Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“With Mercy for the Greedy” shows Sexton’s need for religious faith and her inability to find it. The poem also provides her explanation of how her art functions as therapy and, to some degree, takes the place of the religion that she cannot comfortably accept. Addressed to a friend “who urges me to make an appointment for the Sacrament of Confession,” the poem explores the speaker’s attempt to grasp faith. The friend, identified as “Ruth,” has sent her a cross, which she has been wearing “hung with package string” around her neck. This cross, though, has nothing to say to her. It remains unresponsive to her desperate need. “I detest my sins and I try to believe/ in The Cross,” she says. Yet she must conclude, finally, that “need is not quite belief.”
Having determined that she cannot approach traditional religion through her friend’s gift, she tells her friend what she does do: She writes poems, and these are her confession, her way of dealing with her sense of guilt. “I was born/ doing reference work in sin, and born/ confessing it. This is what poems are,” she explains. Poems are the struggle with the self and the world that provide “mercy for the greedy”—they are “the tongue’s wrangle,/ the world’s pottage, the rat’s star.” Only through the difficult and painful process of creating poetry can she aspire to any kind of peace. The phrase “tongue’s wrangle” suggests the awkwardness and difficulty of setting oneself straight through words.
The rat is Sexton’s inner turmoil and torment. Later, in “Rowing,” she would imagine the rat transformed and accepted. In “With Mercy for the Greedy,” however, Sexton does not go so far as to imagine this acceptance, this forgiveness. The only means of confession for her is the poetry, the “rat’s star.” This poem is anthologized frequently, perhaps because it shows how literally the term “the confessional poet” may be understood when it is applied to Sexton. She is not only sharing intimate and painful experiences with her readers but also making a confession to her god.
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Furst, Arthur. Anne Sexton: The Last Summer. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.
Hall, Caroline King Barnard. Anne Sexton. Boston: Twayne, 1989.
McClatchy, J. D. Anne Sexton: The Artist and Her Critics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.
McGowan, Philip. Anne Sexton and Middle Generation Poetry: The Geography of Grief. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004.
Middlebrook, Diane Wood. Anne Sexton: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
Sexton, Linda Gray, and Lois Ames, eds. Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.
Swiontkowski, Gale. Imagining Incest: Sexton, Plath, Rich, and Olds on Life with Daddy. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 2003.
Wagner-Martin, Linda, ed. Critical Essays on Anne Sexton. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989.