The Mythology of Anne Sexton's Life

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Coming as it does in the middle of Sexton’s collection The Awful Rowing Toward God, “Courage” is a fantasy of Sexton’s own life and her future death. As such, it is part of the poet’s personal mythology of self, the way in which she would have others think of her. For many confessional poets, such as Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Sylvia Plath, the stories they tell about themselves become, in effect, the stories they come to believe. They construct personal mythologies of self, mining their own mental anguish for material. The psychoanalysis that these poets participated in helped them both to unearth and articulate many of their poetic themes. Hence, it is almost impossible to write about confessional poets’ poetry without also discussing their lives, since they are inextricably entwined.

On the surface, “Courage” sets out to tell the story of a representative human being’s life. In so doing, Sexton also attempts to tell the story of her own life, though it may be argued that her desires and gifts are anything but representative. Comparing the phases of life she symbolically describes— childhood, adolescence/early adulthood, middle age, and old age—with the phases of her own life, however, doesn’t necessarily help to clarify the extent to which this poem is autobiographical, for Sexton was a complicated person. Sexton biographer Diane Wood Middlebrook writes about Sexton’s relationship to the past: “One thing that became clear to her, since she spent so much time dwelling on it, was that the past exists only in versions, which differ according to our motives at the moment of recall.” The version of the life described in “Courage,” then, is an idealized version in which the individual is at once a martyr to and savior of herself.

In the opening stanza, Sexton describes childhood as a place of firsts, when the child realizes her aloneness in the world. Though she presents the individual as a risk taker, the real emphasis is on the individual as a victim, someone that others pick on and ostracize. This victimization becomes internalized, figuratively described in the “acid” she drinks, and is carried with the individual throughout her life. Sexton develops the sense of victimization in the second stanza, as the individual courageously faces war. The metaphor becomes complicated midway through the stanza, however, when the speaker says:

your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing.
If your buddy saved you
and died himself in so doing,
then his courage was not courage,

it was love; love as simple as shaving soap.

Swallowing courage suggests resisting it, giving in to one’s own fears. The sense of shame in doing this is underscored by the individual’s characterizing his friend’s sacrifice as an act of love, rather than courage. Explaining the world to themselves is how human beings survive. Sexton suggests that sometimes it is important to call things by different names for the sake of emotional and psychic survival. The image of “shaving soap” highlights the regularity with which this occurs.

The third stanza again begins with a statement about the individual’s isolation, and readers can infer that a transfusion is needed because the individual is emotionally, spiritually exhausted. What is the fire, though? It is the resentment, bitterness, and courage that the individual has swallowed in the first two stanzas. Up until now, Sexton has characterized someone who has been victimized over and over but has done nothing about it. All of the pain has been endured alone. But in this stanza, representative of adulthood, the speaker has come to a crossroads. Her wounds have healed, and she...

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is now “picking the scabs” from her heart. At age twenty-nine, after two years of psychotherapy and hospitalizations for depression, Sexton began writing poetry as a way of dealing with her demons. It’s hard not to think of her life in this stanza, for poetry became a means by which she could indulge herself. Her transformation from a suburban housewife and mother of two to a nationally recognized and lauded poet came quickly. But this transformation didn’t relieve Sexton of the pain and the sense of isolation; it merely gave her a way to express it. This expression, in turn, led to a great deal of attention, most of which Sexton craved and needed.

The last stanza is a variation on a theme that recurs throughout Sexton’s work: the obsession with death. This representation of death is as part of the natural life cycle, a kind of quiet suburban death symbolized by the “carpet slippers.” There’s no raging against death, no spectacular violence, no dramatic suicide. Rather, it’s an ordinary death, an image of death from the popular imagination. This everyday death can be seen as symbolic of the truth that Sexton sought in her poems. As critic Caroline King Barnard Hall and others note, Sexton threads the theme of death and rebirth throughout her poems. She does this as well in “Courage.” She is born, suffers, is beaten down, is reborn, and dies again. This is not only Sexton’s story but also the story of all human beings, of all life forms. In this sense, the poem is not confessional, as it contains no explicit details of the writer’s own life but merely its outline. Looking outside herself for truth, then, Sexton here searches for what she has in common with others rather than for what sets her apart.

