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Two Sisters of Persephone - Plath

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“Two Sisters of Persephone”

The poem, “Two Sisters of Persephone” by Sylvia Plath, introduces a stage in Plath’s life. Written in 1956, the same year Plath got married, this poem presents two potential paths for Plath and also exposes her severe depression that began as a young girl and endured throughout her adulthood. The speaker’s inability to reconcile two personalities in this poem leads to her demise. This is illustrated though textual and literary devices, as well as mythological allusions. Plath’s background along with Greek myths allows the reader feel a part of Plath’s dilemma and relate her problem to many women.
Sylvia Plath was born in 1932. The death of Plath's father in 1940 led to her extreme depression, which never subsided. She had two unsuccessful suicide attempts at ages 10 and 20. However, in 1954, things began to seem optimistic, with Plath receiving scholarship to Harvard summer school and then in 1955 with her graduation from Smith and attending Cambridge University on Fulbright fellowship. On June 16, 1956, Sylvia Plath married Ted Hughes.
Plath was known to be a feminist, which is evident in this poem, “Two Sisters of Persephone.” When her hard-working self was presented with marriage, Plath was confronted with a crisis that is represented in the poem. With her new marriage, she questioned whether or not she should remain herself and work, or become the stereotypical wife, stay home, and merely bear children. The emotional effects on Plath from the death of her father ultimately led to her suicide at the age of 30.
The poem is based around a mythological allusion to Persephone, the goddess of the underworld and fertility in Greek mythology, and Hades, Persephone’s duality. Persephone, a beautiful, young, well-loved woman, was abducted by Hades. Broken-hearted, Demeter, Persephone’s mother, looked for her, and was so angry that she withdrew herself into loneliness, and the earth ceased to be fertile. Hades went to release Persephone and gave Persephone a pomegranate. She was tricked into eating of it, and it bound her to the underworld forever and she had to stay there one-third of the year; the other months she stayed on Earth. When Persephone was in Hades, Demeter refused to let anything grow and winter began. This myth is a symbol of the budding and dying of nature. Persephone spent some of the year in happiness, and the rest in seclusion. This alludes to the descriptions of light and shadow, while also portraying the realities of Plath’s existence, and her metaphorical nature. In essence there really are not “two sisters,” but in fact the two paths or courses of life facing Plath at this crossroads. “Sisters” also represents the two personalities, or essences of the same person, either being Plath herself, or the mythological Persephone. The alliteration of “daylong a duet” emphasizes this line’s importance. In line 4, “between these” provides us with our second dose of double-meaning, duality, for “between” not being the conform idea of taking place in the middle, but portraying the actual distance between the multiple personas. Plath represents her divided female selves and opposing aspirations in her poem, "Two Sisters of Persephone." The poem paints a portrait of two “sisters,” different as dark and light. The first is a logical, mathematical, intellectual, contained within a house with "rat-shrewd…squint eyes" and "root-pale…meager frame." These descriptions make her seem hardly a woman at all, and certainly not in the feminine sense of womanhood of the time. The second sister is a vibrant, nature-connected woman depicted to be a symbol of fertile womanhood. She lounges luxuriously in the open air, "bronzed as earth," near a "bed of poppies." The first of Plath's sisters dies a virgin, "with flesh laid waste, / Worm-husbanded, yet no woman", while the second becomes the "sun's bride" and "grows quick with seed,” symbolizing fertility and femininity. As a result of her known depressed state, Plath sees herself as having the potential for a monotonous, unmarried and solitary life of intellect and little else. Yet, she conflicts that vision with a prospective sparkling woman made complete in motherhood, nature's most lavish gift.
The first two lines of the poem are fragmented, showing the rift between the two personalities in the very beginning of the poem. The fragmentation foreshadows the dilemma between the two contradictory personalities. “One sits; the other, without.” One state of mind is constrained, and must be seated in a ladylike manner, in opposition to Plath’s feminist attitude, while the second state of mind stands free from restraint, rising from her outlook of feminism made clear in lines 3 and 4, with the “duet of shade and light.” This phrase compares the two states. A duet of shade and light is a contradiction, something very persistent in this poem, as a duet implies cooperation, and understanding, while and shade and light can never coexist being polar opposites. The underlying theme of this poem is her inability to unite her two states of mind, dooming her to tragedy.
