want to watch the ribs of this land / rise.” Although the image of corn in her hair didn’t make it into the final draft of this poem, it haunts the penultimate stanza: “I am razed cornfields with grief.” I was touched by this painting, and I really think it is De Morgan at her best – using her gorgeous, rich colours to tell a myth from the perspective of a powerful woman/goddess without catering to the male gaze. Demeter’s power does not remove her from the fact that she is a mother. And what mother wouldn’t destroy the world to bring her daughter home?
Ellora Sutton is an MA Creative Student from Hampshire. She has been published by fourteen poems, Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal, and Poetry News, amongst others. She loves writing about the Pre-Raphaelites; she won the 2019 Pre-Raphaelite Society poetry competition, and the 2020 Poetry Society and Artlyst Art to Poetry Award with a poem after Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Her debut chapbook, All the Shades of Grief, is out now from Nightingale & Sparrow. She tweets @ellora_sutton