Log In Start studying!

Select your language

Suggested languages for you:
StudySmarter - The all-in-one study app.
4.8 • +11k Ratings
More than 3 Million Downloads
Free
|
|

Anne Sexton

Anne Sexton

Anne Sexton was a mid-twentieth century American poet. Along with Sylvia Plath, she is considered to have pioneered the genre of confessional poetry. Sexton was a prolific but troubled poet who lost her life to suicide in her mid-forties.

Confessional poetry is characterised by its use of the 'I' pronoun and an honest and intimate tone. Poems in this genre often take on autobiographical elements of the poet's life. They also frequently focus on taboo topics. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton are both considered pioneers of the genre.

Content warning: contains themes of suicide.

Anne Sexton, Content Warning Text, StudySmarter

Anne Sexton: a biography

Anne Sexton was born on 9th November 1928 in Massachusetts. She was born Anne Gray Harvey. Sexton's father was a businessman, and she had a relatively comfortable childhood. Despite this, Sexton later described her relationship with her parents as somewhat abusive.1 She attended boarding school and later a finishing school but did not move on to university.

At the age of nineteen, Sexton eloped with Alfred Muller Sexton. Alfred would go on to work for Sexton's father. Between 1953 and 1955, Sexton gave birth to her two daughters. She then began to suffer from severe post-partum depression.

Post-partum depression is depression that can arise after a woman gives birth. This can often be caused by hormonal changes or exhaustion.

Sexton began to attend a therapist. She spent time in a mental institution, and her children were taken away from her for a period. Sexton dealt with severe mental health issues for the rest of her life. According to today's psychology, she likely had bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder is a disorder that affects the brain. Those with bipolar can frequently be unpredictable and emotionally unstable. The condition is usually characterised by periods of severe depression and periods of manic highs. People with bipolar can move between these states very rapidly.

While she was in her late twenties, Sexton's therapist advised that she start writing poetry to help her deal with her mental health issues. Sexton had little background in writing, so she attended classes and workshops to strengthen her skills. Here she met famous and successful poets who were very influential in her work. These included George Starbuck and Sylvia Plath.

Many that Sexton met in literary circles recognised her talent and encouraged her to continue writing. She quickly grew to love poetry. Sexton published her first collection, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, in 1960 with the publisher Houghton Mifflin. This work detailed her mental health struggles and time spent in mental hospitals. The collection was very critically successful and launched Sexton to popularity.

In 1961, Sexton was appointed a scholar at the Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University. This was a significant moment for Sexton as Radcliffe scholars typically had extensive university backgrounds, something she lacked. She was exposed to many feminist critics and theorists, significantly impacting how she wrote. Sexton published her next collection, All My Pretty Ones, in 1962. This was another hugely successful work. However, Sexton was still suffering from mental health issues. Her parents had died within a few months of each other in 1960, hugely affecting her mental state.

Sexton's next collection, Live or Die (1966), won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. This solidified Sexton's popularity. Her next two collections, Love Poems (1969) and Transformations (1971), were her two bestselling works. Love Poems was noted for its open and honest discussions of sexuality, particularly female sexuality and the female body.

By the early 1970s, Sexton's mental state had begun to decline rapidly. She had divorced her husband and neither of her daughters were living at home anymore. She had also become dependent on alcohol and pills. Sexton's last published poetry collection was The Death Notebooks (1974). The title of this collection was purposeful as Sexton believed she did not have much time left. She committed suicide on 4th October 1974 at the age of forty-five. It appears that Sexton planned her suicide.

Today, Sexton is regarded as an important and influential poet of the confessional poem genre. She wrote openly and honestly on mental health topics and female bodies at a time when these issues were still very controversial.2

Anne Sexton: poems

We will now examine some of Sexton's most important poems.

Anne Sexton: 'For My Lover, Returning To His Wife' (1968)

This poem is from Sexton's collection Love Poems. It is a monologue-style poem told from the perspective of a mistress addressing her lover. The mistress is lamenting the fact that her lover is leaving her after their affair and returning to his wife. However, the tone of this poem is quite resigned and accepting of this reality. Sexton's narrator spends the majority of 'For My Lover, Returning To His Wife' focused on the relationship between her lover and his wife. She paints a vivid picture of what this woman is like and how perfect a mother and wife she is.

