The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Exeat” is a highly personal and disturbing poem that moves from a remembered history lesson to direct confrontation with the desirability and morality of committing suicide. The twenty-one lines of the poem are free verse, divided into four unequal sections. The first and last sections are the longest (seven and eight lines, respectively); the second is two lines; and the third, four lines. The title is a Latin word meaning “let him/her go out,” and leads directly to the opening idea of the “Roman Emperor.”

In the first five lines of the poem, the first-person speaker tells of “one of the cruellest” of the Roman emperors visiting his captives. Nero, who tormented captives in a wide variety of ways, is probably the model for the unnamed tyrant. These miserable “prisoners cramped in dungeons” wanted to be released from their suffering through death, and “would beg” the emperor for that release. He, however, would refuse, saying, “We are not yet friends enough.” The speaker herself interprets this statement, noting that “He meant they were not yet friends enough for him to give them death.” In the last two lines of the section, the speaker returns to the present and describes her own situation as analogous to that of the prisoners, for her “Muse,” when she wants death, says to her, “We are not yet friends enough.”

The short second section parallels the end of the first section, as “Virtue,” like the “Muse,” refuses the speaker’s desire to die, again with the statement, “We are not yet friends enough.” The third section, one rhetorical question in four lines, explicitly raises the issue of suicide and suggests that “a poet” or a “lover of Virtue” cannot kill himself or herself as long as he or she is not fully attuned to the demands of the “Muse” or is “always putting [Virtue] off until tomorrow.”

The concluding section sets out the conditions under which a person “may commit suicide.” “A poet or any person” might have lived a long, full life but may be unable to care for himself or herself, and may realize that the power of deciding may itself be lost soon to old age. Then, the speaker asserts, “Life” may “come to him with love” saying, “We are friends enough now for me to give you death.” The last line translates the title another way, as “He may go.”

Exeat Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Without regular meter, rhyme, or stanza forms, Stevie Smith in this poem relies upon personification, repetitions, and analogies to present her views of life and death. The abstractions of poetic inspiration and duty, or the “Muse,” and goodness, or “Virtue,” have an almost animate existence. The poet may or may not listen “properly” to the Muse, and the “lover of Virtue” may treat his beloved as discourteously as any human, “always putting her off until tomorrow.” The last abstraction, “Life,” has total power over the speaker and may choose to give or withhold the gift of death.

The names “Muse” and “Virtue” each appear twice in the poem, and the phrase “friends enough” appears five times. These repetitions establish the key terms of the poem by insisting that—at least for the poet-speaker in this work—art and goodness are the two most important entities in life, and the goal is to become wholly attuned to them, as “friends.” With each appearance, these words and phrases become charged with further significance. “Muse” and “Virtue” become more than flat abstractions, and being “friends” enough to die becomes a deeply paradoxical comment on both life and death.

The analogical relationship most important to the poem is that between the speaker and the Roman emperor’s prisoners. Like those captives wanting whoever is in control to give them death, the speaker longs for the same gift. Life seems to be a prison, one which must be endured until art and virtue are satisfied; then the personified “Life” can, like the emperor, grant the gift most desired and permit the speaker to die and escape his or her suffering. The position of “Life” in this scheme of things is the same as the position of “one of the cruellest” Roman tyrants, forcing prisoners to continue their agony.