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'For My Lover, Returning To His Wife' is a 1968 poem by American poet Anne Sexton. This is an honest poem that explores the complications of infidelity from the perspective of a mistress.
Below is a summary of Sexton's poem along with an explanation of the contexts it was published in. You will also find a detailed analysis of the work and a brief exploration of Anne Sexton's biography.
|Written by||Anne Sexton|
|Form||Confessional poetry, free verse|
|Metre||No set metre|
|Rhyme scheme||No set rhyme scheme|
|Poetic devices||Anaphora, metaphor|
|Frequently noted imagery||The wife as a statue, the wife as an ideal mother|
|Tone||Jealous, resigned, melancholy|
|Key themes||Infidelity, love|
|Meaning||The pain infidelity causes. The narrator accepts that she will be left behind as her lover returns to his wife.|
Let's take a look at the poem first:
'For My Lover, Returning To His Wife' is a poem told from the perspective of a mistress who is reflecting on her lover's relationship with his wife. She sees herself as only temporary in her lover's life while his wife is solid and permanent.
The mistress begins this poem by stating that she believes the wife of her lover has been specially made for him. They are perfectly suited for each other. The narrator describes the wife as a 'cast-iron pot', something real and tangible. She contrasts this with a description of herself as 'smoke': something fleeting.
Sexton's narrator goes on to imagine the home life this husband and wife share together. She paints an idyllic picture. She also notes that this woman has given her husband three children. This bonds them together even more. The narrator imagines that her lover's wife is a dedicated and loving mother. All these images convince the mistress to return her lover's heart to him and allow him to give himself fully to his wife once again.
This mistress pictures their reunion, both physical and emotional. She ends the poem by once again emphasising that the wife figure is 'solid' while she is like a transitory 'watercolour'.
We will now look at the historical and literary contexts of Sexton's poem.
She is all there.
She was melted carefully down for you
and cast up from your childhood,
cast up from your one hundred favorite aggies.
She has always been there, my darling.
She is, in fact, exquisite.
Fireworks in the dull middle of February
and as real as a cast-iron pot.
Let's face it, I have been momentary.
A luxury. A bright red sloop in the harbor.
My hair rising like smoke from the car window.
Littleneck clams out of season.
She is more than that. She is your have to have,
has grown you your practical your tropical growth.
This is not an experiment. She is all harmony.
She sees to oars and oarlocks for the dinghy,
has placed wild flowers at the window at breakfast,
sat by the potter's wheel at midday,
set forth three children under the moon,
three cherubs drawn by Michelangelo,
done this with her legs spread out
in the terrible months in the chapel.
If you glance up, the children are there
like delicate balloons resting on the ceiling.
She has also carried each one down the hall
after supper, their heads privately bent,
two legs protesting, person to person,
her face flushed with a song and their little sleep.
I give you back your heart.
I give you permission -
for the fuse inside her, throbbing
angrily in the dirt, for the bitch in her
and the burying of her wound -
for the burying of her small red wound alive -
for the pale flickering flare under her ribs,
for the drunken sailor who waits in her left pulse,
for the mother's knee, for the stocking,
for the garter belt, for the call -
the curious call
when you will burrow in arms and breasts
and tug at the orange ribbon in her hair
and answer the call, the curious call.
She is so naked and singular
She is the sum of yourself and your dream.
Climb her like a monument, step after step.
She is solid.
As for me, I am a watercolor.
I wash off.
Sexton's poem has erotic undertones and revolves around quite a traditionally scandalous relationship. 'For My Lover, Returning To His Wife' was published in 1968. This was the time of the sexual revolution in 1960s America.
The sexual revolution in America began in the 1960s and lasted into the 1970s. It also spread to many other parts of the Western world. This period of time is characterised by its emphasis on sexual liberation. Society began to be more open about sex. Non-traditional sexual relationships became gradually more acceptable.
'For My Lover, Returning To His Wife' was written and published in the context of this time period. It openly discusses an unfaithful marriage from the perspective of a mistress who does not seem particularly ashamed. Rather, she seems jealous that she cannot be the woman that her lover's wife is. The open discussion of these issues can be seen as part of the sexual liberation movement.
However, Sexton may be showing the dangers of this kind of relationship too. The mistress ends the poem hurt and alone, while her lover can simply return to his devoted wife. It seems the man is absolved of all blame. The mistress also idealises her lover's wife. This woman seems to represent a more traditional womanhood. Sexton can be seen as questioning the sexual revolution too in this poem.
This poem fits under the genre of confessional poetry. Anne Sexton is now recognised as one of the pioneering poets of the genre.
Confessional poetry usually focuses on the personal issues of the narrator and is in the first person. It is honest and intimate. This is because poetry of this genre tends to reflect autobiographical elements of the poet's life. It often deals with taboo or psychological topics. These can range from mental illness to drug abuse to sexuality. Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell are both famous for their confessional poetry.
'For My Lover, Returning To His Wife' is from the narrator's perspective, using the 'I' pronoun. It is very focused on what she is struggling with. This is her connection to her lover and the jealousy she feels for his seemingly perfect wife. Despite the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the discussed topics of sexuality and infidelity would have been considered taboo in much of mainstream society in 1968.
We will now analyse Sexton's poem in more depth to help us understand it better.
As explored, 'For My Lover, Returning To His Wife' is a confessional poem. This genre does not have any set metre or rhyme scheme, and neither does Sexton's poem.
Metre is the pattern or structure of rhyme and beats in a poem. This can be judged by the amount of stressed and unstressed syllables in a poetic line. Some poems follow a recognised metre, like iambic pentameter, while others are in free verse and follow no specific structure.
Sexton's poem is also technically free verse. It is also not organised into stanzas, it is in one block of text. The poem is in the first person and is addressing a 'you' figure which, as seen from the title, is the narrator's lover.
Let's now take a look at the poetic devices Sexton uses in her poem.
'For My Lover, Returning To His Wife' makes use of the device of anaphora.
Anaphora is a poetic device in which repetition is used. It involves repeating a word or phrase at the beginning of successive lines in a poem. Its function is to emphasise what is being repeated.
In her poem, Sexton begins ten lines with the word 'she'. This pronoun refers to the wife of the narrator's lover. Doing this places a great deal of emphasis on the importance of this woman to the poem. She is central and the narrator is focused on her. The narrator imagines what this woman is like and what kind of wife she is to her husband. The mistress seems to believe that this woman is more deserving of the love of the man they have both been romantically involved with. Sexton's poem comes close to showing the narrator as obsessed with her lover's wife.
Sexton also extensively utilises metaphor in 'For My Lover, Returning To His Wife'.
Metaphor is when figurative language is used to describe an object as something else. The object can often be described as something typically seen as unrelated. The phrase 'heart of gold' is an example of a metaphor. This means a good-hearted and kind person.
Sexton uses many metaphors in her poem. The mistress uses them both to describe herself and her lover's wife. There is a stark contrast between these two sets of metaphors. The mistress uses the metaphor 'fireworks in the dull middle of February' to depict her lover's wife. This is a positive description that suggests excitement and passion. In contrast, the narrator uses the metaphor of 'Littleneck clams out of season' for herself. The suggestion in using this phrase is that, for her lover, she has been an enjoyable luxury, but one that is fleeting and impermanent.
This is further reflected in the closing section of 'For My Lover, Returning To His Wife'. The narrator describes herself as a 'watercolour' that will merely wash away. She is placing emphasis on the fact that her place in her lover's life has ended and she will no longer be part of it. She is not a permanent fixture in his life like his wife is. The narrator seems sad but accepting of this reality.
Throughout 'For My Lover, Returning To His Wife', Sexton's narrator uses a great deal of imagery to paint a picture of this wife that she is jealous of and has been competing against.
The first image that the mistress figure gives of her lover's wife can be seen below.
She was melted carefully down for you
and cast up from your childhood,
cast up from your one hundred favorite aggies. (ll. 2-4)
Sexton's narrator creates an image of her lover's wife being specifically created for him. She has been cast from his favourite aggies.
Aggies is a nickname for a kind of marble that is made out of the material agate.
This is essentially an image of the wife of the narrator's lover as a marble statue that has been built for him out of everything he loves. This creates an idealised image of this woman. It also gives the impression that she is real and solid in her husband's life. As Sexton reveals throughout her poem, these are all the traits that the narrator feels she lacks.
The mistress also creates an image of her lover's wife as a perfect mother. This can be seen in the below section.
She has also carried each one down the hall
after supper, their heads privately bent,
two legs protesting, person to person,
her face flushed with a song and their little sleep. (ll. 25-28)
Despite not being privy to it, the narrator creates a very specific and detailed image of the home life she believes her lover and his wife share. This particular image paints the figure of the wife as a loving and dedicated mother. The narrator depicts her as carrying her children to bed after dinner, caring for and singing to them. It could be that the narrator feels guilt over this image because she is keeping her lover from his seemingly perfect family. However, her tone suggests that her true issue is that she feels as though she can never compete with this woman. Her lover is forever bonded to this woman because they share children. She is also a perfect and dedicated mother.
Let's now take a look at the tone present in 'For My Lover, Returning To His Wife'.
The tone of a poem refers to the mood and atmosphere that is created by the narrator's voice.
Sexton's poem has a tone of jealousy throughout. The narrator is clearly envious of her lover's wife as she sees her as the perfect woman who will always have her husband's heart. This can be seen in the variety of images and language the narrator uses that portray this woman in a very positive way.
The tone of this poem can also be seen as resigned and accepting. The mistress is aware that her lover is returning to his wife and she will be left alone. But she seems to accept her fate. She recognises the bond and love this husband and wife share together. The narrator tells her lover 'I give you back your heart'. This line shows that she is not going to fight for her lover to stay. All of this gives 'For My Lover, Returning To His Wife' quite a melancholy tone also.
We will now look at some of the most important themes in Anne Sexton's poem.
