‘The Truth the Dead Know’ by Anne Sexton is a four stanza confessional elegy which is separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. A “confessional” poem is one that speaks directly about the poet’s own experiences. The poem follows a rhyming pattern of abab, which does not diverge in any way throughout the text. By contrast, the meter of the piece is somewhat random, adding to the emotion fuelled verse Sexton is known for.
A reader should also take not of the fact that a 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 own parents. Sexton’s parents died only a few months apart. Her mother from cancer and her father due to alcoholism. You can read the full poem here.
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” are 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.”
Analysis of The Truth the Dead Know
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.
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 funnelled 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.
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 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.
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.