Sexton's poem fits into the genre of confessional poetry with its use of the first person and its focus on the intimate but taboo issue of adultery. The poem has no set metre or rhyme scheme but Sexton does use the poetic device of anaphora in this work.

Anaphora is a poetic device that involves a word or phrase being repeated in successive lines of poetry. It aims to emphasise what is being repeated.

Many of the lines in 'For My Lover, Returning To His Wife' begin with the pronoun 'she'. This is referring to the wife of the narrator's lover. This emphasises the focus the poem has on this woman. The narrator obsesses over and compares herself to her lover's wife. The poetic device of anaphora aids Sexton in exploring the themes of infidelity and love in her poem. The narrator does not address the controversial nature of infidelity. She instead focuses on the deep connection her lover has to his wife.

'For My Lover, Returning To His Wife' shows the pain that infidelity can cause. It is also important to note that Sexton shows the man in this love triangle as unaffected by what has occurred.

Anne Sexton: 'Her Kind' (1960)

'Her Kind' was a significant poem for Anne Sexton. It appeared in her first collection To Bedlam and Part Way Back. Sexton would always open any of her poetry readings with 'Her Kind'.

The poem is divided into three stanzas of seven lines each. Each stanza showcases the poem's narrator taking on various kinds of witch personas, as seen below in the opening lines of 'Her Kind'.

I have gone out, a possessed witch,

haunting the black air, braver at night; (ll. 1-2)

The narrator uses vivid imagery of herself haunting places and living in the woods. She also suggests that there is a group of witch-like women acting in this manner. They live their own lives and are frowned upon by society. This was quite an unusual subject matter at Sexton's time of writing in the early 1960s.

'Her Kind' depicts women living outside the bounds of patriarchal society. Sexton's world would have expected women to prioritise being ideal wives and mothers. 'Her Kind' shows women leading adventurous, dangerous, and, importantly, independent lives. Sexton is showing how ostracised women can become from society when they do not obey its rules.

Patriarchy is a societal structure characterised by unequal gender treatment that favours men. Men are privileged and have a position of power, whereas women are subordinated.

The title and repetition of the phrase 'her kind' also suggests solidarity between these outcasted women. This would have been quite a radical suggestion in America in 1960.

Anne Sexton: analysis

Now let's look at some of the most important themes in Sexton's poetry.

Anne Sexton: feminism

After time spent in literary circles and at the Radcliffe Institute, Sexton began to incorporate feminist ideas into her work. This was likely also due to her own experiences as a woman in the patriarchy of 1960s America.

Sexton wrote openly and honestly about many of the issues women were facing in her society. These ranged from mental illness to abortion to menstruation. Topics such as these were very rarely discussed in mainstream society at this time. It was thought quite shameful to be open about such things.

'Her Kind' addresses the struggles of women that do not obey social norms. Sexton encourages solidarity among these women, going directly against society. Another of Sexton's poems, 'The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator' (1969), was equally controversial. Its open discussion of female sexuality, particularly without the necessity of a male figure present, was extremely taboo.

'The Abortion' (1962) is one of Anne Sexton's most challenging poems. It details the journey of a regretful woman getting an illegal abortion. Abortion was not openly discussed in Sexton's society. It was illegal in America until 1973. 'The Abortion' is likely based on a real experience of Sexton's. She became pregnant in 1960, after her two daughters had been born. Sexton did not believe she was physically or mentally healthy enough to have another child. However, her husband wished for her to give birth. Although she was personally against abortion, Sexton elected to have an illegal one for her own wellbeing.

Sexton's honest discussions of female issues were quite shocking to many when she was writing and publishing in the 1960s and 1970s. However, her popularity showcases how much many of these issues resonated with her readers.

Anne Sexton: mental illness

Anne Sexton's lifelong struggle with mental illness led her to write about it in her poetry frequently. Her first collection, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, is based mainly on her mental health journey. As is common in Sexton's work, this was also something taboo to be writing about in mid-twentieth century America. The study of psychology was not yet advanced. Many mental illnesses were not taken seriously or treated properly. Women suffered as many conditions were put down to the female stereotype of hysteria.

