While her life was tragically short, Anne Sexton was a prolific poet, and she won a multitude of awards, including the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for her book of poetry called Live or Die. Sexton is often compared to Sylvia Plath, who wrote Metaphors, both because much of her poetry is an intimate look into her psyche, and also because she, too, dealt with depression and ultimately committed suicide by asphyxiating herself. Anne Sexton was only forty-five years old when she died in 1974, but she is one of the most widely read writers in American poetry.
Summary of Courage
The poem, Courage, is divided into four stanzas, with each stanza representing a different stage in one’s life. For instance, the first stanza discusses childhood; the second stanza describes the scenes from young adulthood; the third stanza contends with middle age; the final stanza discusses old age. The speaker of the poem gives examples of instances in each life stage where a person may have to show courage. Through her use of imagery, Sexton paints a rich picture for her reader.
Sexton makes this a very personal poem for her reader by using inclusive personal pronouns such as “we” and “you.” The poem is unrhymed and written in free verse; each of the four stanzas contains twelve lines of varying lengths.
The poem opens with a declarative sentence: “It is in the small things we see it.” One can assume the “it” in this sentence is courage, based on the title of the work. It is also important to point out that courage serves as the theme of the poem, as well.
As stated earlier, the first stanza represents a person’s early years. Through the use of various similes and metaphors, the speaker, possibly Sexton, conveys to the reader that even the most basic moments in life still take courage.
In the second line of the poem, she begins her list of courageous acts one performs when they are children: “The child’s first step,/as awesome as an earthquake.” Here, the simile between a child’s step and an earthquake is used to show just how life-changing and thunderous learning to walk can be. No, a child’s first steps will not make the earth shake, but can it does change the world of the child. She continues, this time using the pronoun “you” to summon the reader into the poem.
She writes, “The first time you rode a bike,/wallowing up the sidewalk.” With the use of a universal example such as learning to ride a bike, it is far too easy for the reader to inject him or herself into the poem. Sexton’s diction here is also noteworthy. If someone is “wallowing” up the sidewalk, they are riding along feeling the glory of their accomplishment. Using an action verb such as this involves the reader even more, forcing them to look back on their own experiences. Sexton continues, this time with a more somber look at courage: “The first spanking when your heart/went on a journey all alone.”
Sexton is pointing out here that courage is not always something that is necessary to accomplish a specific task; sometimes courage is facing something all on one’s own, even though the event will not be at all enjoyable. She continues with the negative aspects of courage with the last five lines of the first stanza, which flow together:
Then they called you crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy
and made you into an alien,
you drank their acid
and concealed it.
Here, Sexton acknowledges that we have all been bullied for something in our lives. Perhaps we did not have money, or we were chubby or acted weird. Sexton reminds the reader that he or she drank the acid—the poisonous substance that wears away at things—but he or she concealed it. “You” did not show how absolutely hurt you were after hearing those horrible words.
Sexton transitions into the second stanza with a single word for the first line: “Later,” which signifies that the reader has grown from a child into a young adult. Unlike in the first stanza, where everything is absolute, here Sexton uses the word “if” to talk to those who may have had to fight in a war, although one can assume that the battles Sexton mentions here could be metaphors for the ones everyone fights in life.
Sexton acknowledges here that the war was fought in the absence of pride. One did not wave one’s flag proudly. She continues with this idea of what the reader did not do. She writes, “You did not fondle the weakness inside you/though it was there.” While the soldier may have been scared, he or she refused to bring that fear to the top: “Your courage was a small coal/that you kept swallowing.” Perhaps Sexton is speaking from experience here: charcoal is sometimes given to a patient who has ingested toxic materials. For instance, if one were to swallow a bunch of pills, a doctor may give the patient charcoal to help absorb the overdose of medication. Therefore, Sexton is speaking metaphorically here: the solider kept swallowing his courage in order to soak up all of the fear inside of himself.
The last four lines of the second stanza veer a bit off course. Instead of talking about courage, Sexton instead brings up love. She writes,
If your buddy saved you
And died himself in so doing;
Then his courage was not courage,
It was love, love as simple as shaving soap.
Sometimes courage takes different forms, and in this case, the soldier’s died saving his life. He did this not because he was brave, but because he loved his friend.
The first line of the third stanza parallels the second. Sexton has told the reader that it is time to move away from young adulthood and discuss the courage often found in the middle of one’s life, once again using the word “later.” She writes, “…if you have endured a great despair, then you did it alone…” This despair is intentionally unnamed. It could have come about due to any number of reasons: grief, depression, illness, divorce. Whatever the despair, the person faced it and endured it on his own. In the next three lines, Sexton describes how one was able to do this: “…getting a transfusion from the fire,/picking the scabs off your heart,/then wringing it out like a sock.” Again, Sexton turns to a metaphor, this time comparing courage to various medical procedures.
Unlike the other two stanzas, Sexton places a transition in the middle of the third using the word “next.” The last five lines are one complete thought. She writes,
Next, my kinsman, you powdered your sorrow,
you gave it a back rub
and then you covered it with a blanket
and after it had slept a while
it woke to the wings of the roses
and was transformed.
It is important to note Sexton’s use of the word “kinsman” here. She is proclaiming to the reader that she, too, has shown courage and endured unthinkable tragedies, and because of that, she and the reader—all of humanity, really—are the same. In these lines, she tells the story that the person took their sorrow, and instead of letting it take over, they nursed it back to health. Through this, the sorrow transformed into something beautiful.
The final stanza is separate from the other three stanzas in that the reader has yet to experience some of the events being discussed. This stanza is about old age and coming to the realization that one will not live forever. She writes, “Later,/ When you face old age and its natural conclusion/Your courage will still be shown in the little ways.”
Sexton then lists how the reader will do this: “Each spring will be a sword you’ll sharpen,/Those you love will live in a fever of love,/And you’ll bargain with the calendar…” While the reader may beg for another day, month, or year, each year they are given will be precious. The last four lines are particularly bittersweet. Sextons tells her reader what he or she will do when it is finally their time:
and at the last moment
when death opens the back door
you’ll put on your carpet slippers
and stride out.
Death, here, is personified: He is opening the back door to ready his next victim, the reader. Sexton tells the reader, however, that this will be his or her last act of courage. Instead of cowering in the corner, the reader will put on his or her slippers and “stride out.” Her use of the word “stride” here is completely intentional: the reader will not be weak and crawl or be dragged out. One who strides is confident in his steps, and this will be how the reader walks out of this life.
This poem was included in Sexton’s 1974 collection, The Death Notebooks, but it was published a year later, after her death. Perhaps Sexton wrote this poem not for anyone else but for herself. At the time of her death, Sexton had suffered from various forms of depression for years. This poem could have served as a reminder to herself that a person is always stronger than what they think they are; the human spirit is not nearly as fragile as it may appear.