‘Pain for a Daughter‘ by Anne Sexton is a meditation on the journey of growing up. The poem uses vivid imagery and symbolism to explore the pain and beauty of life and the pain of knowing that our children will go through both. The poem is a beautiful and honest submission of a mother to the reality of life and a powerful reminder that we are all connected by our shared experiences.
Explore Pain for a Daughter
‘Pain for a Daughter‘ by Anne Sexton delicately unravels the intricate experiences of the human journey, where the moments of joy and pain interlace, forging the circle of life.
The poem describes a young girl’s blind love for horses, and she metaphorically learns the pain of growing up when she is injured by a thoroughbred. As she screams in pain, her mother sees her life stretching out before her. At that moment, she realizes that her daughter will experience both joy and pain in her lifetime, and that will make this journey of life worthwhile for her daughter.
Structure and Form
‘Pain for a Daughter‘ is divided into four stanzas, each focusing on a different aspect of the daughter’s experience. The first stanza describes the daughter’s love of horses. The second one describes the daughter’s injury. The third stanza describes the daughter’s pain, and the fourth one describes the mother’s reaction to her daughter’s pain.
The poem is written in free verse, which means that it does not have a regular rhyme scheme or meter. This allows the poem to flow more naturally and to capture the emotional intensity of the speaker’s experience.
‘Pain for a Daughter’ has vivid imagery, which helps the reader to visualize the daughter’s love of horses, her injury, her pain, and the mother’s reaction to the daughter’s pain. For example, in the first stanza, the speaker describes the daughter’s love of horses as “blind with love.” This image helps the reader to understand the intensity of the daughter’s love for horses.
The poem also uses a variety of figurative language devices, such as similes and personification. For instance, in the second stanza, the mother compares the thoroughbred to a building. This simile helps the reader understand the horse’s size and weight. Further, in line 28, “Three toenails swirled like shells,” here, the personification gives the toenails the ability to swirl. This helps the reader to visualize the extent of the daughter’s injury.
The poem also uses a variety of rhetorical devices, such as symbolism, repetition, and parallelism. For example, every stanza begins with the word “Blind” This repetition creates a dramatic effect to make readers understand the intensity of the pain the girl is going through at different points in time. Poet also used symbolism well. For example, the horse in the poem can figuratively be compared to life’s challenges.
As far as the example of parallelism is concerned, it’s well evident in the lines, “He rested there like a building. He grew into her foot until they were one.” These two lines are parallel in structure and meaning. The first line compares the thoroughbred’s weight to a building. The second line then expands on this comparison, saying that the horse grew into the daughter’s foot until they were one. This parallelism helps create a sense of weight and power in the poem and emphasizes the severity of the daughter’s injury.
Blind with love, my daughter
has cried nightly for horses,
those long-necked marchers and churners
that she has mastered, any and all,
Gritting her teeth with love,
she drained the boil and scoured it
with hydrogen peroxide until pus
ran like milk on the barn floor
‘Pain for a Daughter‘ begins with introducing the speaker’s daughter, who is described as being ‘blind with love.’ This metaphor suggests that the daughter’s love for horses is so intense that it blinds her to the dangers involved. Further, the poet says the daughter has been crying ceaselessly for horses. This suggests that her love for horses is a source of both joy and pain to her.
The imagery in the lines “long-necked marchers and churners” and “the excitable muscles and the ripe neck” shows her horses are powerful and majestic creatures. Further, the poet adds that she is a skilled rider as she has mastered horses of all kinds. She compares the daughter to a circus hand, suggesting that she can easily control horses. Further, the poet also mentions that the daughter is responsible and caring as she tends to a pony and a foal in the summers.
The eighth line introduces a contrast to the daughter’s love of horses. We learn she is “too squeamish to pull” a thorn from a dog’s paw. This suggests that she is vulnerable and compassionate to all species. Further, the poet tells us that the daughter’s pony became sick with distemper, a serious disease that can be fatal to horses. In this, the jaw swells like a grape, making it difficult for the horse to eat.
Next, in the line, “Gritting her teeth with love,” the poet shows that the daughter is determined to help her pony, even though it is painful to see it suffer. She cleaned the boil with hydrogen peroxide, establishing that she is a skilled and compassionate caregiver, even when the imagery ‘ran like milk on the barn floor’ suggests that the disease is disgusting and repulsive.
Overall, this first stanza explores the themes of love, pain, and compassion, and it is a powerful and moving piece of writing. It is full of vivid imagery that helps the reader to visualize everything that is happening. Also, personification is used beautifully. For example, in the line, “The underside of the jaw swelling like an enormous grape,” the poet says that the jaw has the ability to swell, showing that the disease is grotesque and frightening.
Blind with loss all winter,
in dungarees, a ski jacket and a hard hat,
she visits the neighbors’ stable,
that she tugs at and cajoles,
thinking it will burn like a furnace
under her small-hipped English seat.
The second stanza starts with the manifestation of the daughter’s loss, suggesting that the girl’s horse has died, and she is grieving. She longs for her horse, and in her winter gear, she visits a neighbor’s barn, as hers is empty now. The following line tells us that the neighbors have the most beautiful horses. The imagery, “swan-whipped thoroughbred,” suggests that the neighbor’s horse is graceful and elegant.
