‘After Auschwitz’ is six stanzas long with stanzas numbering 8, 2, 8, 2, 12, 1 and there is no rhyme scheme. The poem is a reaction piece, written by a speaker that is filled with anger over the atrocities committed by the Nazis, and more specifically man, during the holocaust. She speaks about her anger, and how it fills her daily; that death does not care about what’s happening and does not take those who really deserve it.
She spends the rest of the poem passing judgment on these men, deciding that they should no longer be worshiped like “temples” or have any agency in their own lives, all in an attempt to stop something like this from happening again. The speaker ends the poem by hoping that God has not heard all she has said allowed, perhaps fearing she is becoming like the men she condemns. You can read the full poem here.
After Auschwitz Analysis
as black as a hook,
and sauteed him for breakfast
in his frying pan.
The first stanza of ‘After Auschwitz’ is eight lines long. The first line is a single word, “anger.” This will be the overall feeling of this piece, each line and stanza is imbued with anger. The speaker is describing how every day when she wakes anger consumes her, it is “black as a hook.” It is cold and dark and violent.
Where this anger comes from is described in the second half of this stanza. She remembers the Nazis and their treatment of those deemed lesser. She gives a hyperbolic statement in which she describes how every day, every Nazi,
took, at 8:00 A.M., a baby
and sautéed him for breakfast
While this might be an exaggerated description of the cruelty of the Nazi regime, it is not far off. It is used as an attention-grabbing statement right at the beginning of the poem. Sexton picked this example as what would be the most likely to anger a reader and allow them to feel what she is feeling, whether they normally think about the Nazis or not.
And death looks on with a casual eye
and picks at the dirt under his fingernail.
The second stanza is short, only two lines of the same thing. The way these two lines are framed will be repeated once more in this piece. They act as a kind of refrain, a reminder of “death” and his place in this story.
Death is described as looking on at the scene, “with a casual eye.” The deaths he is observing of innocent life do not bother him. He takes no action to stop the Nazis in their child murder. He shows his disregard by picking
…at the dirt under his fingernails.
Man is evil,
I say aloud.
is a bird full of mud,
I say aloud.
This third stanza is again eight lines. In this stanza, the speaker is passing judgment on the man and stating what she believes should be done about him. She says aloud, “Man is evil,” and that he is a
that should be burnt,
I say aloud.
She is not ashamed, or shy, about these opinions. She announces them openly and wants the speaker to know that. She is the opposite of, but also taking on the role, of death in this stanza and the rest of the poem. While she believes it is death’s place to take life and decide who should die, he does nothing, so she must act.
She calls man, “…a flower / that should be burnt.” Man has been something beautiful, a flower that was once full of life, but no longer should his outward beauty be a reason not to destroy him.
She takes another three lines here to describe man, now, as a
…bird full of mud,
Once again she says this aloud, making sure the world knows her opinions. Man is compared to another form of life that is cherished and look on as harmless, a bird. But this bird is full of mud, it is rotting from the inside out and needs to be destroyed, just as the flower did.
Man with his small pink toes,
with his miraculous fingers
Never. Never. Never. Never. Never.
I say those things aloud.
This fourth stanza of ‘After Auschwitz’ is a repetition of the second stanza. Once again death described as looking on at the scene, “with a casual eye.” He does not regard what the Nazis are doing as anything to be outraged at or get excited about. He goes about his life normally and, “scratches his anus.” An act emphasized to show his substantial lack of care about what he is observing. An act even more casual and undisturbed then picking at fingernails.
The fifth is the longest stanza of the poem at twelve lines. The speaker uses this section of the poem to further demean the image of man and stomp on the most innocent parts of man’s body and actions.
She begins by speaking of man’s “small pink toes” and “miraculous fingers.” She is bringing attention to the parts of a man’s body that separate him from his closest non-human animal relatives. But these parts of the body are not a temple, she says,
but an outhouse
Once more she makes sure to emphasize that she is speaking aloud. Letting the world know her opinion. One should not worship man for his ability and beauty but condemn him, her comparison of him to an outhouse demeans him.
The next four lines are decrees she makes regarding what men should no longer be allowed to do.
Let man never again raise his teacup.
He shall no longer live in the luxury of dining with fine china. His world of pleasure and good fortune, she says, should end.
The speaker continues on to say that man should no longer be allowed to write books. Their thoughts and ideas should no longer be made public (unlike her own). She believes that without books to spread their thoughts, groups like the Nazis would no longer form. Dangerous ideas would have no place to root.
Her third demand,
Let man never again put on his shoe.
He should no longer have agency, be able, or allowed to dress. This strips him of his ability to go anywhere he wants without assistance or permission. His life is no longer his own to determine.
The fourth demand the speaker makes is that he should never again be able or allowed to “raise his eyes.” He will command no respect, he will not be able to look anyone else in the eye. With this downcast look, he will be subservient.
All of these things he will not be able to do, “on a soft July night.” Or presumably any night, all in the hope of keeping the holocaust, and events similar that have occurred or will occur, from ever happening again.
The eleventh line of this stanza emphasizes this point, the speaker repeats the word “Never” five times. Solidifying her opinion and the judgment she has passed.
This stanza ends with the repetition of the phrase,
I say those things aloud.
I beg the Lord not to hear.
The final line of ‘After Auschwitz’ stands alone. After the strength of her demands throughout this piece and the way she emphasized the fact that she is speaking aloud, the last line comes as a surprise. She is begging the Lord not to hear her. She has said all of these things aloud but is ashamed of them. Perhaps she is feeling as if she’s coming to similar to the men she is condemning. She determines their lives as they determined the lives of others in sweeping generalizations.
About Anne Sexton
Anne Sexton, born Anne Gray Harvey 1928, lived her early life in Massachusetts. She married at the age of nineteen after attending Junior College for one year. In 1953 she gave birth to a daughter and suffered from postpartum depression and her first mental breakdown. She spent time at Westwood Lodge, a neuropsychiatric hospital to which she would return after the birth of her second daughter in 1955. In that same year, on her own birthday, Sexton attempted suicide. IT was after this that she gained an interest in writing and love for poetry. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry in 1967 for Live or Die but seven years later she would commit suicide.