Pain for a Daughter

Anne Sexton

‘Pain for a Daughter’ by Anne Sexton is about a mother’s internal conversations while witnessing her daughter’s metamorphosis into a young adult.

Anne Sexton

Nationality: American

Anne Sexton was a well-loved confessional poet.

She was a bold, introspective poet who confronted taboos with unflinching verse.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: Life is full of both pain and beauty

Speaker: A mother

Emotions Evoked: Compassion, Hope, Pain

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

'Pain for a Daughter' is a poignant exploration of the complex emotions associated with maturation, emphasizing the coexistence of pain and joy as integral components of personal growth.

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.


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.

Literary Devices

‘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.

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

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.

Stanza Two

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.

Stanza Three

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.

Stanza Four

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.


What is the theme of the poem ‘Pain for a Daughter?’

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.

When was ‘Pain for a Daughter’ published?

The poem ‘Pain for a Daughter’ was published on March 26, 1966.

Why is the poem titled ‘Pain for a Daughter?’

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.

In the poem ‘Pain for a Daughter,’ what does the line “her eyes glancing off me where I stand at the door, eyes locked on the ceiling, eyes of a stranger” mean?

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.

Similar Poetry

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.

Poetry+ Review Corner

Pain for a Daughter

Enhance your understanding of the poem's key elements with our exclusive review and critical analysis. Join Poetry+ to unlock this valuable content.

Anne Sexton

Anne Sexton is considered to be one of the most important and influential poets of the 20th century. Her poems are known for their raw honesty, their exploration of difficult topics, and the use of vivid imagery and symbolism. In comparison to her other poems, 'Pain for a Daughter' is a more personal and intimate work. Sexton often wrote about her own experiences as a mother, and this poem is no exception.
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20th Century

Though the poem is full of vivid imagery and emotion, it offers a unique perspective on the pain and joy of motherhood. However, one would argue that 'Pain for a Daughter' is not one of the best poems of the 20th century. The poem is repetitive and lacks the originality and complexity of Sexton's best work.
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While a notable work, this poem can be considered an average poem when viewed in the broader context of American poetry. Although it displays Sexton's introspective style and touches upon themes of love and anguish, it lacks the distinctive innovation and groundbreaking elements found in the works of many other American poets. While still possessing merit, the poem does not necessarily stand out as extraordinary when compared to the vast body of poetry produced by American poets throughout history.
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Anne Sexton's poem 'Pain for a Daughter' is a powerful and moving exploration of the pain of disappointment as the protagonist loses her horse. It reminds us that life is not always perfect and that even the most loving relationships are not immune to pain and suffering. The poem also suggests that as we age, we come to understand the concept of mortality, and the pain of loss is not as disappointing.
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This poem can be interpreted as a journey through emotions. The speaker experiences pain, loss, and grief as she watches her daughter grow up and eventually die. The poem ends with the speaker reflecting on the circle of life and how the experiences we have between birth and death make it worthwhile.
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Through its portrayal of the daughter's pain, the poem invites empathy from the reader, stirring a compassionate response. Also, the protagonist's character is shown to be highly sympathetic towards all kinds of creatures, be it horses or dogs. Moreover, the speaker's deep understanding and observation of the daughter's suffering evoke a sense of shared pain.
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This poem subtly addresses the theme of hope. Amidst the depiction of physical and emotional anguish, glimmers of hope emerge when after the death of her horse, the protagonist musters the courage to go and befriend her neighbor's horse. The poem suggests that pain can be transformative, leading to growth and resilience. The daughter's determination to face her pain and her unwavering spirit implies a sense of hope.
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This poem depicts pain in multiple dimensions. It portrays the literal physical pain endured by a daughter in the barn, vividly illustrating her injuries and their impact. The poem employs evocative imagery and figurative language to evoke a profound sense of the daughter's suffering. Moreover, it delves into the broader existential theme of life's inherent anguish. The speaker acknowledges pain as an unavoidable facet of existence, highlighting what the daughter will encounter during childbirth and her eventual demise.
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This poem explores the affection the protagonist holds for animals, particularly horses. The protagonist's deep compassion for these majestic and formidable creatures is evident as the loss of her cherished horse plunges her into a profound state of anguish. Horses, depicted as symbols of both grandeur and strength, evoke a complex tapestry of emotions for the girl, intertwining joy and pain. This portrayal underscores the intricate relationship between humans and animals, illuminating the depths of emotional connection and the transformative power they possess.
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The poem is about the care that a mother has for her daughter. The mother knows that her daughter will experience pain in her life, but she also knows that she will experience joy. The mother's care is expressed in her willingness to let her daughter go out into the world and experience all that it has to offer. The mother's care is also expressed in her willingness to be there for her daughter when she needs her. The poem is a reminder that care is not always about shielding someone from pain. Sometimes care is about giving someone the freedom to experience life, even if that means experiencing pain.
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This poem subtly explores the theme of childhood through its portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship. 'Pain for a Daughter' delves into the emotional terrain of the daughter's experiences, capturing the nuances of her experiences in childhood. Sexton adeptly explores the complexities of growing up, showcasing the interplay of love, pain, and growth.
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This poem explores the pain and fear that comes with being a mother. 'Pain for a Daughter' is written from the perspective of a mother who is watching her daughter grow up and face the challenges of life. The mother is filled with love for her daughter, but she is also afraid of what the future holds for her.
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Free Verse

This poem does not have a regular rhyme scheme or meter. 'Pain for a Daughter' uses a variety of poetic devices, such as imagery, metaphor, and simile, to create a detailed emotional experience for the reader. The poem's lack of a regular rhyme scheme or meter allows the reader to focus on the poem's meaning and emotion rather than on the rhythm of the poem.
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This poem is a prime example of a confessional poem. 'Pain for a Daughter' is deeply personal and honest and is also universal in its appeal and speaks to the experiences of mothers and daughters everywhere. Sexton was a pioneer of confessional poetry, and in this poem, she might be expressing her own fears for her daughter's future. She worries that her daughter will experience pain and suffering and wants to protect her from it. However, she also knows she cannot protect her daughter from everything.
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Deepti Sharma Poetry Expert
Deepti is a management graduate and a former entrepreneur who has a passion for poetry and literature. She reads, analyzes, and writes poetry, such as her published anthology 'Emotionally yours,' and has won many contest prizes for her poetry and literary fiction too.

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