Sexton’s poem is not only a symbolic version of the human journey but it is also the representative poem of The Awful Rowing Toward God, which tells the story of an individual’s search for God and redemption. The two poems that bookend “Courage” are “The Earth Falls Down” and “Riding the Elevator into the Sky.” The former is comprised of a litany of people, ideas, and things onto which the speaker attempts to cast blame for “conditions.” At one point, the speaker asks, “Blame it on God perhaps?” then answers, “No, I’ll blame it on Man, / for Man is God / and man is eating the earth up.” This secular idea of god is also apparent in “Riding the Elevator into the Sky,” a death fantasy ending with the speaker riding an elevator thousands of floors up, out of herself, to find a key “that opens something.” Readers aren’t told what the something is, and, indeed, Sexton herself didn’t know. Her hunger for God and for death had merged. The story of Sexton’s life by the time she wrote the poems in The Awful Rowing Toward God had become so entwined with her public persona that it was difficult for her to distinguish the difference. Her redemption, finally, wasn’t in some god or death that she imagined existed outside of herself but in the very act of writing and rewriting her story. When she finally exhausted that story, she exhausted her will to live. She never got to battle against time and have the small ordinary death of old age that she described. Rather, she battled the very will to live and finally succumbed to a drive that haunted her a good part of her life, committing suicide at age forty-six. Whether this final act was one of courage or not is left for her readers to decide.

Source: Chris Semansky, Critical Essay on “Courage,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Significant Flaws in Poem

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“Courage” is among the thirty-nine poems in the last book Anne Sexton wrote, The Awful Rowing Toward God. According to Diane Middlebrook’s interesting and controversial biography of Sexton, Anne Sexton: A Biography, Sexton wrote the poems in this collection in less than a month. Middlebrook suggests that Sexton “knew the work was still fairly raw” after she finished it. She showed the manuscript to Maxine Kumin, George Starbuck, James Wright, and other friends and poets whose opinions she valued. Wright (quoted in Middlebrook) reportedly responded to Sexton’s book by saying, “I have no intention of excusing your bad verse and your bad prose. . . . There are some good poems here that I think are fine. There are some that I think are junk. The choice between them is yours.” Yet Kumin argues in favor of many of the poems Wright had found less than appealing, as have other critics. William Shurr, writing in Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, strives valiantly to praise The Awful Rowing Toward God, suggesting that it is a book of “artistic vision and extraordinary beauty.” Shurr, however, does not use “Courage” as an example of this vision and beauty. Perhaps he has good cause to comment that “like many of Sexton’s poems in The Awful Rowing, ‘Courage’ suffers from a number of significant flaws.”

Like other poems in The Awful Rowing Toward God, “Courage” is addressed to a specific reader, someone Sexton calls her “kinsman.” If it were not for the references to “bombs and bullets” in the poem’s second stanza, it might be possible to assume Sexton is addressing herself in “Courage”—telling herself in poetic terms what courage is in order to prepare herself (and her audience) for that final “stride out” into suicidal death. The war references, however, complicate this reading. It appears, instead, that Sexton is addressing a male reader in “Courage.” In some poems, the epistolary stance can be very moving— readers can experience the thrill of a private exchange, as is the case with Shakespeare’s more moving sonnets. In “Courage,” by contrast, there’s too little information about the relationship between the speaker and the person she’s addressing. Sexton has undercut her opportunity to give her readers the main pleasure of the point of view of direct address by being too mysterious about the affiliation between the poem’s “I” and its “you.”

“Courage” is organized chronologically, from “the child’s first step” to “old age and its natural conclusion.” The first stanza states matter-of-factly that we see the virtue of courage in “the small things”—in a “child’s first step” or in “the first time you rode a bike.” The poem turns in its sixth line from these picturesque images: we learn that courage might also be seen “in the first spanking when your heart / went on a journey all alone.” The first stanza’s last five lines implicate a child’s caregivers or peers more directly, since they suggest that courage during this stage of life might be made from being called “crybaby / or poor or fatty or crazy.” In other words, the sense of “despair” that is everywhere in Anne Sexton’s poems begins to emerge in this section of the poem: the “you” of the poem must become an “alien”; he or she must “[drink] acid and [conceal] it.”

