Skip to main content

Sylvia Plath's "Crossing the Water" and "Two Sisters of Persephone"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath

Introduction and Text of “Crossing the Water”

The speaker in Sylvia Plath’s “Crossing the Water” begins her performance tainted by the influence of an intensely dark mood, but then just a flicker of starlight transforms her dark mood from grave to wonder.

This lyrical poem consists of only twelve lines, separated into tercets. Each tercet builds to the amazing crescendo of the fabulous image of “the silence of astounded souls”—one of Plath’s most memorable creations.

Crossing the Water

Black lake, black boat, two black, cut-paper people.
Where do the black trees go that drink here?
Their shadows must cover Canada.

A little light is filtering from the water flowers.
Their leaves do not wish us to hurry:
They are round and flat and full of dark advice.

Cold worlds shake from the oar.
The spirit of blackness is in us, it is in the fishes.
A snag is lifting a valedictory, pale hand;

Stars open among the lilies.
Are you not blinded by such expressionless sirens?
This is the silence of astounded souls.

Reading of Plath’s “Crossing the Water”

Commentary

Darkness sometimes yields a supernatural light whose power can modify the night’s blackness, causing the soul to transcend all earthly anguish. Plath’s speaker shares the experience in colorful yet subdued imagery.

First Tercet: Blackness

Black lake, black boat, two black, cut-paper people.
Where do the black trees go that drink here?
Their shadows must cover Canada.

The speaker tersely describes an ominous setting: “Black lake, black boat, two black, cut-paper people.” The somber mood heralds an equally somber, even bizarre, question that asks where “black trees go” after they “drink here.” The question is jarring because trees literally go nowhere regardless of where they “drink.”

But this speaker’s mind is a jagged edge that asks figurative questions and makes wholly imaginary assertions; for example, after the jarring question, she claims that the shadows of those trees “must cover Canada.” The enormity of those shadows implies near equally enormous trees.

Second Tercet: The Speaker’s Mood

A little light is filtering from the water flowers.
Their leaves do not wish us to hurry:
They are round and flat and full of dark advice.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

The speaker then notes a “little light” in this nearly total blackout, and that light “is filtering from the water flowers.” The speaker’s mood again intrudes upon common sense, leading her to believe that the leaves of those “water flowers” “do not wish us to hurry.”

Although the speaker is alone, she now suggests that she is traveling with at least one other person. Despite her opening reference to “two black, cut-paper people,” the speaker’s assertions indicate that she is, in fact, talking to herself, as the muses on the solemn scene.

The cut-paper people do not accompany her; they reside in the imaginary realm within the darkness that the speaker quite desperately attempts to penetrate with her against-the-natural questions and her peculiar claims.

The speaker describes the leaves of the water flowers as “round and flat,” and more strikingly, these leaves are filled with “dark advice.” The speaker implies that she is privy to that advice, yet she also suggests that her understanding of the advice is flawed.

Third Tercet: Vital Water

Cold worlds shake from the oar.
The spirit of blackness is in us, it is in the fishes.
A snag is lifting a valedictory, pale hand;

As the oars move the boat through the black water, the speaker perceives that water falling from the oars morphs into “cold worlds.” The earth that is made of three-fourths water is but a drop that the oarsman might shake from the oar as he moves the boat through the dark water.

The speaker then concludes that this somber scene reveals the “blackness” that is in each human being. She makes her plain statement—“The spirit of blackness is in us”—and follows it with the claim that this blackness is also “in the fishes.”

Fourth Tercet: Stunned Speaker

Stars open among the lilies.
Are you not blinded by such expressionless sirens?
This is the silence of astounded souls.

Suddenly, the speaker notices, “Stars open among the lilies.” This statement can be taken literally as well as figuratively. The stars suddenly appearing in this blackened landscape reflect the sky and earth. They not only appear, however; they also “open.”

The light that now appears along with the newly formed visible “lilies” stuns the speaker so much that she blurts out a revealing question, “Are you not blinded by such expressionless sirens?” Unlike the singing sirens of the Odyssey, these sirens sing only to the eyes, and coming out of blackness, they seem to blind the observers with their brilliance.

Because they remain “expressionless,” that is, silent, they represent the kind of silence “of astounded souls.” The speaker is shaken from her black mood into one of astonishment; she is transported to a mood of surprise by the simplicity of light and silence.

Interview With Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath - Self-Portrait

Sylvia Plath - Self-Portrait

Sylvia Plath's "Two Sisters of Persephone"

Sylvia Plath's "Two Sisters of Persephone" compares the result of virginity vs fecundity.

Introduction and Text of "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," 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"

Commentary on "Two Sisters of Persephone"

Sylvia Plath's "Two Sisters of Persephone" compares the result of virginity vs fecundity.

First Stanza: Inside vs Outside

Two girls there are : within the house
One sits; the other, without.
Daylong a duet of shade and light
Plays between these.

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: Sitting with Math

In her dark wainscoted room
The first works problems on
A mathematical machine.
Dry ticks mark time

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: A Negative Evaluation

As she calculates each sum.
At this barren enterprise
Rat-shrewd go her squint eyes,
Root-pale her meager frame.

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: Intoxicated

Bronzed as earth, the second lies,
Hearing ticks blown gold
Like pollen on bright air. Lulled
Near a bed of poppies,

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: Opening

She sees how their red silk flare
Of petaled blood
Burns open to the sun's blade.
On that green altar

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: Bearing a King

Freely become sun's bride, the latter
Grows quick with seed.
Grass-couched in her labor's pride,
She bears a king. Turned bitter

The second sister conceives after metaphorically becoming the "sun's bride" and gives birth to a king.

Seventh Stanza: Multiplying but not Fruitful

And sallow as any lemon,
The other, wry virgin to the last,
Goes graveward with flesh laid waste,
Worm-husbanded, yet no woman.

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.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: What is the point of Plath's poem "Crossing the Water"?

Answer: The point of Plath's "Crossing the Water" is to express an observation and its influence on a mood: Darkness sometimes yields a supernatural light whose power can modify the night's blackness, causing the soul to transcend all earthly anguish.

Question: Do you have any critics quotes on this poem?

Answer: No.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on April 11, 2016:

Hello, Mihnea--I just now saw this comment. That's why it's taken me so long to respond. Anyway, Plath has many fine poems and a reputation well deserved for her skill. Thanks for mentioning John Berryman; he's a poet whose works I have thus far neglected. I'll have to remedy that oversight. Have a great day, and thanks for responding.

Andrei Andreescu from Seattle, Washington on November 30, 2015:

I love Sylvia Plath's work although my favourite of the Confessionalists is John Berryman.Her work sure is very deep but I always found it sad that many skilled poets have had suicidal tendencies and even commited suicide.

Related Articles