Sexton, Anne. "Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty)." Transformations. Houghton Mifflin Co., 1979.
Click here to read the poem.
Sexton’s poem deals with father/daughter rape while also telling the traditional Grimm’s tale. Briar Rose is cursed by a fairy with “eyes burnt by cigarettes / her uterus an empty teacup.” I thought perhaps this was Sexton’s way of hinting that aside from being angry that she wasn’t invited to the christening, she was also jealous of the queen’s ability to have a child, as well as Beauty’s youth. After she awakens, she is afraid to sleep and is an insomniac. She fears her father and what can be done to her as she sleeps; she can’t handle the loss of control. The only way she can sleep is with “the court chemist / mixing her some knock-out drops / and never in the prince’s presence.” She has transferred the fear of her father onto (her now husband) the prince. I also found the “knock-out drops” line interesting and think it is a comment on how many women affected by rape or incest grow to be more likely to have drug problems as a way to handle the pain. She writes, “There was a theft.” I think this refers to her innocence being taken from her. She says, “I was abandoned” (perhaps by her mother?). There is reference to how the king made all the men in the court scour their tongues with Bab-O (a cleaning agent with bleach) and to the men who attempted to get into the castle but were killed by the thorns. This can be seen as a comment on how women who have undergone such a horrible experience are not able to ever really let another man into their lives because they cannot trust; ultimately it was her father that kept potential princes from her. The last four lines read: “What voyage this, little girl? / This coming out of prison? / God help --- / this life after death?” Once again I feel like the message is that although she is now an adult, she is still trapped as an abused little girl, unable to heal the past, asking, “What kind of a life is this?” I must say there is a lot of room for interpretation here and I’d love for readers to click on the link to the poem and have a look. I’d like to know your take on it.
Click here for a feminist analysis of this poem.