Though fairy tales now have a reputation for being targeted towards children, poets often use them as vehicles for expressing their more mature emotions and ideas. Anne Sexton and Olga Broumas use the Rapunzel fairy tale to discuss romantic relationships between women, specifically two women with a significant age difference. The poets take these similar interpretations of Rapunzel and give them two distinctly different themes. Sexton’s “Rapunzel” mourns the loss of this romance between women, while Broumas’ “Rapunzel” celebrates it.
The main way that Sexton and Broumas shape their differing themes is through their use of diction and imagery. Every word choice influences the poem’s atmosphere and this mood is what contributes to the works’ ultimate themes. Sensuous language and imagery is abound in Broumas’ “Rapunzel,” celebrating the romantic relationship the women share. There is vivid description of the interactions between the two women that are very sexually charged, using phrases like “spine an enraptured circuit” and “skin curled up.” All of these bring about images of stimulated nerves and body parts. There are many references to plants throughout the poem, which is not only a symbol of fertility but also a symbol for the vagina. The plants are often used to describe the couple’s sex life. Some of the images used include a “lush perennial” and a “tilled bed luminous with the future yield.” The poem’s speaker also discusses the eternal nature of their relationship by alluding to plants, declaring that their “harvest [is as] continuous as a moan.” This phrase not only brings in the idea fertility, but also ties it in with the subtleties of sex. The color red is also used in reference to the tulips, which could also be interpreted as a sexual symbol. Broumas’ speaker brings up the fact that their passions will never be restrained because of the possibility of childbirth, making their love even more perfect than that shared between a man and a woman. All of these sexual images celebrate the romance between these two women.
Sexton’s poem also uses language to emphasize her theme, though she tends to compare and contrast the relationships between men and women and women and women through narrative. The way the Prince is described in the poem is clearly meant to make men sound rough, hard, and unappealing. When Rapunzel first sees him she refers to him as a “beast” and because she has never seen a man before she is baffled by his more masculine qualities. His facial hair is described as a “prickly plant growing on his cheeks,” an image that invokes a feeling of roughness and general unwelcoming. Sexton goes on further with to project a course image of masculinity. Later in the poem, when he leaps off of Rapunzel’s balcony, he is called a “side of beef.” The image of this heavy piece of meat, a collection of dead sinew and muscle, being thrown off the tower is itself repulsive. All of the imagery tied to this man is somewhat vulgar, which only emphasizes the idea that both Sexton and Broumas’ poems champion, that the love between women is very powerful.
When comparing the relations between Rapunzel and Mother Gothel and Rapunzel and the Prince, it becomes clear that Sexton was attempting to make the relationship with Mother Gothel appear much more gentle than the relationship with the Prince. Her means of achieving this end was again diction and imagery. The relationship between Mother Gothel and Rapunzel is clearly sexual, but the way it is described is subtle, just as it was when describing the relationship between the Aunt and niece. Sexton states that Mother Gothel “treasured [Rapunzel] above all things” and that the pair would also play mother-me-do. Though it is clearly a sexual relationship, there is still something innocent about it because of the way Sexton decides to word the interactions between Mother Gothel and Rapunzel. With the Prince however, it is very different. Immediately it is established that he “dazzles her with answers,” implying that his answers may seem dazzling because they are false or insincere. Sexton also ventures into vulgarity very purposefully, saying that the Prince impresses Rapunzel with his “dancing stick.” This mention of the male sexual organ in such a silly way can be contrasted with the serious, irreverent tone applied to the more eloquent the female sexual organ reference in the poem, “nether lips.” The relationship between Rapunzel and the Prince seems like a fallacy when placed beside the relationship between Mother Gothel and the Prince. It is the fact that the Prince still gets Rapunzel in the end that makes the loss so devastating and such a large part of the work as a whole.
The themes of both poems are heavily influenced by their different speakers. Broumas’ speaker seems to be Rapunzel herself, the younger woman in the relationship. This is inferred when she asks her lover to “climb / through [her] hair,” establishing the identity of the speaker immediately. The younger age of the speaker is also emphasized when she compares her lover to a mother, only to follow with “though you’re not my mother.” This is well-suited to Broumas’ celebration of female love, as it portrays the romance from a lively, youthful perspective.
The young are known for being rebellious and forward-thinking, a trait which is emphasized by the speaker’s response to those that would mock their relationship. She is angered by those that would criticize them, wishing that they would “choke on their words.” The speaker then goes on to admit that she is “less forbearing” than her older lover and “break the hush of [their] cloistered garden.” She wants to change the attitudes of those that would challenge their love by making it public. This so-called “in your face” attitude is typically reserved for the young and is made realistic by the age of the poem’s speaker. The manner in which sexuality is touched upon in this poem is also a reflection of the speaker’s age. As mentioned before, sexuality is described vividly in this poem through the diction and imagery, reflecting the intense lust of the young. The tone of Broumas’ poem is made romantic and optimistic because of its young speaker, setting the foundation for the other elements contributing to the theme.
In Sexton’s poem however, the speaker is not a part of the fairytale at all, but a woman paralleling the fairytale to her incestuous relationship with her young niece. She is established as the older of the two when she says things like “hold me my young dear, hold me” and then proceeds to tell the story of Rapunzel from the perspective of Mother Gothel. This speaker is also quite suitable for shaping Sexton’s theme of loss. This older speaker lays out the idea of the beauty of love between women in the poem’s beginning. Throughout the telling of the Rapunzel story within the poem however, the relationship between Mother Gothel and Rapunzel loses its perfection upon the Prince’s arrival. By the end of the poem Mother Gothel is left alone to live a very sorrowful existence, “her heart shrank to the size of a pin.” A parallel is drawn between the speaker’s world and the fairy tale world when it is said that Rapunzel’s marriage to the Prince showed that “mother-me-do can be outgrown.” This implies that the older speaker fears that she will become like Mother Gothel in the story she tells and that her young niece will one day run off with a man and leave her alone. The perspective of the older woman really shapes the theme of loss that runs through the poem when Rapunzel leaves Mother Gothel.
Despite these likenesses in situation, the poems look at romantic relationships between women in two different ways. Sexton’s poem is built of a theme of loss and the shattering of that perfect love, while Broumas’ poem seems to only celebrate the perfection itself.