Historical Context

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Sexton believed that poems came from the unconscious and often meant more than the person writing them was aware of. Her poetry is full of imagery and details, not necessarily linked to a particular time or place but symbolic of the writer’s own desires. “Courage” is typical of this kind of Sexton poem. In 1973, when this poem was written, Sexton’s mental health was deteriorating, and she was in and out of the hospital for suicide attempts. Her family and friends speculated that she killed herself (in 1974) largely because she feared spending the rest of her life in psychiatric institutions and hospitals like her great-aunt Nana. The 1970s was also the time when the dissolution of America’s psychiatric institutions was gathering steam, and the mentally ill were released into the community, often without a sufficient support system in place. Many of these people developed drug and alcohol problems, fueled by their illnesses. Combined with a housing shortage in many of America’s cities, the breakdown of institutions contributed to the exponential increase in homelessness in the 1970s.

Though Sexton took Thorazine, tranquilizers, and other prescribed drugs during the latter part of her life, critics and biographers often link her depression to societal oppression of women in general and the emotional battles that women fought for recognition and selfhood in a patriarchal society. Although Sexton was often reluctant to call herself a feminist, many women nonetheless saw her as a role model and an icon for the women’s movement during the 1960s and 1970s. It was in 1966 that Betty Friedan, author of the 1963 bestseller, The Feminine Mystique, helped found the National Organization for Women (NOW), which fought for equal rights for women in the marketplace and in the home. In 1971, the National Women’s Political Caucus was formed, and firebrand congressional representatives such as Shirley Chisolm and Bella Abzug helped to give women a greater say in national conventions. The percentage of female delegates in these conventions jumped from 10 percent in 1968 to 40 percent in 1972; in addition, from 1969 to 1981, the number of female state legislators tripled. It was also in the year 1972 that Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment.

However, the amendment failed to pass in the required number of states and failed to win ratification in 1982. Women gained a major victory in 1973 when the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that state law prohibiting abortion during the first three months of pregnancy was unconstitutional. The early 1970s saw the women’s movement gain a foothold in academia as well, with the establishment of women’s studies programs in various universities and courses devoted to women’s issues in many humanities and social sciences departments. Poetry written by women became a vehicle through which women could express their discontent and argue for change. Anthologies of women’s poetry such as the influential No More Masks, published in 1973, helped further this cause, as did groundbreaking work by poets such as Adrienne Rich, whose 1973 National Book Award– winning collection Diving into the Wreck; Poems 1971–1972, formed a manifesto of sorts for the women’s movement.

Literary Style

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Symbolic Metaphor
“Courage” is comprised largely of a list of metaphors and symbolic metaphors. Symbols are images or actions that can stand for something else, often an idea or a related set of ideas. Metaphors are figures of speech that make associations and find similarities between two dissimilar things. Symbolic metaphors make associations between dissimilar things as well, but they do it in such a way that the vehicle of the metaphor represents something symbolically. The vehicle of a metaphor is that part that stands for...

(This entire section contains 149 words.)

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something else. For example, in the last stanza, Sexton writes: “each spring will be a sword you’ll sharpen.” A sword is the image that represents spring. But a sword is also something associated with war, violence, and death—ideas not usually connected to spring. In this way the sword represents more than just spring; it represents a range of emotions and ideas.

Compare and Contrast

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1974: Battling mental illness, Anne Sexton commits suicide.

Today: More than 30,000 people commit suicide in the United States.

1974: Although drugs are sometimes prescribed for depression, psychotherapy remains a popular form of treatment.

Today: Prescription drugs such as Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft are advertised on television and routinely used to treat depression and other forms of mood disorder.

1974: Publishing heiress Patty Hearst is kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, a left-wing underground organization dedicated to the overthrow of the United States government.

Today: Sara Jane Olson, an alleged former member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, is arrested on a federal fugitive warrant that identified her as a member of the SLA who was wanted on charges of plotting to kill Los Angeles police officers by placing explosives under their patrol cars.

1974: The average life expectancy for Americans is 72 years. For males it is 68.2, for females 75.9.

Today: The average life expectancy for Americans is almost 77 years. For males it is 73.6, for females it is almost 80 years.

Media Adaptations

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Harper Audio released a 60-minute audiocassette of Sexton reading her poems, called Anne Sexton Reads (1993).

