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 alter
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;
Inscribed above her head, these lines:
While flowering, ladies, scant love not
Lest all your fruit
Be but this black outcrop of stones.
-Sylvia Plath (1956)
With spring’s official arrival, the mind turns to the Greek myth of Persephone, the daughter of Zeus and harvest goddess Demeter. As a maiden, Persephone was seized by Hades and carried off to the underworld as his bride. Demeter was inconsolable and searched endlessly for her daughter. She refused to let Earth’s crops grow until Persephone had been returned. Because Persephone had sampled some pomegranate seeds in the underworld she was forced spend half the year with Hades there. Spring marks Persephone’s annual return to her mother, which the ancient Greeks used to explain the miraculous rebirth of plant life and the turning of the seasons (“Persephone” 1998).
For poet Sylvia Plath, the Persephone myth explores the two seemingly divergent paths of women in the modern age. Her allegorical poem “The Two Sisters of Persephone” is not about two women. Persephone did not have sisters. It is about the two halves of Persephone and all women. Turning the original myth on its head, one “sister” or side of Persephone marries and “bears a king” (line 24), equating marriage with an earthly, fertile life. The other “sister” chooses not to marry, instead focusing on her career “working problems on a mathematical machine.” (lines 6-7). While it may seem like the married sister is happier, as that is what society prescribes. She is described as, “Bronzed as earth, the second lies/ Hearing ticks blown gold/Like pollen on bright air. Lulled/Near a bed of poppies” (lines 12-16). She is also “bitter/ And sallow as any lemon” (lines 24-25). The two women end up feeling the same emptiness and regret, revealing how society doesn’t value either sister. Also, no matter the choice, death is the end result for all.
Plath wrote this poem the year of her marriage to English poet Ted Hughes. Perhaps the poem could be expressing fears about moving from one stage of life to another, from maidenhood to married life and the uncertainty of her social status. “The Two Sisters of Persephone” urges the reader to consider society’s view of women and to give each woman the freedom, respect, and opportunity she deserves.
Plath, Sylvia. “The Two Sisters of Persephone.” Poetry Magazine. January 1957.
The Editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica. “Persephone.” The Encyclopedia Britannica. 20 July 1998. 21 March 2017. <https://www.britannica.com/topic/Persephone-Greek-goddess>