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The Complete Poems Summary & Study Guide Description
The Complete Poems Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:
Anne Sexton as Poetic Speaker, appears in The Complete Poems
The vast majority of Sexton's poems are written in the first person, and so much of her work is autobiographical. Therefore, the main character in The Complete Poems is the speaker, which can usually be understood as representing Sexton, herself. This is a significant departure from so much of the poetry that preceded Sexton's time, and it is largely for this reason that she is labeled a confessional poet. If it was the author's goal to plumb the depths of her soul in search of poetic art, then it stands to reason that she would cast herself as the central figure in her work. Sexton does occasionally employ traditional literary characterization, most notably the fairy tale characters of Snow White, Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin, etc. in Transformations, although these usually represent various elements of the author's own psyche.
Sexton's poetic speaker might best be described as a morbid, playful romantic. She is, by degrees, willful, spirited, pessimistic, naive, jaded, and wise. She is girlish in Love Poems, parental in All My Pretty Ones, and defiant in Live Or Die. Indeed, as many elements as there are in Sexton's personality, there are in her speaker. She is also clinically depressed, and her ruminations on death and passing are at the heart of nearly all of The Complete Poems. The speaker does achieve a peaceful surrender toward the end of The Awful Rowing Toward God, and here we see a profound transformation take place inside someone who has struggled for a lifetime to understand mortality. If Sexton wishes to inspire empathy in the reader, she succeeds in this by bringing her own humanity to the character of her speaker.
Authority, appears in The Complete Poems
If one were to identify an antagonist in Sexton's work, it could most easily be found in the collective character of the forces of authority which govern the life of her speaker. While the reader might be inclined to label these forces as primarily patriarchal, it must be noted that mothers play an important, oppressive role as authority figures throughout The Complete Poems. Sexton's speaker is in constant confrontation with parents, therapists, teachers, lovers, religious leaders, and even more abstract authorities like God and Death. It is important to remember that Sexton is writing during a time of intense social turmoil, and that her poems are a product of their time insofar as they constantly question traditional power structures.
Sexton's own mother and father are often portrayed as abusive and neglectful, and indeed this seems to shape her opinion of many of the authorities in her life and work. In fact, the first poem in Sexton's first book, "You, Doctor Martin" from To Bedlam and Part Way Back, is a challenge to authority. Here, the author paints a portrait of a skilled but smug father figure in the psychotherapist which presides over her mental ward. While the speaker acknowledges that she needs this man's help, the poem suggests that she is wary of being treated like a child by yet another person who is controlling her life. The various kings and princes that inhabit the fairy tales of Transformations are also significant characters of authority, and Sexton comments satirically on the way in which they manipulate the lives of the fairy tale women. God himself, the ultimate authority, is portrayed as a manipulating, vindictive, puppeteer in the last poem of The Awful Rowing Toward God. This says a great deal about Sexton's attitudes about power and the way in which it is asserted into our lives.
Jesus Christ, appears in The Book of Folly
The character of Christ appears throughout Sexton's collection, but he is most notably portrayed in the section of The Book of Folly entitled "The Jesus Papers." In this series of poems, the author represents Christ alternately as egotistical, cunning, flawed, well meaning, and genuinely redemptive. Sexton demystifies the gospel stories by making Jesus both sympathetic and utterly human, although within this heresy she allows Christ to retain some of his divine qualities.
The Virgin Mary , appears in The Book of Folly
Mary appears in "The Jesus Papers" as well, although she too can be found throughout The Complete Poems. Her portrayal in this section is the most significant, however, as Sexton co-opts her identity during the book's final poem. Mary is represented as a victim of circumstance, but Sexton is quick to note that the Immaculate Conception gives the mother of Christ a powerful kind of proto-feminism. However, Mary is most effectively depicted as a heartbroken mother who must watch her son die at the hands of an angry mob.
Snow White, appears in Transformations
Sexton's Snow White is innocent and beautiful just as she is in the original story. In Transformations, however, she is also vapid, superficial, and dull-witted. This is less of a comment on the character herself and more of an attempt by the author to satirize the way in which female protagonists are portrayed in fairy tales. Snow White's only virtue is her beauty, and it is for this reason alone that the evil queen pursues her and the prince rescues her. She is a powerless symbol of dated femininity, propped up by the characters of the queen, the prince, and the dwarfs. Sexton suggests an irony in the fact that Snow White is the central character of a story in which she takes almost no discernible actions.
Rumpelstiltskin, appears in Transformations
Sexton uses the character of Rumpelstiltskin as a metaphor for the darkness that lurks inside everyone. He appears when his underhanded services are convenient, and he disappears afterward, returning later as a haunting reminder of past misdeeds. Sexton also makes Rumpelstiltskin a somewhat sympathetic character, highlighting his natural desire to nurture a child and the duplicitous manner in which he is deceived. He is an ugly dwarf, a marginalized member of society, and an outcast. Sexton plays upon these qualities to reinvent the story, making Rumpelstiltskin a misunderstood victim.
Mother Gothel, appears in Transformations
Mother Gothel is the witch in "Rapunzel" who keeps Rapunzel locked in a tower and who climbs the rope of her hair in order to spend time with her. Sexton intimates a sexual relationship between Mother Gothel and Rapunzel, which is destroyed by the appearance of Rapunzel's prince and the ensuing romance between the two. Mother Gothel is the central character in Sexton's version of the story because she is the most complicated. She is manipulative, obsessed and abusive, but her love of Rapunzel is genuine.
Cinderella, appears in Transformations
Sexton's Cinderella is portrayed almost exactly as she is in the original tale. She is virtuous, beautiful, and hard working. She is a sympathetic victim who struggles to find happiness in the form of a princely husband. The key difference between Sexton's story and that of the Brothers Grimm is the ending. The poet suggests that although Cinderella's wish has been granted in the form of marriage to a handsome prince, she is not ultimately happy. Sexton uses Cinderella as a metaphor for a society that would have women believe that satisfaction can only be found in traditional female roles.
The Twelve Dancing Princesses, appears in Transformations
The Twelve Dancing Princesses, who appear in the poem of the same name, mysteriously escape every evening from the room that they share in order to go dancing in an enchanted forest. They are caught by a clever soldier to whom the king has offered the choice of his daughters' hands in marriage, and the soldier eventually weds the eldest girl. The Twelve Dancing Princesses are significant because the represent a kind of wild feminine ideal for Sexton. They create their own happiness by subverting authority and acting out their raw emotional impulses.
Briar Rose, appears in Transformations
Briar Rose is the name of the princess in "Sleeping Beauty" who is pricked by a cursed spinning wheel and cast into a hundred-year sleep. She is released from this curse by a prince who kisses her and awakens her from the spell. In Sexton's version, Briar Rose does not live happily ever after, however. She becomes an insomniac who is afraid to sleep for fear of falling back into her former trance. At the end of this poem, Sexton switches from third to first person, assuming the identity of Briar Rose to tell of a series of abuses at the hands of her father, the king. Sexton uses Briar Rose as an alter ego for herself, and the hundred-year sleep becomes a metaphor for the author's own mental disorders.
This section contains 1,431 words
(approx. 4 pages at 400 words per page)