The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“All My Pretty Ones” is the title poem of Anne Sexton’s intensely confessional second book of poetry, All My Pretty Ones (1962), and it reflects that volume’s absorption with loss and death. This poem consists of five ten-line stanzas and resembles the form of most of the companion poems in the volume. The poem’s title comes from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606), when Macduff mourns the loss of his wife and children. In March of 1959, Anne Sexton’s mother died, followed in June of the same year by Sexton’s father. “All My Pretty Ones” is a monologue addressed to Sexton’s dead father as she sorts through her parents’ possessions.

In the first stanza, Sexton looks over her father’s meager “leftovers”: a key, some stock certificates, clothing, a car, his will, and a box of photographs. She is recording a moment that many children must endure: the closing of a parent’s affairs, the moment when the living children must literally discard artifacts not only of their parents’ lives but also of their own. She sees her task as one of helping her father to free himself from the tangles of his now past life. The stanza concludes with her decision to throw away the items that she has found.

In the second stanza, Sexton continues to gaze on the photographs in the box, wondering at the images she sees, unable to identify many of the now long-dead people with any degree of certainty. She looks at a...

(The entire section is 545 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

By using a fairly open line in “All My Pretty Ones,” Sexton achieves a conversational tone in this interior monologue. The rhyme scheme is ababcdcdee, which gives a strict form to the poem, but a form whose meter and structure does not intrude on what could be termed the rhythm of everyday speech. By making individual lines within a stanza fairly long, Sexton adds to the somber tone of this encounter with her dead father, his dead past, and the end of her childhood. This form also makes the lines and stanzas heavy: Sentences continue for several lines, weighing the poem down and adding to the feeling of sadness that Sexton achieves in her description of what may be her first articulation of being an adult orphan. Controlled form plays an important part in Sexton’s early poetry; the more difficult the emotional event, the tighter the form. In “All My Pretty Ones,” she uses the structure to give an external control to a powerful moment.

Of equal importance is the strong visual sense that Sexton imparts to the poem. Much of what she describes relates to seeing: images of her dead parents, artifacts that symbolize aspects of her father’s personality and life, pictures that freeze moments in her ancestors’ lives and in her immediate family’s past. Sexton offers a balanced description of these artifacts, allowing the reader to decide their importance to the woman who is sorting through the remnants of her parents’ lives. It is the...

(The entire section is 522 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Furst, Arthur. Anne Sexton: The Last Summer. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

Hall, Caroline King Barnard. Anne Sexton. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

McClatchy, J. D. Anne Sexton: The Artist and Her Critics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.

McGowan, Philip. Anne Sexton and Middle Generation Poetry: The Geography of Grief. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004.

Middlebrook, Diane Wood. Anne Sexton: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

Sexton, Linda Gray, and Lois Ames, eds. Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.

Swiontkowski, Gale. Imagining Incest: Sexton, Plath, Rich, and Olds on Life with Daddy. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 2003.

Wagner-Martin, Linda, ed. Critical Essays on Anne Sexton. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989.