The poem’s second stanza moves to a war scene, with “bombs and bullets.” Here, the unspecified “you” is reminded that he “faced death . . . with only a hat to / cover [his] heart.” This makes the “you” of the poem very vulnerable, as does the beautiful line about “Courage” being “a small coal / that you kept swallowing.” Yet it would probably be more moving if the speaker of the poem were the person who was made vulnerable—if the speaker of “Courage” were the person who “kept swallowing . . . a small coal,” the poem might inspire more empathy. It’s also worth noting that Sexton mentions love in this part of the poem, which she says is not courage but “simple as shaving soap.” While it’s interesting to note that Sexton makes a distinction between love and courage, the idea doesn’t seem to serve the poem in any major way; it operates like a parenthetical observation.

The poem’s third stanza is the most grotesque in Sexton’s poem: here the unspecified person Sexton is addressing is told he has “[picked] scabs off [his] heart.” Despite the ungainly image (which fails, because of its grotesque nature, to inspire empathy for the poem’s “characters”), this line marks a shift from the poem’s first two stanzas, since it suggests that courage comes from “[enduring] a great despair . . . alone,” or from revealing the “acid” that was concealed in the poem’s first stanza, turning it into “sorrow” and “wringing it out like a sock.” These odd and illogical images point to Sexton’s desire to transform her own “sorrow” into something more positive, as the rose image at the end of the stanza suggests. This “transformation” is death, as the poem’s final stanza tells us.

The poem’s final stanza moves to “old age” but repeats the idea that “courage will still be shown in little ways,” as it was in the poem’s first stanza. In this stanza, “each spring will be a sword you’ll sharpen . . . those you love will live in a fever of love,” and “when death opens the back door / you’ll put on your carpet slippers / and stride out.” This last gesture offers the poem’s only surprise: if readers had thought previously that the courage of the “concealed acid” that turned into the courage of the “scabs [on the] heart” and then “transformed” into some untold other thing would save the “you” of the poem from death, they were mistaken.

Although the narrative structure just described may give the poem its accessibility by allowing the reader to follow Sexton’s associations from first to last line, its risk is the flatness that chronological order sometimes produces. Because Sexton can rely on actual time to organize the poem, she need not bother with inventing her own methods of sequence or movement. The first lines of stanzas two, three, and four, each of which begins with the word “Later,” reinforce the poem’s structural flaws. The repeated use of the abstract term “later” does help Sexton leapfrog from segment into segment or stanza into stanza, but the lines themselves are uninteresting. They are utilitarian; Sexton is borrowing built-in structures rather than inventing them.

In writing workshops, teachers advise students to show rather than to tell in an effort to urge apprentice writers toward images, or mostly metaphorical word-combinations, that make usually visual but sometimes auditory and tactile sensual (and therefore emotional) sense. Sexton’s topic in “Courage,” is, of course, the idea of courage. Yet the poem is oddly unquestioning; “Courage” is very certain of itself. Sexton uses many images in this poem, as we shall see, but her overriding stance in “Courage” is an expository one. That is, she is not showing the reader what courage is metaphorically or by the use of image; rather she is telling the reader what courage is and using similes as examples. In this poem, Sexton is not so much wondering what courage is but is telling us what, in her opinion, courage is. Sexton’s uncertainty regarding the answer to this philosophical question also undermines the poem’s ability to move beyond itself, to transform everyday experience into art.

Sexton’s indiscriminate use of simile also undermines the poem’s power. The poem’s last few lines suggest in the poem’s most beautiful moment that “when death opens the back door / you’ll put on your carpet slippers / and stride out.” Sexton’s view of death in these lines is everywhere in The Awful Rowing Toward God and is one of the book’s few virtues. The accomplishment of these last lines has to do with the power of the final image; it is both unique and ironic. The comfort in “carpet slippers” destabilizes our more common vision of death, as does the power and strength in the phrase “stride out.” Here and elsewhere in Sexton’s final book is a statement about the beauty and power of death, and that is unusual enough to be interesting. In the image that ends “Courage,” Sexton personifies death by suggesting it will “open the back door” (like a kind lover or friend). Then the person with courage will, Sexton suggests, go into that happy sleep, wearing “carpet slippers.”

Yet other images and similes in the poem do not live up to the power and strength of this last image. Sexton says that a “child’s first step” is “as awesome as an earthquake.” This kind of statement fails because it’s too obvious to be anything but common. Or perhaps the image fails because there is not much of a corollary between a child’s first step and an earthquake. Sexton also says in “Courage” that if the person she’s addressing will “powder” his or her “sorrow,” “[give] it a back rub,” and “[cover] it with a blanket,” it—the sorrow— will “[wake] to the wings of the roses.” Aside from the fact that roses don’t have wings—not even imaginary or mythical ones—this image fails because it is shockingly sentimental—it’s almost indistinguishable from a Hallmark card. The same might be said for “fever of love”; although the “e” sounds in this phrase are sonically pleasing, the image is ultimately cliché.