Unfaithfulness in marriage is clearly key in a poem such as 'For My Lover, Returning To His Wife'. The poem is told from the perspective of a mistress, reflecting on the relationship between her lover and his wife. Sexton's poem is quite unusual in the way in which it deals with infidelity.
The mistress spends a great deal of the poem describing how perfect and loving her lover's wife is. She is a devoted mother. The narrator believes she was specially made for her husband. In having an affair, the figure of the husband is betraying this seemingly perfect woman. There is little shame or guilt in Sexton's poem over this. There is also no discussion over how this cheating may impact the couple's three young children. The narrator focuses much more on the loss she feels as her lover returns to his wife.
It is also important to note that the husband's infidelity has the potential to hurt both women in his life. His wife would clearly be hurt by the knowledge that he has been unfaithful. It is unclear if she does know about what has happened. The narrator's imagined scenes of their reunion suggests she does not. The mistress is also hurt by the fact that she is now being left alone after sharing intimacy with this man. Sexton is showing that the husband is the only one not impacted by this relationship. He was able to have the pleasure of an affair and is now able to return to his loving wife and children.
Do you think Sexton is saying something about gender inequality by showing the husband as unaffected by his affair?
Love is another key theme in Sexton's poem. Two different kinds of love are contrasted by the narrator. One is between the narrator and her lover. The other is between the narrator's lover and his wife.
The love between the narrator's lover and his wife is much more focused on in the poem. It features heavily as the narrator almost obsesses over it. She emphasises the deep emotional connection that the couple share. Addressing her lover, the narrator uses the below quote to describe her lover's wife.
She is the sum of yourself and your dream. (l. 44)
This depiction shows how much love the husband and wife have between them. This can also explain why the narrator's lover will always inevitably return to his wife. They are too deeply connected to ever really break apart. The narrator emphasises the couple's emotional, spiritual, and physical compatibility.
On the other hand, very little is shared about the relationship between the narrator and her lover. She does not give detailed descriptions of their relationship as she does about the one between her lover and his wife. The narrator's idealisation of the wife makes it clear that she thinks her love will never compare. The narrator tells her lover in this poem that she is giving his heart back to him. This suggests that they did share a kind of love but not one strong enough to keep him from returning to his wife.
Anne Sexton was born Anne Gray Harvey on 9th November 1928 in Massachusetts. Sexton attended public schools and did not move on to university. She eloped with Alfred Muller Sexton in 1948. The couple would go on to have two daughters and remained married until 1973.
Sexton did not begin writing poetry until the age of twenty-eight. This was recommended to her by her therapist as an outlet. After the birth of her first daughter, Sexton began to suffer from post-partum depression. This depression is brought on by giving birth. She would struggle with mental health issues for the rest of her life. It is now believed that Sexton likely had bipolar disorder. She spent much time in and out of mental hospitals. One instance involved Sexton's children being taken away from her for their own safety.
Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition. This illness usually involves drastic mood swings and emotional instability. Those that suffer from bipolar may rapidly go from a depressed low to a manic high.
Sexton became very invested in her poetic writing, becoming involved in poetry workshops and classes. She met many influential poets like W.D. Snodgrass and Sylvia Plath who helped her with her work. As she began to publish, Sexton gained quick popularity. Within twelve years of her first publication, she had won the Pulitzer Prize. Some of Anne Sexton's best-known works include All my Pretty Ones (1962), Sylvia's Death (1963), and The Ambition Bird (1972).
Sexton often depicted her struggles with mental illness in great detail in her work. She also wrote on taboo topics such as sexuality. Sexton had feminist leanings and wrote on the issues of abortion and menstruation. At her time of writing and despite her popularity, these were very controversial topics. Today, many see Anne Sexton as a pioneering figure for writing as openly and honestly as she did.
Sexton's mental health issues continued to plague her into middle age. By 1974, she was divorced from her husband and neither of her daughters lived at home. It is thought Sexton became increasingly lonely. She committed suicide on 4th October 1974 at the age of forty-five.
This poem is about the complications of infidelity as told by a mistress.
It was written in 1968.
Anne Sexton wrote this poem.
Infidelity and love are two main themes in this poem.
Anaphora and metaphor are used in this poem.
When was 'For My Lover, Returning To His Wife' written?
What are two key themes in Sexton's poem?
Infidelity and love.
What two poetic devices are used in 'For My Lover, Returning To His Wife'?
Metaphor and anaphora.
What element of historical context is important to remember for Sexton's poem?
The sexual revolution of the 1960s.
What kind of poem is 'For My Lover, Returning To His Wife'?
What can Sexton's poem be classified as because it has no set metre or rhyme scheme?
What are two key images in Sexton's poem?
The wife as a statue and the wife as an ideal mother.
What can the tone of 'For My Lover, Returning To His Wife' be described as?
Jealous, resigned, melancholy.
Can you define anaphora?
Anaphora is a poetic device that repeats a word or phrase in successive lines in a poem.
How does the narrator see herself in her lover's life?
She sees herself as transitory and impermanent.
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