Deborah’s Daughter


Library Theatre, Manchester (1994). Cast included Anna Carteret as Deborah, Jane Freeman, Mia Fothergill and Raad Rawi. Directed by Sue Dunderdale.

Of the many poems that we studied at grammar school, one in particular, about the myth of Demeter and Persephone, stayed with me. The story of Pluto, god of the Underworld, who stole the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of fertility, and who agreed eventually to allow her back for part of the year, thus creating the seasons, lodged in the mind. The form was regular and repetitive… each stanza ended in ‘Persephone… Persephone… Persephone.’ The only other lines I remember are ‘A child of light, a radiant lass, And gamesome as the morning air.’ Was it Browning? Tennyson? For some reason, despite meaning to, I’ve never sought the source. Some fragments embed, becoming part of you and are yours.

     Not, I’m bound to say, that I remember youth as being particularly gamesome. Growing up between the wars was, for so many, to live with exigency. Men stood on street corners, their lovingly ironed clean collars denoting the humiliating fact that they were out of work. Others, mutilated from the war, were wheeled, or hobbled, or offered matches or shoe laces for sale. You hurried past, not looking at them because you didn’t have twopence to spend on either. Somehow there was no detritus to live on in those days… no Oxfam shops or car boot sales, there were just not the consumer goods. Words like ‘scrape’, ‘mend’, and ‘make do’ encompassed our lives. And we were often hungry. Not having enough to eat can dominate your day.

        Much later, one spring in the middle of the sixties, my husband and I happened to read an advertisement for a cruise of the Mediterranean. Cruising wasn’t our style, but we’d had bad flu, we could escape the children, and the cost, on a Greek ship, was amazingly low. The boat was even to go as far as the Lebanon. There was a trip to Jerusalem, for the Holy Sites, and we were to put in to Egypt, where Keith had been during the war.

       It was a lovely cruise… no ‘entertainments’… terrible food except for the yoghurt, large creamy dishes of it instead of little tubs… and a handsome, moody, Arab captain. Keith, who had serves on boats during the war, said it was no wonder the captain never smiled, since his boat was barely seaworthy. At all events, we never made the Lebanon. Instead, we were holed up in Alexandria by a vicious Mediterranean storm, so we went to Cairo, where Keith was shocked that nothing had advanced since the forties. The food, even in Shepherd’s Hotel, tasted of ordure. One of the treats of the Cairo trip was a visit to the catacombs. As a claustrophobic, I stayed on top, and sat on a wall, watching soldiers drilling on a square across the road, You didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It was like a Carry On film. The men were either cross-eyed, or knock-kneed, or bandy, or just crooked all over.  Not one would have passed fit in our own army, and their drill was hopeless, no arm/leg coordination at all. Then, back on the bus, for Alex, we nearly ran a man down, and his reaction was to bow again and again in frightened apology. A few minutes later, held up in traffic, I saw a young lad in a faded, ragged djellabah dodge into the gutter, which was full of rubbish and dried horse manure, and pick out a dying lettuce leaf, wipe it on his robe and eat it. As we left Cairo, on our right were houses and streets, trees and gardens. On our left, desert. As far as the eye could see. All the way to the Atlantic.

     It is out of fragments of experience that work is born. We seek to make sense of our impressions, in order to solve the problems of our lives. Certainly, the idea of being a tourist can be dented by the sight of a child being so hungry that he will eat a dying filthy leaf. It is said that tourism has a global benefit, that it brings wealth to the Third World. With disadvantages, it is often said. Which may be true. What we do know is that the world now has the technology to solve our physical problems. We could feed the world. If we wanted to. Leave no child hungry from the swamp to the tundra. It is waiting to that seems to be the problem.

                                                                                                                                          Pam Gems


by Jean Ingelow

Written for The Portfolio Society, January, 1862.

She stepped upon Sicilian grass,

Demeter's daughter fresh and fair,

A child of light, a radiant lass,

And gamesome as the morning air.

The daffodils were fair to see,

They nodded lightly on the lea,


Lo! one she marked of rarer growth

Than orchis or anemone;

For it the maiden left them both,

And parted from her company.

Drawn nigh she deemed it fairer still,

And stooped to gather by the rill

The daffodil, the daffodil.

What ailed the meadow that it shook?

What ailed the air of Sicily?

She wondered by the brattling brook,

And trembled with the trembling lea.

"The coal-black horses rise--they rise:

O mother, mother!" low she cries--


"O light, light, light!" she cries, "farewell;

The coal-black horses wait for me.

O shade of shades, where I must dwell,

Demeter, mother, far from thee!

Ah, fated doom that I fulfil!

Ah, fateful flower beside the rill!

The daffodil, the daffodil!"

What ails her that she comes not home?

Demeter seeks her far and wide,

And gloomy-browed doth ceaseless roam

From many a morn till eventide.

"My life, immortal though it be,

Is nought," she cries, "for want of thee,


"Meadows of Enna, let the rain

No longer drop to feed your rills,

Nor dew refresh the fields again,

With all their nodding daffodils!

Fade, fade and droop, O lilied lea,

Where thou, dear heart, wert reft from me--


She reigns upon her dusky throne,

Mid shades of heroes dread to see;

Among the dead she breathes alone,


Or seated on the Elysian hill

She dreams of earthly daylight still,

And murmurs of the daffodil.

A voice in Hades soundeth clear,

The shadows mourn and fill below;

It cries--"Thou Lord of Hades, hear,

And let Demeter's daughter go.

The tender corn upon the lea

Droops in her goddess gloom when she

Cries for her lost Persephone.

"From land to land she raging flies,

The green fruit falleth in her wake,

And harvest fields beneath her eyes

To earth the grain unripened shake.

Arise, and set the maiden free;

Why should the world such sorrow dree

By reason of Persephone?"

He takes the cleft pomegranate seeds:

"Love, eat with me this parting day;"

Then bids them fetch the coal-black steeds--

"Demeter's daughter, wouldst away?"

The gates of Hades set her free:

"She will return full soon," saith he--

"My wife, my wife Persephone."

Low laughs the dark king on his throne--

"I gave her of pomegranate seeds."

Demeter's daughter stands alone

Upon the fair Eleusian meads.

Her mother meets her. "Hail!" saith she;

"And doth our daylight dazzle thee,

My love, my child Persephone?

"What moved thee, daughter, to forsake

Thy fellow-maids that fatal morn,

And give thy dark lord power to take

Thee living to his realm forlorn?"

Her lips reply without her will,

As one addressed who slumbereth still--

"The daffodil, the daffodil!"

Her eyelids droop with light oppressed,

And sunny wafts that round her stir,

Her cheek upon her mother's breast--

Demeter's kisses comfort her.

Calm Queen of Hades, art thou she

Who stepped so lightly on the lea--

Persephone, Persephone?

When, in her destined course, the moon

Meets the deep shadow of this world,

And laboring on doth seem to swoon

Through awful wastes of dimness whirled--

Emerged at length, no trace hath she

Of that dark hour of destiny,

Still silvery sweet--Persephone.

The greater world may near the less,

And draw it through her weltering shade,

But not one biding trace impress

Of all the darkness that she made;

The greater soul that draweth thee

Hath left his shadow plain to see

On thy fair face, Persephone!

Demeter sighs, but sure 'tis well

The wife should love her destiny:

They part, and yet, as legends tell,

She mourns her lost Persephone;

While chant the maids of Enna still--

"O fateful flower beside the rill--

The daffodil, the daffodil!"