'Wanting to Die' (1964) is an intensely personal poem that discusses the narrator's 'lustful' attraction to the idea of committing suicide. Sexton uses the language of a romantic relationship to describe a relationship between a person and the extreme idea of ending their own life. This dark work explores the impact of severe mental health issues.

'Noon Walk on the Asylum Lawn' (1960) is a poem with a suspicious and tense tone. As seen from the title, it is told from the perspective of an asylum patient taking a walk. The narrator is out in nature which is often seen as a peaceful place in poetry. Sexton subverts this. Her narrator sees risk and danger everywhere, even in the blades of grass around her. She is showing the paranoia and fear that mental illness can cause. Below is the poem's ominous and concluding line that encapsulates the narrator's feelings.

There is no safe place. (l. 15)

Anne Sexton: life

Since her death, there has been much critical debate over how much of Sexton's life influenced her poetry. Some have argued that readers of Sexton's work have tried too hard to prescribe her personal life directly onto her poetry. They have made the point that Sexton's poetry is technically told by narrators who are not her.

Others have argued that this is the nature of confessional poetry. This mode of poetry is characterised by its intimacy and the fact that it is often based on the poet's own life. Sexton was a pioneer of the genre. Many common themes in Sexton's poetry line up with events that occurred in her life. These include struggles with mental illness, abortion, and the difficulty of being a woman in 1960s America. Sexton was even initially encouraged to write poetry to battle her mental health issues.

It is important not to take everything a poet or author writes as autobiographical. However, part of the reason Anne Sexton was so popular was likely because of how honest she was in her poetry.

Where do you fall in this debate? Do you think it's a bad idea to see Sexton's work as autobiographical or is that exactly why she was a successful poet? Do some further research into Sexton's work to decide your opinion!

Anne Sexton: quotes

QuoteLocationExplanation
'She is solid.As for me, I am a watercolor.I wash off.''For My Lover Returning To His Wife', ll. 46-48This line shows the difference the narrator of this poem sees between herself and her lover's wife. Sexton here is showcasing the pain and impact of infidelity.
'I have been her kind.''Her Kind', l. 7This is the title of Sexton's poem and is repeated at the end of each stanza. It emphasises that the narrator feels connected to her fellow ostracised women. This is Sexton encouraging female solidarity.
'The grass speaks.I hear green chanting all day.I will fear no evil, fear no evilThe blades extendand reach my way.''Noon Walk on the Asylum Lawn', ll. 6-10This poem showcases the paranoia and pain that mental health conditions can cause. The narrator here sees danger everywhere, even in something as simple as the blades of grass. Sexton highlights how difficult simple tasks can be for those with a mental illness.
'up in Pennsylvania, I met a little man,not Rumpelstiltskin, at all, at all...he took the fullness that love began.''The Abortion', ll. 17-19Here, Sexton uses fairytale imagery to describe an illegal, and likely unsafe, abortion. She emphasises the emotional pain this causes. Abortion was a very controversial topic to discuss in an America in which it was still illegal.

Anne Sexton - Key takeaways

  • Anne Sexton was a mid-twentieth century American confessional poet.
  • Two important Sexton poems are 'For My Lover, Returning To His Wife' (1968) and 'Her Kind' (1960).
  • Feminism and mental illness are two key themes present in Sexton's poetry.
  • There is extensive critical debate over how much of Sexton's autobiography can be applied to her poetry.
  • Anne Sexton suffered from mental illness for most of her life and committed suicide in 1974 at the age of forty-five.

Anne Sexton, Psychiatric assistance helpline text, StudySmarter


References

  1. Diane Middlebrook, Anne Sexton: A Biography, 1992.
  2. Diane Wood Middlebrook, Anne Sexton (9 November 1928-4 October 1974), Gale Dictionary of Literary Biography, 1996.

Frequently Asked Questions about Anne Sexton

Anne Sexton committed suicide in 1974.

Sexton never declared herself a feminist but she was inspired by feminist theory and discussed many female issues in her poetry.

It is likely that Sexton became popular for her poetic talent. Her popularity also stems from her taboo subject matter. Sexton discussed topics in her poetry that people in her society were too afraid to discuss but still often struggled with.