The second stanza serves to show the reader her state of mind that is emotionally void. It says she “works problems” but in futility, suggesting that Plath cannot overcome her problems in life, and attempting to separate her problems from emotion is also futile. She does not work out her own problems but uses a machine in an attempt to overcome them. Line 8 emphasizes that while emotionless, time is interminable as this line does not end and continues into the next stanza. After the gap between stanzas, the sentence continues, and the emotionless sister is still counting. This further emphasizes the futility in dealing with the problem, and the insignificance of time to her. Time is meaningless, as seems life, for this sister. Her “barren enterprise” is suggesting infertility, as this state of mind could never bring life into her reality. Her “rat-shrewd eyes” show that she is opening up to what’s beyond her machine print outs, and also shows a negative image in nature. The fourth stanza takes a sharp turn, and leads into a daydream, or fantasy of the unemotional state of mind. Bright imagery and vivid colors sharply contrast the previous stanzas. Line 13, “the second lies,” is an extremely powerful statement. Not only does Plath suggest that the second state of mind, or the fantasy, is physically lying down, but that this fantasy is a lie and there is dual meaning in this word. The ticks of time are also “blown gold,” showing that in this fantasy and life of fertility, mortality has given time meaning. Line 15 mentions pollen, which is an allusion to her father as a beekeeper, as well as to the fertility that pollen symbolizes. Soon, however, she is intoxicated by this fantasy, as she would be by poppies. Line 16 also follows into the next stanza, showing the escape of time as she drifts deeper into the stupor of her fantasy. The first two lines of the fifth stanza substantially emphasize the powerful intoxication that the poppies have, and the vivid imagery shows how enthralled she is with this fantasy. Line 19 reveals her being “burn[ed] open to sun’s blade,” demonstrating her separation from her fantasy, and further polarization away from the emotionless state of mind. From this point in the poem, the fantasy quickly runs out of control, and she is consumed by it. This is reminiscent of Plath’s childhood- her years of bliss when she maintained straight A’s and still had her father; however, the poem will not turn out like her childhood. In addition, her inability to reconcile the two “sisters” will lead to an even further polarization of one sister in this fantasy, which must inevitably lead to a downfall.
The sixth stanza further reveals the references to womanhood and virginity. One sister becomes a beautiful “sun’s bride,” representing daytime, happiness and radiance. She “grows quick with seed,” which may signify fertility; the seeds, or eggs of a woman are needed in order for her to reproduce. This sensation of motherhood expands with her “bear[ing] a king,” or a child. This king figure alludes to Plath’s history and other poems in which it is mentioned with reference to her father being God-like and in control. Because of Plath’s obvious despair from the death of her father, perhaps Plath’s subconscious wants her to reincarnate her father in her potential son.
The final stanza completes the womanhood and virginity comparison begun in the sixth stanza. The other sister is a portrayed as a “wry virgin to the last,” who “goes graveward” and is masculine to the grave. Plath feels it is dreadful to be a virgin at death. When this occurs, the virgin is “worm-husbanded, yet no woman.” Worms are symbolic of consuming the dead in their graves, as this woman will be. Her only husband may then be considered the worms. Her “flesh” is “laid waste” because she did not get married or have children and is a virgin. With Plath’s strong feminist view, she deems virgins as disgusting, as noted by her being “sallow,” signifying the unattractiveness of the virgin. She believes it is necessary for women to pursue full womanhood and experience marriage and child-bearing.
“Two Sisters of Persephone” emphasizes Plath’s opposing viewpoints of her outlook of the world. The first point illustrates the masculinity of life “work[ing] problems on a mathematical machine” which to Plath is unwomanly, as she was known as a feminist. Contrastingly, the other viewpoint “grows quick with seed” and is feminine and womanly in Plath’s eyes. Through allusions to Greek mythology and her own circumstances, Plath emphasizes the duality of life. She seems to suggest that women’s lot in life is doomed either way. Therefore, she wants a duet of both: light and shade. It is obvious that Plath was searching for an equal to accompany her through all the aspects of a multifaceted life. To her, complete devotion was not the betrayal of herself as a woman, it would make her whole as a person. She would be a wife, and she would write as well. As confirmed by a quote from Sylvia Plath in her journal:

“I must find a strong potential powerful mate who can counter my vibrant dynamic self: sexual and intellectual, and while comradely, I must admire him: respect and admiration must equate with the object of my love (that is where the remnants of paternal, godlike qualities come in).”…...

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