"The Ax for the Frozen Sea within Us": Representations of Madness in the Writings of Anne Sexton

Goh, Sheri Kristen Kwee Hwa. 2015. "The Ax for the Frozen Sea within Us": Representations of Madness in the Writings of Anne Sexton. Masters thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

This dissertation examines how Anne Sexton wrote about and represented madness in her poetry and prose as well as in her public persona. Although Sexton began writing as a therapeutic exercise after a mental breakdown, and although she became a successful writer because of her brand of “asylum poetry, ” it is my assertion that her writing and public persona were symbolic representations through which she explored the concept of madness. Much effort has been put here on not reading the writings as evidence of Sexton’s psychopathology, but instead focusing on madness as one of many themes in her writing, her personal experiences a springboard from which she explored what she felt were universal issues. Sexton represented madness in her poetry first through the use of fixed verse forms as she learnt and mastered the craft of writing, but later in her career varied the style to use free verse and other experimental forms to explore madness in different ways. The mad poet was one of the first and major personae that she assumed in her writings, but there were other personae. Sexton invented and assumed the masks of other characters, such as family members, the witch/crone, characters in exile, and inanimate objects to explore what she referred to as greater “poetic truths. ” She also examined the problematic task of communication, especially the limitations of language in the conveyance of meaning. This is especially evident, I show, in the poems about her psychiatrist or where her personae address doctors. In addition to employing Sexton’s published writings and the work of other scholars and critics, this dissertation analyses Sexton’s archived materials at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and includes insights drawn from her unpublished writings, off-Broadway play, unpublished letters and lecture notes.

Item Type:

Thesis (Masters)

Identification Number (DOI):



Anne Sexton, Poetry, Literature, English Literature, Psychology, American Poetry, Madness, Twentieth Century, Psychotherapy, Psychoanalysis

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

English and Comparative Literature


19 January 2015

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

03 Feb 2015 13:43

Last Modified:

08 Sep 2022 11:30



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