According to Sexton’s biographer Diane Middlebrook, “[Maxine] Kumin remembered being worried about how agitated Sexton seemed [while she was working on the poems in The Awful Rowing Toward God] . . . [H]er friend’s manic energy reminded her uncomfortably of the stories told about Sylvia Plath writing Ariel at white heat.” Sexton killed herself the same day that she and Kumin met for lunch to correct the galleys of the book, so it seems Kumin was rightly concerned. Though Anne Sexton’s work illuminates some of the connections between mental illness and art and is for this reason alone worth investigating, some of it fails quite miserably. Although Sexton’s mental illness helped her produce many stunning and moving poems, the poems in The Awful Rowing Toward God are not as successful as some of her earlier poems, perhaps because she had already begun to move away from the hard labor of revising poems into the new labor of “[striding] out” toward death. Imagine what she could have done had she chosen to live instead.

Source: Adrian Blevins, Critical Essay on “Courage,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Blevins is a writer and poet who has taught at Hollins University, Sweet Briar College, and in the Virginia Community College System. She is the author of The Man Who Went Out for Cigarettes, a chapbook of poems, and has published poems, essays, and stories in many journals, magazines, and anthologies.

Ironic Twists

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In an article for the New Leader, Pearl K. Bell said that Anne Sexton’s collection “The Awful Rowing Toward God is sad reading, . . . because the poems are haunted by the self-destruction that was to be their terrible climax.” In the first poem, “Rowing,” she embarks on a voyage toward God that takes the reader through many disappointing and unsatisfying attempts to find Him. Another of these poems, “Courage,” sets out a plan to examine courageous behavior in the face of unpleasantness. However, this poem takes the reader on a journey into a more unflattering aspect of courage: bluff, show, and resignation. It is not the heroic courage of bravery confronting adversity.

Indeed, “Courage” is a sad little poem. Its sadness comes from the internal conflict of someone (“you”) summoning courage in an attempt to con- front a variety of issues at various stages of life. But the persona in the poem keeps coming up short. As a result, the courage in the poem fragments into false heroism and bitterness. The speaker in the poem, addressing “you,” describes these two outcomes. As a result, the poem writhes with an irony coming from the contrast between them.

Images of heroism are scattered throughout the verse from the images of recent wars, “bombs and bullets,” to the more ancient image of the sword in the last stanza. These images are caught up in a set of expectations in which boys were not allowed to cry, men went off to war to save a nation, husbands were taught to “suck it up and tough it out” in the face of marital difficulties, and even the specter of impending death was greeted with little more emotional investment than to put on one’s slippers and trundle off into the abyss.

The surface images give off an air of familiarity, a feeling with which most people can identify from personal experiences. As Michael Lally claims, this is a poem “full of common things.” But this is deceiving, because those familiar images hide something less noble: a willingness to hide from courageous behavior. In the poem, the speaker tries to invoke a strength of will in the “you.” But by the end of each stanza, that will is subsumed by an attitude of resignation. The inevitable acquiescence results in a loss of self.

Joyce Carol Oates said that, in the search for a kind of self-immortality, Sexton had resigned herself to the idea that it could not be reached by “any remedy short of death.” Sexton comments on this contradiction in many of her poems. In “The Poet of Ignorance,” she says that she is trapped by her “human form. / That being the case / I would like to call attention to my problem.” She suggests, although she does not say, that removing or being removed from that form is the answer. Here is the contradiction of trying to find a self-expression that can only be realized after death. She writes, “The place I live in / is a kind of maze / and I keep seeking / the exit or the home.” These lines from the third poem of the volume, “The Children,” are even more intense because that poem was published posthumously, one year after Sexton’s suicide in 1974.

