Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

According to her biographer, Smith first thought of suicide at the age of eight when she was confined to a hospital, and the power consciously to choose death over life is a common theme in her poetry. “Exeat” explicitly confronts two elements of this theme: First, the desirability of death, and second, the conditions under which suicide can be a rational and moral choice.

The conditions of life that might lead a poet, or anyone else, to desire death appear both directly and implicitly in this poem. The opening story of the Roman emperor and his prisoners invites one to see the speaker of the poem and oneself as captives of a cruel ruler, forced to remain in dungeons because that ruler will not permit dying. The speaker, like the prisoners, might “beg” for death as the one thing most desired. The “prison” most feared by the speaker of this poem, however, is not a literal dungeon but rather the prospect of being “feeble now and expensive to his country/ And on the point of no longer being able to make a decision.”

To earn the chance to escape the prison (whether literal or metaphorical), the speaker asserts, one must live virtuously and produce good work; to commit suicide without meeting those conditions is impossible. Thus, the human being must keep working and keep trying to be good, even though he or she is at best a chained captive longing for death as a release.

Having met the conditions of “Having a long...

(The entire section is 506 words.)