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Sylvia Plath's "Two Sisters of Persephone"
Introduction and Text of Poem, "Two Sisters of Persephone"
In Sylvia Plath's "Two Sisters of Persephone," the speaker offers a lyrical effusion regarding the notion that only the human female who bears children can realize her destiny; the virgin, on the other hand, dying without offspring leaves the earth, "sallow as any lemon" and "[w]orm- husbanded," she is not a woman at all.
Plath's life and work were often promoted by mid-twentieth century male-bashers as an example of a woman of intellect undermined by the so-called patriarchy. This poem, however, delivers a position that runs at odds with those anti-patriarchal claims ascribed to the poet.
The titular "Persephone" allusion offers only a marginal relationship to the poem. The first sister appears to be "root-pale." The second sister gives birth to a king after marrying the sun, thus reflecting tangentially the myth of the goddess of the Underworld.
Two Sisters of Persephone
Two girls there are : within the house
One sits; the other, without.
Daylong a duet of shade and light
Plays between these.
In her dark wainscoted room
The first works problems on
A mathematical machine.
Dry ticks mark time
As she calculates each sum.
At this barren enterprise
Rat-shrewd go her squint eyes,
Root-pale her meager frame.
Bronzed as earth, the second lies,
Hearing ticks blown gold
Like pollen on bright air. Lulled
Near a bed of poppies,
She sees how their red silk flare
Of petaled blood
Burns open to the sun's blade.
On that green altar
Freely become sun's bride, the latter
Grows quick with seed.
Grass-couched in her labor's pride,
She bears a king. Turned bitter
And sallow as any lemon,
The other, wry virgin to the last,
Goes graveward with flesh laid waste,
Worm-husbanded, yet no woman.
Reading of "Two Sisters of Persephone"
First Stanza: "Two girls there are: within the house"
The speaker begins by announcing her focus on "two girls," one who remains inside the house and the other outside. All during each day, light and shade "play[ ] between these" sisters. This dichotomy reveals that a mythic, ultimately symbolic, drama will portray a notion of reality, and not a literal narrative.
Nor does the drama portend a retelling of an ancient myth. Mere nods through imagery are imputed in service of the myth. The most important message relies on a third party implication offered by the poet through her speaker.
Second Stanza: "In her dark wainscoted room"
Indoors, the first sister sits working on math problems, ticking out sums with her calculator. The speaker qualifies the "ticks" as "dry," as they "mark time"—this description alerts the reader immediately to the speaker's opinion of the first sister's occupation. The speaker disdains this sister's work.
Third Stanza: "As she calculates each sum"
The speaker continues to disparage the first sister's activity by calling it "barren." The sister has a "squint" in her eyes that is "rat-shrewd," and her thin body is "root-pale."
This unsavory characterization of the first sister reveals the speaker's evaluation of the first sister's physical appearance as well as her occupation with math sums. Her opinion is negative on both.
Fourth Stanza: "Bronzed as earth, the second lies"
The second sister, in contrast to being "root-pale" is "bronzed as earth," and the "ticks" she hears are those from "pollen on bright air" "blown gold." The second sister then is immediately associated with fecundity, not barrenness as the first sister is.
The second sister lies "near a bed of poppies." The implication here is that she is intoxicated with a natural, earthy beauty, contrasting greatly with the rat-eyed shrewdness of the first sterile, house-bound sister.
Fifth Stanza: "She sees how their red silk flare"
The second sister observes that the poppies open for the sun to enter them, and thus by implication she is influenced to open herself. Therefore, the second sister there "on that green altar" opens herself to pollination as the natural, blood red poppies have done.
Sixth Stanza: "Freely become sun's bride, the latter"
The second sister conceives after metaphorically becoming the "sun's bride" and gives birth to a king.
Seventh Stanza: "And sallow as any lemon"
The first sister, "wry virgin to the last," goes to her grave a wasted piece of flesh, "sallow as any lemon," not a woman at all, because of her failure to follow the call of nature—instead of being fruitful and multiplying, the first sister merely sat and did sums.
© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes