‘The Moss of His Skin‘ takes its inspiration from a historical tradition in “old Arabia” in which girls were buried alongside their dead fathers. The speaker was buried as a sacrifice, one she was apparently willing to be. The poem is likely to disturb some readers, especially as it comes to a close, and the young girl seems to relish the closeness of her father’s body.
Explore The Moss of His Skin
‘The Moss of His Skin’ by Anne Sexton is a powerful poem about a young girl’s death alongside her father’s body.
The poem describes a girl buried alongside her recently deceased father. Rather than fearing her death, she welcomes it. But in the terms that a child can understand. She doesn’t use the word “death” or “grave” at any time throughout the poem. This suggests she doesn’t quite understand what is happening to her. She ends the poem contended alongside her father, hiding from the eyes of her mother and sisters.
You can read the full poem here.
Before beginning this poem, it’s crucial to consider the epigraph Sexton included. It reads:
Young girls in old Arabia were often buried alive next to their dead fathers, apparently as sacrifice to the goddesses of the tribes …
Harold Feldman, “Children of the Desert”
Psychoanalysis and Psychoanalytic Review, Fall 1958
Here, she’s setting the scene for what’s to come while also providing some context for the events. This disturbing preamble to the poem should encourage the reader, out of curiosity alone, to continue on to the actual text.
It was only important
to smile and hold still,
to sink from the eyes of mother
and not to talk.
In the first lines of ‘The Moss of His Skin,’ the speaker begins by reciting directions that she’s been given. She’s found herself in a situation that mirrors that described in the epigraph. She’s been buried alongside her father. The only difference is that he’s dead, and she’s still alive.
She’s been told that she needs to smile and “hold still.” She needs to “lie down beside him / and to rest awhile.” These simple words disguise a much darker and scarier reality. She’s being buried alive, sacrificed after her father’s death. But, the speaker, who is either in denial or whose mind can’t quite comprehend what’s happening to her, describes her situation with a peaceful and even wistful tone.
There is an example of a simile in these lines with “to be folded up together / as if we were silk.” The phrase is used to describe what it was like when the two were buried next to one another, close, folded together, in a concerning and intimate way. Another thing she can’t do is talk as she sinks from the “eyes of” her mother. She’s headed into the ground, never to return.
The black room took us
like a cave or a mouth
or an indoor belly.
his teeth, his hair growing
like a field or a shawl.
In the next few lines, the speaker describes their grave as a “black room.” This is an example of a euphemism. Rather than “grave,” she says “black room.” It makes the situation easier to deal with. It’s like a “cave or a mouth / or an indoor belly.” These statements, again, show her innocence and her lack of knowledge or acceptance about her situation.
There, in the darkness, she was next to her father. The following lines use imagery to describe him and her experience of their closeness.
I lay by the moss
of his skin until
how I hold my daddy
like an old stone tree.
The final eight lines of ‘The Moss of His Skin’ suggest, again, the relationship between the two is up for interpretation and may feel incestuous, or at the very least abusive, to some readers. She holds her father there, underground, where no one can see, and no one will ever know. She was chosen over her sisters for an unknown reason. The only person she knows will see is “Allah.” But she pretends that her god has no knowledge of what’s going on between the two of them.
Structure and Form
‘The Moss of His Skin’ by Anne Sexton is a twenty-four-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines are written in free verse. This means that the poet did not use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern in order to structure them. Despite this, the lines are all close to the same length. This gives the poem a visual unity that’s compelling.
Sexton makes use of several literary devices throughout ‘The Moss of His Skin.’ These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: occurs when the writer cuts off a line before its natural stopping point—for example, the transition between lines one and two as well as lines three and four.
- Anaphora: occurs when the poet repeats the same word or words at the beginning of lines. For example, “to,” which starts lines two, three, five, and seven.
- Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sounds at the beginning of words. For example, “silk” and “sink” from lines six and seven, as well as “strange” and “sisters” in line nineteen.
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses particularly effective descriptions. These should trigger the reader’s senses, making a scene or feeling more real. For example, “his hair growing / like a field or a shawl.” This is also an example of a simile.
The meaning of ‘The Moss of His Skin’ is that some experiences with death and loss are quite different from others. For the young speaker, she’s happy to die alongside her father, but for most readers, this death is going to seem incredibly cruel and abusive.
The tone is resigned and peaceful. The speaker doesn’t seem to care that she’s been condemned to death or that she’s sure to die within the near future. She’s far more interested in her father and spending time with him.
The mood is concerned, contemplative, and perhaps even shocked, depending on the reader. The situation the young speaker is in is one that few readers are likely aware of, and it’s likely one will walk away from this poem disturbed by what they’ve read.
Sexton likely wrote ‘The Moss of His Skin’ in order to explore death and a very specific experience with it. Her depiction of the young girl’s experience is disturbing and unforgettable.
The speaker is a young girl, the daughter of a man who has recently died. She’s been selected to be buried, alive, alongside him. She’s Muslim, but little else is known about her. She seems unconcerned with her fate and far more interested in spending time with her father.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Moss of His Skin’ should also consider reading some other Anne Sexton poems. For example:
- ‘Cinderella’ – tells the story of Cinderella while also engaging with the theme of feminism and focusing on a very different ending.
- ‘Courage’ – conveys the different ways in which a person can show courage, ranging from the seemingly insignificant to the much more heroic.
- ‘The Truth the Dead Know’ – is an emotional poem that speaks about traditions and attitudes around death, as well as Sexton’s response to loss in her own life.