On the Motif of Suicide in the Poetry of Anne Sexton

Personal and Political Aspects

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2015

21 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1. Introduction

2. Main part
2.1 Anne SextonA Biography
2.2 Suicide in Anne Sexton's Poetry
2.2.1 Motifs Part I
2.2.2 Wanting to Die
2.2.3 Motifs Part II
2.3 The Personal is Political – Anne Sexton, Confessional Poetry and the Women’s Liberation Movement

3. Conclusion

4. Works Cited

1. Introduction

Anne Sexton A confessional poet or a neurotic exhibitionist? A bad housewife or a figurehead for following feminist movements? A suicide risk patient or a casualty of the American 1960's society?

It seems like every aspect of her live has been contradictory.

But still Anne Sexton is counted among the most influential American poets of modern times. She was raised in a society in which women could only reach feminine fulfilment by being the perfect suburban housewifehealthy, attractive and only concerned about her husband, children and the household. A society in which mental disorders and depression were seen as inappropriate behaviour or harmless housewife blues. A society in which thousands of women missed to meet those expectations and considered themselves as individual failures. Anne Sexton was one of them. Raised by callous parents, she found herself deeply depressed and overstrained in a household with a husband and two small children. What followed were several suicide attempts, psychiatric treatment and her so called rebirth at twenty-nine, when she started writing poetry, that was centred on her personal feelings and experiences.

What was intended to serve as a form of self-therapy was soon becoming a poetic confession dealing with topics many women and suicide patients had experienced but had been too afraid to talk about. To do something that was valued by others gave Anne Sexton a strong self-esteem, but also created a wide gap between her public representation and her personal state of being.

Critics were in disagreement whether she was groundbreaking confessional or narcissistic or completely insane. Or everything at once.

Dealing with such a complex personality a variety of questions come to mind: To what extent did Anne Sexton's biography influence her writing? Did writing poetry help her to overcome times of despair or did it even enhance her mental disorder? How is the topic of suicide depicted in her poems? Can Anne Sexton be considered as a forerunner for later feminist movements?

The following thesis aims to give answers to those questions and give an insight into Sexton's life and work.

First, I will give an overview of Anne Sexton's biography, concentrating on her childhood and youth, the beginning of her illness, the marriage and her other character as a poet. Further, I will focus on her poetry with special remarks on the motif of suicide. Due to the multiplicity of her works and an even greater amount of diverging analytical approaches, I am going to concentrate on a selection of concepts, including the aspect of guilt, escape from life, society, religion, love and spirituality. I will pay special attention to the poem Wanting to Die and examine the representation of suicide along the poem. Afterwards I am going to evaluate Sexton's influence as a confessional poet on feminist movements in the 1970's focussing on Carol Hanisch's The personal is politcal -paper for the Women's Liberation Movement.

At last I will draw a final conclusion evaluating the results of my research and making a connection to the questions above.

2. Main Part

2.1 Anne Sexton – A Biography

To understand her poetry and her deep fascination for death and psychoanalysis, it seems necessary to give an appropriate overview of Anne Sexton’s life.

Anne Gray Harvey was born on 9th Nov 1928 in Newton, Massachusetts. She was the daughter of Mary Gray Staples Harvey and Ralph Harvey. Mary grew up as a 'spoiled' only child. Her father was the publisher of a popular local newspaper and she, too, was considered a writer – even though she did not have great interest in writing or even publishing her own writings. At the time Mary and Ralph married he was already well established in the wool industry.1 They were the prime example for the time of the Roaring Twenties: attractive, prosperous, loud, hard-drinking and very popular among their friends.2

Anne was their third and last child. She neither had a strong emotional bond with her two older sisters Blanche and Jane because the three of them simply were too different charactersnor with her parents, because it was very hard for the children to gather their attention.3 The family was very formal, especially Ralph Harvey, who did not allow the children to eat with their parents if they weren't properly dressed, which was an enormous problem for the young and vivid Anne: “Her personal appearance consistently failed to meet her father's expectations.”4. At that time the only person Anne would rely on was her great-aunt Anna Ladd Dingley, nicknamed Nana, who was living together with the family.

Anne was not a good student and already at early age her teachers noticed psychological disorders in her behaviour and urged the family to conduct a psychotherapist, but Anne's parents decided to wait to keep the family's good reputation.5 Instead of learning the thirteen-year-old Anne spent more and more time on meeting boys.6 Her wish was to find a handsome husband, have children and a pretty house – to be the perfect suburban housewife, which was the typical wishful thinking of most young women of her generation.7

Approximately at the same time Ralph Harvey scored major success in his wool business and did not have to be on the road any longer. This triggered his excessive drinking and together with his wife's waywardness Ralph's drinking moods made it impossible for Anne to trust in her parent's love.8 That distrust manifested itself especially during Anne's first attempts to write poetry at Garland Junior College, when her mother accused her of plagiarism. As a result of this Anne left the college after one year and decided to not continue writing (for the following ten years).9

At the age of 19 she met Alfred Miller Sexton II, called Kayo and together, they eloped to North Carolina to marry, while Anne had already been engaged to another young man. Against later speculations the secret marriage was no act of social rebellion; until her first suicide attempt Anne Sexton lived a very conventional life and tried to fit into the role that was expected of her.

The American housewifefreed by science and labour-saving appliances from the drudgery, the dangers of childbirth and the illnesses of her grandmother. She was healthy, beautiful, educated, concerned only about her husband, her children, her home. She had found the feminine fulfilment.10

The first years of their marriage they spent at Kayo's parents' house. Already in 1951 – two years after the marriageAnne's new family noticed first signs of her mental disorder. She was “alternating between deep depression and extraordinary excitement within a few minutes.”11 Her mental constitution got worse after giving birth to her first child Linda Gray in 1953. One year later after the death of her beloved Nana Anne Sexton had her first mental breakdown.12 The whole situation collapsed with the birth of her second child only two years later: “ Anne was unprepared for the responsibility of another infant, an inquisitive two-year-old, a household and a husband; at twenty-seven, she felt she was drowning.”13 She attempted suicide on her birthday, was admitted to Westwood Lodge and got into therapy with Doctor Martin T. Orne. As Orne later proclaims, she had a “profound lack of self-worth” and was hardly struggling with her identity.14 Because of her bad memory and as a means of therapy Orne suggested her to write down what they were dealing with during the therapy sessions and so Anne Sexton started writing poetry for the second time in her life. For Anne it was more than a form of self-therapy, it was a new way to express herself: “That gave me a feeling of purpose, a little cause, something to do with my life, no matter how rotten I was.”15. The writing helped her to reflect her feelings in stirring situations and to gain more self-esteem. After realizing her potential Orne encouraged her to attend poetry workshops. In interviews Sexton had often described that time as her rebirth with twenty-nine.16 She attended a seminar at Boston University by Robert Lowell, where she met other poets like Sylvia Plath, Maxine Kumin and W.D. Snodgrass, who all became important to her, either as mentors or friends.17 It seemed like she found something she could identify with at a time, when average American women gloried their role as housewives.

By the time she felt her life would turn to the better, suddenly new strokes of fate hit her. Her mother died from breast cancer in March 1959, her father only two months later from a stroke; one year later her father-in-law George Sexton died in a car accident. Anne, again, underwent heavy feelings of guilt, as she had already experienced in 1956, when her great-aunt had died. She wrote about these feelings and her self-perception as the messenger of death in her poetry and, again, the fascination for her own death resurged. Controversially, in the very same year of her parents' deaths Sexton's poetry scored the first major success: the publication of To Bedlam and Partway Back and My Pretty Ones two years later brought her general popularity and more importantly admiration; something Anne had been striving to achieve for such a long time.18

Anne Sexton flüchtete sich auf der Suche nach neuen Lebensinhalten in die Psychose. Um sich nicht in der Psychose zu verlieren, rettete sie sich in die Dichtung. Das Unglück der Todesfälle trug zum psychoanalytischen Ansatz ihrer Dichtung bei, heilte sie einerseits und stürzt sie andererseits wiederholt in einen psychotischen Zusammenbruch.19

Another traumatic experience in Anne's life happened in 1964, when Dr Orne left Boston for another more promising job as a researcher and teacher in Philadelphia. After seven years of therapy Orne had become a key figure in Sexton's life. As Kayo was busy travelling for his job as a salesman Sexton started having affairs to deal with the loneliness she experienced; also with her new therapist Dr Zweizung [pseudonym]. They wrote letters and poems to each other of which some where published in Anne's later work Love Poems in 1969, the same year her lover brought the affair to an end, because of his wife.20

In the late 60's Sexton was at the height of her career: in 1967 she won the Pulitzer Price for Live or Die, in '69 her dramatic play Mercy Street was performed off-Broadway and in the same year she published Love Poems. But concurrently her physical and mental condition was getting worse. Not only was she on high medication because of her depression, but also addicted to alcohol and soporifics. Kayo was beating her and her affair with Zweizung had come to an end once and for all. Also her deep wish of taking her own life remained.

What followed were a collection of poems inspired by the brother Grimm's fairy tales called Transformations and her first prevailingly spiritual work Book of Folly.21 In 1973 Kayo and Anne got divorced after Kayo had started beating Linda. To cope with all the loss and her loneliness she escaped into spirituality, wrote Death Notebooks and one year later The Awful Rowing Toward God. On the day she and her publisher had worked on the last minor corrections of The Awful Rowing Toward God Anne had already stopped taking her medicine Thorazin for several weeks. On the very same day she put on her mother's fur-coat and together with a glass of vodka in her hand she started the engine of her car in the garage and waited until she died from the exhaust gas.22

2.2 Suicide in Anne Sexton's Poetry

2.2.1 Motifs Part I

Due to the fact, that suicide was the reason for Sexton to start writing poetry, a constant factor during her life and even seems to have been part of her death performance, makes it virtually impossible to analyse suicide in her poetry to an exhausting degree. Nonetheless, I will give a few examples for motifs and theories of the suicide remarks in her poetry, that for me personallyseem to be the most plausible, controversial or unusual approaches.

Between her first suicide attempt and her death Sexton wrote about 20 poems that were primarily dealing with her desire to die.23 But still the death theme is apparent in nearly all of her poems, “Once inside the closed world, there seems never to have been a time when one was not suicidal.[...] so the suicide feels he has always been preparing in secret for this last act.”24. Her motivations and perspectives alternate between a desired versus a feared death, a gentle versus a brutal death, being the survivor, the victim, the powerful illuminated25 and other contradictory delusions, but always united by one essential criterion: her outright acceptance of her own death.26

One of the aspects I would like to discuss in the context of death is the role of guilt in Sexton's early works. Guilt does not directly refer to her desire for death, but is the central link between her being the witness of the deaths of related persons and projecting her personal failure into the situation. This personalization, due to Danny Wedding, is a typical behaviour for people with depression and is one of several signs of cognitive distortions he detects in Sexton's poems. This experienced form of guilt is present in The Double Image, when the lyrical I describes her mother accusing her for giving her deadly breast cancer: “On the first day of September she looked at me/ and said I had given her cancer./ The carved her sweet hills out/ and still I couldn't answer.”.27 But feelings of guilt do not only rise accompanied by heavy personal loss, it even occurs in more general, arbitrary situations, as in Lament (“The girl across the street died of cancer this August/ […] I said that she ought to die/ […] why don't I keep my big mouth shut!/ […] I think I could have stopped it”) or even when the lyrical I witnesses the crucifixion of Jesus in For God while sleeping.28


1 Diane Wood Middlebrook: Anne SextonA Biography. Virago Press Limited, London. 1992. 4ff

2 Sibylle Duda: Wahnsinns Frauen 2. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 1996. 336

3 Middlebrook. 4ff

4 Middlebrook. 9

5 Monika Socha: Die Todesthematik im Lyrischen Werk Anne Sextons. Werner J. Röhrig Verlag, St. Ingberg, 1991. 25

6 Middlebrook. 15

7 Socha. 22

8 Middlebrook. 14

9 Middlebrook. 21 and David Lester & Rina Terry: The Use of Poetry Therapy: Lessons from the Life of Anne Sexton. In The Arts in Psychotherapy, Vol.19 pp.47-52, USA. 1992. 48

10 Betty Friedan: The Feminine Mystique. Qtd. In Socha. 22

11 Linda Gray Sexton & Lois Ames: Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters. Qtd. In Socha. 25

12 Lester & Terry. 48

13 Linda Gray Sexton & Lois Ames: Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters. Qtd. In Socha. 25

14 Middlebrook. XIII

15 Socha. 27

16 Middlebrook. 3

17 Middlebrook. 50

18 Socha 28ff

19 Socha. 31

20 Middlebrook. 213ff

21 Duda. 342ff

22 Duda. 350ff

23 Diana Hume George: Anne Sexton's Suicide Poems. In Journal of Popular Culture. 1984 Fall, Vol.18(2), pp.17-31. 1984. 21

24 Al Alvarez: The Savage God. Qtd in George.21

25 Socha. 79

26 Burton R. Solomon: “O My Hunger! My Hunger!”: Death in the Poetry of Anne Sexton. In Suicide and Life‐Threatening Behavior, Vol.2(4), pp.268-284, Harvard. 1972. 272

27 Danny Wedding: Cognitive Distortions in the Poetry of Anne Sexton. In Suicide and Life-Threatening Behaviour. 30 (2), pp.140-144. Human Sciences Press, New York. 2000. 143

28 Socha. 99ff

Excerpt out of 21 pages


On the Motif of Suicide in the Poetry of Anne Sexton
Personal and Political Aspects
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
anne sexton, poetry, lyrik, suicide, death poetry, USA, gender, politics, society
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Elena Mertel (Author), 2015, On the Motif of Suicide in the Poetry of Anne Sexton, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/464318


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