Anne Sexton is famous for being a prolific poet and a pioneer of the genre of confessional poetry.

Anne Sexton was a mid-twentieth century American confessional poet who wrote about women's issues and mental illness.

Final Anne Sexton Quiz

Question

When was 'For My Lover, Returning To His Wife' written?

Show answer

Answer

1968.

Show question

Question

What are two key themes in Sexton's poem?

Show answer

Answer

Infidelity and love.

Show question

Question

What two poetic devices are used in 'For My Lover, Returning To His Wife'?

Show answer

Answer

Metaphor and anaphora.

Show question

Question

What element of historical context is important to remember for Sexton's poem?

Show answer

Answer

The sexual revolution of the 1960s.

Show question

Question

What kind of poem is 'For My Lover, Returning To His Wife'?

Show answer

Answer

Confessional poetry.

Show question

Question

What can Sexton's poem be classified as because it has no set metre or rhyme scheme?

Show answer

Answer

Free verse.

Show question

Question

What are two key images in Sexton's poem?

Show answer

Answer

The wife as a statue and the wife as an ideal mother.

Show question

Question

What can the tone of 'For My Lover, Returning To His Wife' be described as?

Show answer

Answer

Jealous, resigned, melancholy.

Show question

Question

Can you define anaphora?

Show answer

Answer

Anaphora is a poetic device that repeats a word or phrase in successive lines in a poem.

Show question

Question

How does the narrator see herself in her lover's life?

Show answer

Answer

She sees herself as transitory and impermanent.

Show question

Question

What genre is Anne Sexton thought to have pioneered?

Show answer

Answer

Confessional poetry.

Show question

Question

What two themes are important in Sexton's poetry?

Show answer

Answer

Feminism and mental illness.

Show question

Question

What are two important poems by Anne Sexton?

Show answer

Answer

'For My Lover, Returning To His Wife' and 'Her Kind'.

Show question

Question

Why did Anne Sexton first begin writing poetry?

Show answer

Answer

She was advised to by her therapist to help in treating her mental illness.

Show question

Question

What was Sexton's first poetic collection called?

Show answer

Answer

To Bedlam and Part Way Back.

Show question

Question

Other than Sexton, which other poet is thought to have pioneered confessional poetry?

Show answer

Answer

Sylvia Plath.

Show question

Question

What poetic device does Sexton use in 'For My Lover, Returning To His Wife'?

Show answer

Answer

Anaphora.

Show question

Question

What does Sexton encourage in her poem 'Her Kind'?

Show answer

Answer

Female solidarity.

Show question

Question

Why was Sexton's poem 'The Abortion' so controversial at the time of publishing?

Show answer

Answer

Because it openly discussed abortion in a society in which abortion was still illegal.

Show question

Question

What does Sexton highlight in 'Noon Walk on the Asylum Lawn'?

Show answer

Answer

She highlights how difficult life can be for those suffering with mental illness.

Show question

Question

When was Anne Sexton born?

Show answer

Answer

1928.

Show question

Question

What mental condition is it now thought Sexton suffered from?

Show answer

Answer

Bipolar disorder.

Show question

Question

What style is 'For My Lover, Returning To His Wife' in?

Show answer

Answer

Monologue.

Show question

Question

What kind of persona does Sexton take on in 'Her Kind'?

Show answer

Answer

That of a witch.

Show question

Question

How does 'Wanting to Die' describe the narrator's attraction to suicide?

Show answer

Answer

It describes it as a lust.

Show question

60%

of the users don't pass the Anne Sexton quiz! Will you pass the quiz?

Start Quiz

Discover the right content for your subjects

No need to cheat if you have everything you need to succeed! Packed into one app!

Study Plan

Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.

Quizzes

Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.

Flashcards

Create and find flashcards in record time.

Notes

Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.

Study Sets

Have all your study materials in one place.

Documents

Upload unlimited documents and save them online.

Study Analytics

Identify your study strength and weaknesses.

Weekly Goals

Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.

Smart Reminders

Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.

Rewards

Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.

Magic Marker

Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.

Smart Formatting

Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

Get FREE ACCESS to all of our study material, tailor-made!

Over 10 million students from across the world are already learning smarter.

Get Started for Free
Illustration