The seventh line tells us that the daughter tugs at and cajoles the thoroughbred, suggesting that she is trying to win the neighbor’s horse’s trust. The following line, “thinking it will burn like a furnace, under her small-hipped English seat.” says that the daughter sees the horse as a source of power and energy and wants to feel the rush when she rides it.
In a nutshell, in this stanza, the speaker’s daughter is still grieving the loss of her horse, but she is also trying to move on. She visits the neighbors’ stable, drawn to the horses there. She is particularly drawn to the thoroughbred. She hopes that by befriending the thoroughbred, she can heal her broken heart.
Here also poet has used a score of imagery and metaphor, which helps to create a vivid picture of the daughter’s grief and her hope for the future. The horses are described as “flaming” and “swan-whipped,” which tells us their beauty and power. The daughter is described as “small-hipped” and “English,” which tells her youth and her privilege.
Blind with pain she limps home
the thoroughbred has stood on her foot.
He rested there like a building.
ripped off like pieces of leather,
three toenails swirled like shells
and left to float in blood in her riding boot.
The opening line of this stanza, ‘Blind with pain she limps home,” immediately establishes the severity of the daughter’s injury. The word ‘blind’ suggests that the daughter is so overwhelmed with pain that she is unable to see. The word ‘limps’ suggests that she is in a great deal of pain and is unable to walk normally.
The following lines continue to build on this image of pain and suffering. The poet compares the horse to a building, suggesting its size and weight. The phrase “horseshoe printed” shows that the injury is deep and that the daughter will be scarred. The final line of the stanza, “three toenails swirled like shells and left to float in blood in her riding boot,” is particularly gruesome and suggests the extent of the daughter’s pain and suffering.
In this stanza, the poet’s use of imagery is effective in conveying the daughter’s pain in a way that is both visceral and physical. For example, “The marks of the horseshoe printed into her flesh.” This literal description of the injury suggests the depth of the pain. Also, the metaphor in ‘the tips of her toes ripped off like pieces of leather, suggests the severity of the physical pain.
Blind with fear, she sits on the toilet,
her foot balanced over the washbasin,
her father, hydrogen peroxide in hand,
I saw her torn in childbirth,
and I saw her, at that moment,
in her own death and I knew that she
In this last stanza, Anne Sexton skillfully explores the mother’s perspective as she contemplates the episode within the broader tapestry of life. In the first line, through vivid imagery, Sexton establishes the protagonist’s overwhelming fear and vulnerability as she is sitting on the toilet and her foot is balanced over the washbasin while in extreme pain. These mundane details starkly contrast with the intensity of emotions conveyed. The presence of the father holding hydrogen peroxide suggests a potential closeness between father and daughter, while the protagonist’s biting on a towel and arching against pain vividly portrays her physical suffering.
Further, the poet’s juxtaposition of the protagonist’s cry for God instead of her expected cry for her mother emphasizes the loss of innocence and introduces religious imagery that adds emotional depth to the scene. It reveals a shifting emotional dependence from the maternal figure to a divine presence, marking a significant aspect of growing up and facing suffering.
The stanza’s conclusion finds the mother, positioned as the speaker, experiencing a sense of detachment. She perceives her daughter’s eyes as those of a stranger, highlighting the profound isolation and disconnection within the scene. As the mother witnesses her daughter’s vulnerability, she envisions the future struggles that lie ahead, including childbirth and the inevitable reality of mortality. This moment of realization underscores the mother’s own understanding of the immense pain her daughter endures and the universal truth of human fragility.
In summary, this last stanza from Anne Sexton’s poem creates a vivid and emotionally charged scene. Through evocative language and imagery, Sexton explores themes of fear, pain, and isolation. The juxtaposition of mundane details with intense emotions and the use of religious imagery further enhance the poem’s impact.
The theme of the poem ‘Pain for a Daughter’ is the pain of growing up. The protagonist is a child who is full of love and passion. She is willing to take risks and to face challenges. However, she is also vulnerable to pain. The poem shows that growing up is not easy, but it is also a journey of growth and strength.
The poem ‘Pain for a Daughter’ was published on March 26, 1966.
The poem ‘Pain for a Daughter’ is titled as such because it explores the pain that a mother feels for her daughter. It begins with the mother watching her daughter suffer due to her love for horses. Then it goes on to explore the different types of pain that she feels for her daughter, including the pain of childbirth, the pain of watching her daughter grow up, and the pain of knowing that her daughter will eventually die.
This line in the poem is the description of the daughter’s eyes that, suggests that she is in a state of shock and dissociation.
Readers who enjoyed this poem analysis liked these poems about parents and their offspring too:
- ‘Fear‘ by Gabriela Mistral – a passionate poem about a mother’s hopes for her daughter’s future.
- ‘The Lost Woman‘ by Patricia Beer – It is a poem about the relationship between a daughter and her mother, examining her life and death.
- ‘Missing my Daughter‘ by Stephen Spender – is a poem about a speaker’s desire to see his daughter and how he feels trapped in a prison of loneliness.