Some ghosts are women,
neither abstract nor pale,
their breasts as limp as killed fish.
Not witches, but ghosts
who come, moving their useless arms
like forsaken servants.

Not all ghosts are women,
I have seen others;
fat, white-bellied men,
wearing their genitals like old rags.
Not devils, but ghosts.
This one thumps barefoot, lurching
above my bed.

But that isn’t all.
Some ghosts are children.
Not angels, but ghosts;
curling like pink tea cups
on any pillow, or kicking,
showing their innocent bottoms, wailing
for Lucifer.

Analysis, meaning and summary of Anne Sexton's poem Ghosts

11 Comments

  1. yaso says:

    “Ghosts” is one of Sexton’s second collection of poems “All my pretty ones”. Sexton begins to write with less formal, but more initiative approach. The themes of this poem, the collection’s themes, are suffering, break down, and loneliness. “Ghosts” is autobiographical poem.

    General idea
    Sexton wrote this poem as a result of her divorce, sending her daughters to boarding school and her parent’s death. Consequently she lives alone in empty house. She is very depressed and desperate because of her bad state.

    Analysis
    *The first stanza
    Some ghosts are women,
    neither abstract nor pale,
    their breasts as limp as killed fish.
    Not witches, but ghosts
    who come, moving their useless arms
    like forsaken servants.

    Sexton begins to describe herself in this desolate house. Therefore she sees ghosts in every place in the house. At the first time, she sees these ghosts as women. May be “Some ghosts are women” these ghosts are the ghosts of her dead mother and dead aunt. By saying “their breasts as limp as killed fish” Sexton proves that these ghosts are dead people. She does not compare them to witches “Not witches, but ghosts”, because witches have special power, and these ghosts are very weak “their useless arms like forsaken servants”. They are also ostracized.

    *The second stanza
    Not all ghosts are women,
    I have seen others;
    fat, white-bellied men,
    wearing their genitals like old rags.
    Not devils, but ghosts.
    This one thumps barefoot, lurching
    above my bed.

    In this empty house, Sexton also sees ghosts of men who may be her dead father and ex-husband. She describes them with ugly features “fat, white bellied men”. Sexton may describe them with all these hideous features, because her husband divorced her and her father left her alone in this life. The evidence of their death is that their stomachs were bellied, and their genitals were worn. The reader can feel that Sexton dislikes these ghosts, men. They also dislike her, because they annoy her as she says “This one thumps barefoot, lurching above my bed”.

    *The third stanza
    But that isn’t all.
    Some ghosts are children.
    Not angels, but ghosts;
    curling like pink tea cups
    on any pillow, or kicking,
    showing their innocent bottoms, wailing
    for Lucifer.

    Ghosts are not only women and men, but also children “But that isn’t all” “Some ghosts are children”. These children may be her daughters who also left her. Sexton denies that these children can be angles “Not angles, but ghosts”, because angles are kind and nice. These ghosts, children, are crying for the devil “wailing for Lucifer”.

    Poetic technique
    Language
    Sexton uses a special language to make the reader feel her miserably life and her loneliness. She mentions the word “ghosts” seven times to prove her loneliness with all aspects of ghosts “women, men, and children”. She also uses bad and ugly characteristics to describe them, which show that Sexton does not like them
    Their breasts as limp as killed fish
    Who come, moving their useless arms
    Like forsaken servants
    Fat, white-bellied men
    Wearing their genitals like old rags
    (3, 5, 6, 9, 10)
    Sexton’s gloomy life imposes on her, knowing witches, devils and Lucifer. She also knows that these ghosts are neither devils nor witches, because they have nothing to do except annoying her.

    Imagery
    Images are not so many in this poem, because Sexton only describes her bad state. However, she uses some figures of speech to give the reader the whole image of her state, as she employs some similes
    • Simile
    their breasts as limp as killed fish.
    who come, moving their useless arms
    like forsaken servants.
    wearing their genitals like old rags.
    curling like pink tea cups
    (3, 5, 6, 10, 17)
    In these similes, Sexton compares ghosts to ugly and disgusting features. She also uses her favorite figure of speech, anaphora:
    • Anaphora in “Some ghosts are” and “not….., but ghosts” in every stanza.

    Musicality
    Sexton uses neither a lot of musical words nor rhyming in this poem, but there are some sound patterns and assonance.
    • Assonance “pillows, kicking”.
    (18)
    • Sound pattern
    neither abstract nor pale,
    Not witches, but ghosts
    Not angels, but ghosts;
    Not devils, but ghosts.
    (2, 4, 11, 16)
    Although these musical words are in few positions, they give the reader good musicality.

    Tone
    The major theme of “Ghosts” is loneliness which prevails on Sexton’s life. Consequently she uses sad tone, because of the atmosphere which the one can feel during reading or hearing this poem.

    Form
    “Ghosts” is a free verse poem that divides its eighteen lines into three sestets (six -line stanza).

    Conclusion
    Poets are very sensitive people. Sexton is evidence of that, because she well describes her bad state in this empty house. She can not forget her old life and her family. Therefore her mind creates these ghosts to live with them, and to feel that she lives among her family. However, the ghosts are very annoyed that she suffers from their existence. She also introduces the ghosts, her family, in bad appearance, because she may hate them in her deep mind.

  2. *JOY* says:

    This poem shows there is no other way to describe ghost but by using the word GHOST. It tells the reader that they can not be compared to angels or demons. Not only that but it also emphasizes that ghost can be of any shape and of any age…no restrictions…

  3. Figurelogics says:

    I’m fourteen and even though I’m forced to look up friendly critizisum for my College English 1 course, I have become fond of Anne Sexton, for I too write poetry.

  4. Ann says:

    Ghosts are shells of humans that once were. The human that she once was is “lurching above [her] bed” I feel she is desperate for a fulfillment, but she knows that she is not the only one suffering. “Not all ghosts are women.” Yes she was abused as a child and that defiantly influences her writing, but I don’t think that it is directly related to this poem. She knows that people are weary and sad about life. They are “not witches […] not devils […] not angels, but ghosts.” These beings no longer have power. They just float around, empty of satisfaction “wailing for Lucifer” to take their souls so they can have life back. They would sacrifice their souls to an eternity of hell to live again now.

  5. Michelle says:

    I do think she was mad. But because she was so brilliant. Like Edgar Allen Poe. I think this poem is speaking of “ghosts”; people who have nothing inside of them at the time. The man might have been her husband. The woman her. The child her as well. I don’t really think her being abused is to blame for this. I think it was her mind that drove her mad. She thought too much. But then again, I am not Anne, and I could be wildly wrong.

  6. student says:

    wow! that is really creepy. who talkes about women’s breast like limb fish??? also she must have a reason for all her writings i think that woman had have a big problem. and.. well.. she had problems.so it’s kind of scary, though.

  7. baby moon says:

    This poem intimidates me a little because even though it isn’t mine, even though I didn’t write it, it is personal.

  8. baby moon says:

    This poem is intense. I wish we had the option of looking at the poem while writing our comment. Now that I’m here, I can’t remember anything else to say.

  9. Dame Dana says:

    Insane …I think not. ..abused as a child …YES…Ms. Sexton must have suffered alot at the hands of her abuser …her innocence taken only bitter horrid memories seem to remain in her head…her salvation was to write them down.READ BEYOND THE LINES …TO GET HER SELF BEING TO UNDERSTAND HER !!!
    Dame Dana

  10. ME says:

    But the thing is she wasnt sane…….that was the great thing about Anne Sexton…..she was an amazing writer yet crazy as a bat!

  11. anoyminous says:

    this poem is inspiring. i am only 13 yet her poems are amazing. i have to do a project on her and i think, these poems are what takes us through life. she shows us life is not perfect and we have to go through hell once in a while. thank god, she’s sane. and i need help on this porject!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Do you have any comments, criticism, paraphrasis or analysis of this poem that you feel would assist other visitors in understanding the meaning or the theme of this poem by Anne Sexton better? If accepted, your analysis will be added to this page of American Poems. Together we can build a wealth of information, but it will take some discipline and determination.