Voice of the Poet (2000), an audiocassette of Sexton reciting her poems, can be purchased from Random House.

A documentary on Sexton’s life was produced in 1966 as part of the public television series USA Poetry and is available at local libraries.

Sexton is a documentary based on outtakes from the above film and is available from the American Poetry Archive at the Poetry Center, San Francisco State University, California.

The Department of English at the State University of New York at Brockport has a videocassette of Art Poulin and William Heyen interviewing Sexton. The Poetry of Anne Sexton is included in their Writer’s Forum Videotape Library.

The Center for Cassette Studies has an audiocassette of Sexton, recorded in 1974: A Conversation with Anne Sexton: The Late Pulitzer Prize-Winning Poet Talks with James Day.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Axelrod, Steven Gould, “Anne Sexton’s Rowing towards God,” in Modern Poetry Studies, Vol. 6, No. 2, 1975. Bell, Pearl K., New Leader, May 26, 1975.

Bixler, Frances, ed., Original Essays on the Poetry of Anne Sexton, University of Central Arkansas Press, 1988.

Colburn, Steven E., ed., Anne Sexton: Telling the Tale, University of Michigan Press, 1988.

Davison, Peter, The Fading Smile: Poets in Boston from Robert Lowell to Sylvia Plath, W. W. Norton & Company, 1996.

George, Diana Hume, Oedipus Anne: The Poetry of Anne Sexton, University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Hall, Caroline King Barnard, Anne Sexton, Twayne, 1989.

Kumin, Maxine, “A Memorial for Anne Sexton,” in American Poetry Review, edited by A. Poulin Jr., Vol. 4, No. 3, 1975.

Lally, Michael, “A Dark and Desperate Vision,” in Book World—The Washington Post, May 25, 1975, p. 3.

Mazzocco, Robert, “Matters of Life and Death,” in New York Times Book Review, April 3, 1975, pp. 22–23, reprinted in Anne Sexton: The Artist and Her Critics, edited by J. D. Mc- Clatchy, Indiana University Press, 1978.

McClatchy, J. D., ed., Anne Sexton: The Artist and Her Critics, Indiana University Press, 1978.

Middlebrook, Diane Wood, Anne Sexton, Random House, 1991.

Nichols, Kathleen, “The Hungry Beast Rowing toward God,” in Notes on Modern American Literature, No. 3, 1979.

Oates, Joyce Carol, “On The Awful Rowing toward God,” in Private and Public Lives, University of Windsor Press, Vol. 2, Spring 1970, pp. 107–08.

—, “Singing Pathologies of Our Time,” in New York Times Book Review, March 23, 1975, pp. 3–4, reprinted in Anne Sexton: The Artist and Her Critics, edited by J. D. Mc- Clatchy, Indiana University Press, 1978.

Sexton, Anne, The Awful Rowing toward God, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1975.

—, The Complete Poems, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981.

—, 45 Mercy Street, edited by Linda Gray Sexton, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976.

Sexton, Linda Grey, and Lois Ames, eds., Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979.

Shurr, William, “Mysticism and Suicide: Anne Sexton’s Last Poetry,” in Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 68, No. 3, Fall 1985, pp. 335–56.

Stauffer, Donald Barlow, A Short History of American Poetry, E. P. Dutton & Company, 1974.

Wagner-Martin, Linda, ed., Critical Essays on Anne Sexton, G. K. Hall, 1989.

Further Reading
Davison, Peter, The Fading Smile: Poets in Boston from Robert Lowell to Sylvia Plath, W. W. Norton & Company, 1996. Davison recounts the Boston poetry world in this memoir and describes the complex relationships and behavior of such celebrated poets as Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Richard Wilbur, and W. S. Merwin.

Middlebrook, Diane Wood, Anne Sexton, Random House, 1991. Diane Middlebrook’s 1991 acclaimed biography is based on hundreds of hours of taped conversations between Sexton and her therapist. Middlebrook shows Sexton as representative of a generation of “broken” poets who fought alcohol and drug addiction, and were infatuated with the idea of celebrity.

Wagner-Martin, Linda, ed., Critical Essays on Anne Sexton, G. K. Hall, 1989. This study collects critical essays on Sexton’s poetry from some of America’s better known poetry critics such as Joyce Carol Oates, Paul Lacey, and Maxine Kumin. Almost all of the essays are accessible and useful and include further secondary sources.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide