The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Exeat” is a highly personal and disturbing poem that moves from a remembered history lesson to direct confrontation with the desirability and morality of committing suicide. The twenty-one lines of the poem are free verse, divided into four unequal sections. The first and last sections are the longest (seven and eight lines, respectively); the second is two lines; and the third, four lines. The title is a Latin word meaning “let him/her go out,” and leads directly to the opening idea of the “Roman Emperor.”

In the first five lines of the poem, the first-person speaker tells of “one of the cruellest” of the Roman emperors visiting his captives. Nero, who tormented captives in a wide variety of ways, is probably the model for the unnamed tyrant. These miserable “prisoners cramped in dungeons” wanted to be released from their suffering through death, and “would beg” the emperor for that release. He, however, would refuse, saying, “We are not yet friends enough.” The speaker herself interprets this statement, noting that “He meant they were not yet friends enough for him to give them death.” In the last two lines of the section, the speaker returns to the present and describes her own situation as analogous to that of the prisoners, for her “Muse,” when she wants death, says to her, “We are not yet friends enough.”

The short second section parallels the end of the first section, as “Virtue,” like the “Muse,” refuses the speaker’s desire to die, again with the statement, “We are not yet friends enough.” The third section, one rhetorical question in four lines, explicitly raises the issue of suicide and suggests that “a poet” or a “lover of Virtue” cannot kill himself or herself as long as he or she is not fully attuned to the demands of the “Muse” or is “always putting [Virtue] off until tomorrow.”

The concluding section sets out the conditions under which a person “may commit suicide.” “A poet or any person” might have lived a long, full life but may be unable to care for himself or herself, and may realize that the power of deciding may itself be lost soon to old age. Then, the speaker asserts, “Life” may “come to him with love” saying, “We are friends enough now for me to give you death.” The last line translates the title another way, as “He may go.”