Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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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 life behind him,” however, and realizing also the social as well as the personal dimensions of old age and decrepitude, the poem asserts a freedom for the modern person unavailable to the emperor’s prisoners: “he may commit suicide,” the poem declares explicitly. Smith herself, in an introduction to this poem, said that she felt “haunted bythe fear of being an old helpless person in an Even-tide home.I would rather be dead.But by the time you get into a Home, you have lost the power of decision.” Thus, ultimately, the decision for suicide asserts autonomy and celebrates individual decision-making. In fact, it affirms life in this poem, for at the proper moment “Life,” like a Roman emperor, may show its power by “com[ing]with love” and saying, “We are friends enough now for me to give you death.”

This poem, then, unflinchingly confronts issues that most people prefer not to think about, and it reaches conclusions different from those usually accepted. Smith does not necessarily hold that life is always pleasant or precious, and she does not see suicide as wrong. Instead, she invites her readers to imagine a world-weariness so profound as to make life itself seem a dungeon, and then to realize that every person risks exactly that feeling, especially given old age and physical and mental debility. For her, historical figures and stories (such as the Roman emperor) are important in providing the metaphors and analogies that enable one to come to terms with these difficult problems.