In “Courage,” Sexton presents a similar contradiction. The efforts to maintain the self by drinking the acid of personal attacks, by transforming despair through “a back rub,” or by sharpening the sword each spring are overwhelmed, and the self is lost in the attempt to be what others want “you” to be. Finally, when further attempts at courage are given up, “you’ll put on your carpet slippers and stride out.” This is not a courageous entrance through death’s back door but rather resignation. Rather than being in charge of the self, “old age and its natural conclusion [italics added]” are in command and have made the decision for “you.” Personal courage is given up through tacit compliance with outside decisions. In the poem “For Mr. Death Who Stands with His Door Open” (1974), she closes with these lines: “But when it comes to my death let it be slow, / let it be pantomime, the last peep show, / so that I may squat at the edge trying on my black necessary trousseau.” This is in direct contrast with the persona in “Courage,” who strides out quickly at the request of “old age.”

The cycle of life, whether biological (birth, life, death) or temporal (hours, days, months), is a familiar thematic device many authors have used to tie their works together. Thoreau uses the circular nature of the seasonal changes to shape his Walden. In Sexton’s volume, the first poem describes her rowing toward God as the symbolic searching for some theological purpose to life. The last poem closes with the mooring of the boat on the Island (God), the symbolic discovery of the God for whom she has been looking. These two poems complete the circle of the entire volume.

Sexton also uses the calendar as a unifying device. In her poem “Sermon of the Twelve Acknowledgements,” she uses the months of the year to shape the poem. In “Courage,” the human lifespan is the device that gives the poem its overall form. The child of the first stanza and the old person shuffling off through the back door wearing “carpet slippers” in the last are images that frame the poem. The reader is pulled through the poem and through the human life cycle by the repeated word “Later.”

The cyclic nature of life’s experiences is shown from “the child’s first step” to the final striding out, in the “making into an alien” to the transformation, and in the eager anticipation of the child to the resigned capitulation of the old one at the end. The cycle of happiness returning to bitterness and back again in each stanza, the cyclic shifts of weakness in the face of the fury of war to the hidden strength of concealing the acid of the dehumanizing taunts of would-be friends create the irony that girds this poem. To these disappointments brought on by the loss of the self, add “the cruelty of life and the cruelty of people,” as Robert Mazzocco noted in Sexton’s poetry, and the easy resignation to the will of others is understandable. At the end of the poem, even the act of dying is cruel because there is no option, no choice for the individual, who acquiesces and merely steps through the open door.

Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath both have written that there ought to be a choice. In her memoir of Plath, Sexton said (reprinted in Oates’s article “On the Awful Rowing Toward God”), “We talked death, and this was life for us.” For both poets, suicide was not a desperate last solution but a deliberate choice that was fed by a more heroic courage than that which is found in this poem. Readers may see that choice as a result of the loss of an individual’s will to live. But for Sexton and Plath, it is a deliberate act of seeking God. In the last poem of the volume, she says, “I’m mooring my rowboat / at the dock of the island called God. / . . . and there are many boats moored / at many different docks. . . . I empty myself from my wooden boat / and onto the flesh of The Island.” With these lines, she affirms her belief that it is her choice to row her boat to the Island (God); it is her choice to climb out of the boat; it is her choice to go to God when she wants. In “Courage,” the “you” does not actively make the choice. That choice has been made for “you.” It is this struggle that tormented Sexton for much of her life and which found expression in her poetry, especially her last volumes.

In seeking the courage to take full control of life, she rejects the attempts of some to define others as a “crybaby or poor or fatty or crazy” or to turn “you into an alien.” These cruel and dehumanizing attacks are often used by oppressors to control their subjects. The most egregious example of this is the manner by which the Nazis of the 1930s and 1940s turned the whole of European Jewry into aliens, people who were less than human. If one’s victim is believed to be less than human, then there is no need for remorse. Sexton illustrates this remorselessness in her poem “After Auschwitz” when she writes, “And death [a Nazi] looks on with a casual eye / and picks at the dirt under his fingernail.” In that poem, the oppressor is unmoved by the death of a baby he has just killed.

One might expect a poem entitled “Courage” to deal with one of the lofty concepts that ennoble and define human character. Here, however, this concept is used to hide the bitterness of the indi- vidual’s experiences and tendencies towards selfdestruction, as noted by Pearl K. Bell. Sexton has demonstrated how hard it is to maintain one’s individuality and self-confidence in the face of life’s difficulties. It is the struggle to find a resolution to this contradiction that haunted Sexton throughout her life, which found a voice in her poetry. The result is this bitterly ironic and sad poem.

Source: Carl Mowery, Critical Essay on “Courage,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Mowery has a Ph.D. in literature and composition and has written extensively for the Gale Group.


Critical Overview