The Truth the Dead Know by Anne Sexton

‘The Truth the Dead Know’ by Anne Sexton is a poem presenting poetic feelings while she was passing through a graveyard. A reader should also take note of the fact that personal dedication appears before the text of the poem:

For my Mother, born March 1902, died March 1959

and my Father, born February 1900, died June 1959

It is clear with the addition of this inscription that the speaker is Anne Sexton herself and at least some of the “Dead” she refers to are her parents. Sexton’s parents died only a few months apart. Her mother from cancer and her father due to alcoholism.

The Truth the Dead Know by Anne Sexton

 

Summary of The Truth the Dead Know 

The Truth the Dead Know’ by Anne Sexton describes the poet’s own emotions in reaction to the death of her parents and the actions she chose to take afterward. 

The poem begins with the speaker stating that she is departing a funeral. She has no desire to participate in the tradition any longer and is ready to flee to a better part of the world. Sexton, and someone she refers to as “My darling” is going to take a trip to the Cape in Massachusetts. It is there that she will heal from her losses and they will spend their time “touching.” 

The poem concludes with Sexton dismissing any need to consider the dead as they are like stone. They are inanimate and impossible to “bless.” 

You can read the full poem The Truth the Dead Know here.

 

Structure of The Truth the Dead Know

‘The Truth the Dead Know’ by Anne Sexton is a four stanza confessional elegy that is separated into stanzas of four lines or quatrains. A “confessional” poem is one that speaks directly about the poet’s own experiences. However, this poem by Sexton is a lyric too. The poetic persona in the poem presents a subjective tone in the poem by directly involving herself in the lines of the poem. The first line of the poem, “Gone, I say and walk from church’, reflects the subjectivity of the poem.

The poem follows a rhyming pattern of abab, which does not diverge in any way throughout the text. The poet makes use of a regular rhyme scheme to portray the emotions arising in everybody’s mind after seeing their loved ones’ graves. The poet makes use of both iambic and trochaic meter to suit her tone in the poem. Likewise, the first line begins with a trochaic foot and the following feet contain the iambic meter. But, the second line is composed of iambic feet. Such a mixture of metrical feet reflects the ups and downs of an emotional rollercoaster the poet is on after seeing her beloved parents lying there in the stony graveyard.

 

Themes in The Truth the Dead Know

‘The Truth the Dead Know’ by Anne Sexton encompasses several important themes in this lyric. The most important theme of the poem is death. The dedication of the poem tells readers it is going to be an elegy for the dead parents of the poet, Anne Sexton. So, the major focus goes on their graves. The poet while walking through the graveyard broods over death as a whole. She is disheartened as well as contemplative about the oblivion. Instead of focusing solely on her dead mother and father, she goes beyond the bounds of subjectivity and welcomes the grief of others regarding death into her heart.

Another important theme of the poem is the vanity of life. The futility and absurdity are what make the poet think deep. She cannot find the significance of life if it is “leading but to the grave”. Death topples everything. Even the spontaneity of the body and delicacy of muscles transform into an embodiment of stone at the end. Another theme of the poem is “memento mori”. It is a popular theme that says, “remember you have to die”. The poet presents the theme in her poem from the beginning to the end. The lines such as, “In another country, people die” and “Men kill for this, or for as much” reflect this theme.

 

Analysis of The Truth the Dead Know 

Stanza One

Gone, I say and walk from church,
(…)
It is June. I am tired of being brave.

In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker begins by addressing her own actions and emotions. Without any prior knowledge of what this piece is about, one is still able to assume that the speaker has just attended a funeral. She says to herself, “Gone.” It is as if she is trying to finalize what happened, and finish this period of mourning. Those she has lost are “gone” and now it is time to “walk from the church.” 

She does not take part in the second half of the funeral, which includes a “stiff procession to the grave.” The use of the word “stiff” in this context presents the scene as a staged one. She does not have any desire to further undergo the traditions of death. The speaker has reached a breaking point in her experience. She is ready, in one way or another, to rid herself of these feelings. 

The speaker states that when the “procession” carries on toward the grave, that the “dead” person is left to “ride alone in the hearse.” The fact that she takes the time to mention this shows that she is bothered by it. Perhaps as just another relic of tradition, or as some kind of final abandonment. 

The last line of this section clearly states two facts in the speaker’s life. It is “June,” the month of Sexton’s father’s death, and she is “Tired of being brave.” As mentioned previously she has reached a point where she no longer wants to face the grieving family and fill the role of the mourning loved one she is meant to play. 

 

Stanza Two

We drive to the Cape. I cultivate
(…)
and we touch. In another country people die.

In the second stanza, the speaker tells her listeners that she has plans for herself and one another. This additional character comes into the eulogy without prelude. They are referred to as “My darling” in the third stanza. 

From this point on she is not going to participate in the tediousness and grief of death and instead “dive to the Cape.” This is a reference to Cape Cod, Massachusetts an area of the state Sexton was familiar with. She is seeking out this location as a refuge from the pains and necessities of death. 

While there, she plans to “cultivate” herself. She will improve her own mental, emotional, and spiritual health in a better environment. Additionally, she can put some distance from the physical reminders of her loss. The landscape she is seeking out is one that is consistently in the sun, it is “gutter[ed]” or funneled down from the sky. It is also here that the “sea swings” through one’s consciousness, and onto the land itself like “an iron gate.” The seas’ power is dependable, strong, and in constant motion. 

The speaker and her partner are able to grow close under these circumstances. They “touch” and the deaths of other people are far off in another “country.” It is nowhere near them that anyone dies. 

 

Stanza Three

My darling, the wind falls in like stones
(…)
Men kill for this, or for as much.

The third stanza begins with Sexton referring to her companion as her “darling.” It is clear this person means a great deal to her. They are someone she is able to depend on after the deaths of her parents. 

It is in the following lines that she relates to the landscape and its movements to the emotions she is struggling with. She will also be sharing these feelings with her “darling.” The wind shows its power as it “falls unlike stones” from the ocean. The waters coming in from the distance are “whitehearted.”

The couple, as mentioned previously, are able to “touch” here. There is no separation between the two and no intervening responsibilities to deal with. The only thing they have to do is “touch entirely.” They will spend their hours together emotionally improving and healing one another. 

Sexton knows the experience she described is something special. It is made up of factors for  which “Men kill.” She wants the reader to understand how important these moments are.

 

Stanza Four 

And what of the dead? They lie without shoes
(…)
to be blessed, throat, eye and knucklebone.

In the fourth stanza, the speaker returns to the “dead” who were left in the first set of lines. She questions her listener, and herself, asking, “And what of the dead?” This is purely a rhetorical question as she knows very well what happens to them. The bodies of her loved ones “lie without shoes / in the stone boats,” or coffins and crypts. They are inanimate and unable to move on their own. This is alluded to by their lack of shoes.

 In the final lines, she emphasizes the fact that the dead are nothing now more than “stone.” They are less alive than the sea “would be if it stopped.” It is as the ocean would still have life within it somewhere. 

Sexton concludes the piece with the statement that the dead refuse to be improved, “blessed” or moved by anyone’s appeal. They are solid and still no matter what one does or says. It is with these lines that she dismisses any need to mourn or think of those who have passed on. They are nothing now that their souls are gone. 

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