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Change and Transformation
“Courage” argues the idea that it is only through fortitude and courage that human beings are able to survive and flourish. Such a notion effectively dismisses the notion that luck, genes, or destiny play the major role in determining the shape of a person’s life. Sexton highlights this idea in the first stanza when her speaker describes childhood as a time of loneliness and despair, when people are ostracized from family and friends because of the way they look or behave. Making it through childhood, the speaker suggests, requires that response to pain be kept in, not expressed. The speaker symbolically describes this process in the last two lines of the first stanza: “You drank their acid / and concealed it” and in the second stanza in the lines, “your courage was a small coal / that you kept swallowing.” Sexton’s poem repeatedly makes the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s point that “What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.” In each stanza, she describes a kind of adversity and then shows how individuals deal with that adversity by integrating it into themselves. By becoming stronger, human beings can withstand pain, both physical and emotional, and live out their lives with grace and dignity. In the third stanza, in which Sexton again highlights the transformative power of suffering, she outlines the process through which people are changed by overcoming obstacles. This power is embodied in images suggested by words such as “transfusions,” “wings,” “spring,” and “swords.”

Individual and Society
Broadly conceived and applied to literature, romanticism emphasizes the individual’s experience, with attention paid to expression of subjective emotion and feeling. Most confessional poetry, by its very nature, is romantic, and Sexton’s poems are no different. “Courage” emphasizes the individual’s journey through life, charting the self’s tribulations and triumphs, while largely ignoring the relationship of the individual to society or, when the poem does allude to society, it does so in generalized and symbolic terms, as in her characterization of war in the second stanza. The “you” she addresses in the poem is at once another part of herself, and the reader. She universalizes her own feelings, making her experience representative of the human condition. Apart from using the second person “you” to mark this universalizing, the speaker uses terms such as “kinsman” in the third stanza to appeal to fellow sufferers, heroes, and heroines. The division of the poem into phases of life also emphasizes individual, as opposed to social, experience.

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