Summary

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First Stanza
Sexton uses the title “Courage” as a theme to be explained. The “it” in the first stanza is courage, and the items listed after “it” are examples of courage. Sexton likens a small thing such as a “child’s first step” to a large thing, an earthquake, meaning that, both literally and metaphorically, taking a first step is a momentous occasion. In all of these examples, Sexton attempts to show the courageous aspect of everyday, often mundane, events. Being a confessional poet, Sexton is surely speaking to another part of herself; however, these events are universal as well, a point underscored by her use of the second person “we” and “you.” Also, most of these examples are taken from childhood, a time of exploration and firsts. It is also human beings’ most vulnerable time. This vulnerability often leads to suffering, something that Sexton points out as frequently repressed. This is what is meant by the lines “you drank their acid / and concealed it.” The “they” are those who hurt others, the bullies and abusers of the world.

Second Stanza
The second stanza begins with the one-word line, “Later,” signaling the time after childhood, late adolescence or early adulthood. The conditional “if” speaks to those who might have fought in the Vietnam War (“the death of bombs and bullets”). As in the first stanza, Sexton uses a series of metaphors to develop the ways in which human beings are courageous at different times in their lives. Unlike the first stanza, which speaks to both men and women, this stanza seems primarily to address men (though it is important to note that women also fought in the Vietnam War). Lines 3–5 underline the idea of modesty, as the soldier does not face death with zeal and pride (“a banner”) but with humility, signified by the hat-covered heart. Sexton highlights the idea of repression again, this time comparing courage to “a small coal / you kept swallowing.” The last two lines show how courage can also be a form of love, which, like “shaving soap,” is present every day.

Third Stanza
In this stanza, Sexton uses a series of images to describe the healing process after one has been emotionally hurt. The “fire” is the pain itself, the “coal” and “acid” swallowed in the first two stanzas, from which the speaker recovers by purging herself of pain through a symbolic transfusion of blood: “picking the scabs off your heart, / then wringing it out like a sock.” The process of comforting oneself and letting time heal the pain is spelled out in how the speaker takes care of her sorrow: by powdering it, giving it a backrub, and letting it sleep. All of these actions suggest ways in which a baby is pampered and cared for. By extension, the speaker suggests that the self must also be shown the same kind of care and attention. The last image in the stanza alludes to the story of the phoenix, a mythical bird that lives 500 years, burns itself to ashes on a pyre, and rises from the ashes to live another 500 years. This image shows how human beings can also rise from the “ashes” of their own despair and pain if they are patient and take care of themselves.

Fourth Stanza
In the final stanza, Sexton describes the courage of people in old age and the ways in which they endure by finding hope in events such as spring, itself symbolic of renewal. The stanza begins with a euphemism, when the speaker describes death as the “natural conclusion” to old age. Euphemisms are understatements, more delicate ways of saying something difficult or offensive. The seemingly mundane image of “carpet slippers” underscores the heroic nature of the “everyman” (or woman), who goes through life largely unacknowledged and uncelebrated, yet who shows courage simply by enduring and continuing to hope. The last image is as much Sexton’s own fantasy as it is a poetic representation of the common person. Sexton was well known for her death wish, and, in these lines, she visualizes her own death, a common feature of much of her poetry.

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Themes