The Form and Meaning in “The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator”

“The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator” is a confessional poem by Anne Sexton, in which she explores her intimate feelings about masturbation during a post-break-up era in her life. The poem is noteworthy because of its ability to bring forth the taboo subject of female sexuality with an organized structure resembling that of a traditional ballad, and while doing so, evoking vivid images that furthers our understanding of her painful situation.

The poem consists of seven stanzas of six lines. The rhyme scheme is strict, as it follows the pattern of ABABCC, DEDECC, and so on. The structure seems rigid in terms of lines and stanzas, but the number of syllables in each line varies without a pattern. In addition, we cannot talk about a certain meter, either, for the lines have different variables of stressed and unstressed words. For example, the first line “The end of the affair is always death” is written in iambic pentameter, five feet of unstressed and stressed syllables, but we see trochees in the fourth and fifth lines, and also spondees in the phrases like “the knock-kneed broom”. Moreover, enjambment is the foregrounded prosodic element in the poem, due to which, the sentences begin and end in the middle of the lines, and run-on to the next ones at the end. Thus, the full stops we encounter midway in a line, prevents the poem from flowing with the harmonic and repetitive sounds of a metered work. Instead, by playing with a traditional form, the poem gives us an appearance of structure at the first look on the page, and a feeling of uncertainty and abruptness in its sound.

The language of the poem is colloquial, and fairly easy to grasp. The whole poem goes around the idea of sex and masturbation, yet we do not have the word sex even once, and the word masturbation appears only in the title. The poet skillfully delivers all these meanings without using the words themselves but rather by using a suggestive language overall. The metaphor for sexual satisfaction is `being fed`, which is extended from the beginning to the end of the poem. The refrain of the poem “At night, alone, I marry the bed” becomes a euphemism for masturbation, and is repeated at the end of each stanza. The last stanza is striking in that it builds up the scene for sex so vividly that it becomes apparent for us that the poet does not need the word sex to talk about sex. The agents of the act are generalized as ‘the boys and girls’, and sex is described as being ‘one’. The image is strengthened with references to taking off the clothes, and we return to the conceit of eating with the line “They are eating each other. They are overfed”. The refrain following this overly satisfactory scene juxtaposes our poet, who is troubled with loneliness and heartache, to the passionate lovers, making the contrast between them even more distinct.

The imagery in the poem, though it is not the prevailing element, helps it further insert the dominant feelings. For instance, we know right from the start that the speaker is lonely, and reminiscing her ex-lover. Yet, when we get to the line “I am spread out. I crucify”, it immediately makes us imagine her in the bed, arms and legs opened up, extremely vulnerable and in agony, as suggested by the idea of crucifixion. Another significant image is in the fifth stanza, where the poet describes the new lover of her ex. The woman is ‘black-eyed’, and likened to a goddess as ‘the lady of water’ with the power of creating music as well with the piano and the flute. This description creates an image of a beautiful and pure goddess with musical skills, and the poet set herself as a ‘knocked-kneed broom’ side by side with the image of a goddess. Through this juxtaposition of the images, the feelings of abasement and humiliation come to the surface, and we imagine the poet perhaps as an ugly witch, suggested with the reference to a broom.

In conclusion, this poem seems to be extremely sincere and coming out of the deepest parts of the poet’s psyche. The themes of loneliness, humiliation, and jealousy are common to us all, and the way she conveys these feelings onto the page is remarkable. The use of female sexuality as the subject matter evidently requires courage for her part, writing this poem at a time when it is considered a taboo. The images throughout the poem helps us to visualize her pain, therefore supplementing our connection to and empathy with the poet’s feelings in general.

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