“Courage” appears in Anne Sexton’s eighth and last collection of original poems, The Awful Rowing Toward God, published by Houghton Mifflin, in 1975, a year after her suicide. It is the seventh poem in the collection, most of which were initially written to be a part of her 1974 collection, The Death Notebooks. The religious tone of the Rowing poems, however, dictated another book. Like many of the poems in the collection, “Courage” universalizes the speaker’s experience, the “you” in the poem standing for everyone. Sexton marches the reader through the stages of life, detailing in a series of symbolic metaphors the courageous ways that human beings respond to adversity. In four free verse stanzas of crisp, fresh, sometimes surreal images, Sexton tells the story of a human being’s life from childhood to old age, showing the resilience of the human spirit and underscoring human beings’ power to endure even the most difficult circumstances.
Sexton wrote many of the poems in the collection when her mental health was deteriorating and her addiction to alcohol and tranquilizers was worsening. The forms of courage described in the poem were as much a part of Sexton’s own life as they are symbolic of others’. “Courage” addresses such typical Sexton subjects as the death wish, loneliness, a search for meaning, and the body in pain. One of the last acts Sexton performed before killing herself was proofreading the galleys for The Awful Rowing Toward God with her friend, poet Maxine Kumin.