‘For My Lover Returning to His Wife’ by Anne Sexton is a forty-eight line poem that is contained within one block of text. Like most of her poems, this one does not contain a specific pattern of rhyme or rhythm. There are a number of moments of repetition, that help to unify the text though. Additionally, the poem is divided into two loose sections. The first is marked by a number of statements about the wife while the second is more concerned with how this situation is impacting the mistress.
Sexton made sparring yet impactful use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word at the beginning of multiple lines. It can be seen in the first eight lines with the repetition of “She.” This makes clear from the start that the speaker is very much concerned with her lover’s wife. Most of her thoughts revolve around what this woman is to the listener.
Repetition is also very prominent in lines 30-37. Within this section Sexton uses “for the” seven times. Her speaker is in the process of giving her lover permission to return to his wife without worrying about the ties that still exist between them. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of For My Lover Returning to His Wife
‘For My Lover Returning to His Wife’ by Anne Sexton contains a mistress’s description of the relationship between her lover and his wife.
The poem begins with the speaker describing how her lover has a great relationship with his wife. She thinks of the wife as having been crafted to fit into his life, a state of being the speaker should not compete with. This realization, along with a serious of imagined and emotional images of her lover’s relationship convinced her to let go of his heart. He should return completely to his wife he loves so much.
The poem concludes with the speaker referring to herself as “watercolor.” She will wash away easily, unlike the solid presence of the lover’s true partner.
Analysis of For My Lover Returning to His Wife
In the first section of the poem the speaker begins by making a short but impactful statement about the her lover’s wife. The woman is different from the speaker because she is “all there.” There is a solidity about the wife’s presence in the listener’s life that is vastly different from the role the speaker plays.
She goes on to list out all the reasons the listener should be more dedicated to his wife than he is to her. The first of these is that the woman was “melted carefully down for you.” Some higher power crafted this particular person to be the perfect lover and partner for the listener. She was melted down like a precious metal and then reformed into an “exquisite” wife.
The last lines present the wife in two different, but equally important ways. She is,
Fireworks in the dull middle of February
and as real as a cast-iron pot.
The wife seemingly has everything the lover could want. She is steadfast and she is exciting. The speaker clearly sees herself as being less than this. But this raises an important question. If the wife has every attribute a man could want in a woman, why did he start a relationship with the speaker?
In the next section of lines the speaker turns to her own part in the story. Up until this point she has been an observer. Now her influence is felt on the story. She sees herself as having “been momentary.’ Her place in his life was nothing more than a blip, a “luxury” that could not last forever. It seems as if the speaker was somewhere for the lover could go to indulge his baser urges and nothing more.
This is certainly how she sees the relationship. She describes it as a series of images. The first being the sight of her own hair,
[…] rising like smoke from the car window.
The time she spent with the listener was physical and fleeting. It was not long-lasting but instead resembled “Littleneck clams out of season,” an unusual luxury.
In the next lines she returns to her appraisal of the listener’s relationship with his wife. “She,” meaning the wife, is much more to the listener than just some delicious food. The wife is permanent and everlasting. She will always be present in “your” life and helps to maintain the “harmony” of the world.
The next lines present a few of the harmonious images the speaker relates the listener’s wife to. She sees this woman preparing the listener’s life for him as well as living one that is seemingly perfect. She sets out the “wild flowers at the window at breakfast” then goes on to sit “bv the potter’s wheel at midday.”
The wife has also given birth to three children, tying her even more integrally to the listener. They are perfect, as if they were “drawn by Michelangelo.” She gave birth just like Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel. The artist and the wife are one in the same, labouring for “terrible months in the chapel.”
The speaker takes the listener and her readers into the chapel itself. She tells them that if “you glance up” you would be able to see “the children…there.” They are like “balloons” resting peacefully against the ceiling.
The narrative returns to the real world and the speaker describes the woman caring for her children. She takes them from supper to the their bedrooms, comforting them and singing all the way.
The speaker makes an important statement at this point which marks a turning point in the poem. The 39th line is short stating only,
I give you back your heart.
Now that she has seen what kind of person the wife is, she knows that she can never live up to that standard. The two are so clearly perfect for one another that she is willing releasing her lover’s heart (or at least the portion he gave to her).
The next lines contain a great deal of repetition. She is listing out everything she wants the listener to do now that he is free of his affair. He will be able to go and resume his relationship. The marriage will return to its previously passionate state. Through these lines Sexton presents a variety of images which seek to portray, in their totality, the passion that exists between the two. There is a deep history of love, hurt, fear, and lust to contend with.
Eventually the narrative resumes and the speaker describes what she images their moments of intimacy are like. She sees her former lover pulling the “orange ribbon” from his wife’s hair and answering the “call” of her body. All of this will resume again, because she gave her permission. Although the speaker willingly ended the relationship she has maintained a sense of power, feeling as though she instigated the return of true love.
In the last six lines the speaker concludes her narration by returning to her own perception of the wife’s place in the lover’s life. The speaker describes her in the final lines as “solid,” as well as “naked and singular.” There is nothing contrived about what the two have together because the relationship is based on their mutual selves and dreams.
The final image is a striking one. The speaker sees herself as being “watercolor.” Her place in his life is incredibly temporary and washable, very unlike the solidity of the wife.