Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on July 28, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 564

Illustration of PDF document

Download Wanting to Die Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Anne Sexton, born Anne Gray Harvey, regularly struggled with mental illness. At the encouragement of her psychiatrist, she wrote confessional poetry in hopes of coping with and better understanding her mental and emotional states. As a result, her work often centers around illness and her struggles to understand herself. Her writing depicts the ebbs and flows of her mental health, following her through periods of intense depression, institutionalization, and suicidal ideation. She tried, more than once, to take her own life,  and she succeeded in doing so in 1974.

"Wanting to Die" is very much in keeping with the themes that pervaded Sexton's life, work, and eventually, suicide. In eleven three-line stanzas, the poem attempts to explain how someone might long for death to an audience that does not understand this desire because they do not feel it. Though it is often ill-advised to think of the speaker of the poem as the poet, it is clear that this speaker draws on much of Sexton's experience with "wanting to die" to detail the mental state of a person who does. The structure of the poem itself—written to an unnamed “you”—reflects a scene from Sexton’s life; a close friend, Anne Wilder, had asked her why she feels drawn to suicide. The poem, then, responds to that question in frank, emotionally-charged terms that attempt to communicate her overpowering desire to remove herself from life.

In one particularly striking metaphor, the speaker compares "suicides" to stillborn babies. The person who longs for death, the speaker claims, is already, on some level, dead when she is born. It is as though she was somehow misplaced at birth, allowed to live when she should not have,  and her life is one long mistake. Sexton employs another bleak metaphor to describe the euphoria of death, calling suicide—or, at least, the romanticized idea of how it might feel—a “drug so sweet.” Once a person has tasted the sweetness of death, they are inescapably hooked. Suicide becomes an addiction, for the idea of unfeeling quiet feels like a comforting respite from the harshness of life’s demands. 

These metaphors—a stillborn child, an addict mindlessly chasing a self-destructive high—conjure vivid images of human struggle to illuminate the somewhat confusing desire to die.  Choosing to die early is a wholly unfamiliar act that defies the basic human instinct for survival.  As such, Sexton’s chosen images depict scenarios that evoke similar feelings through more legible comparisons to make her desires easier to understand. This ease of communication is accomplished not only through familiar metaphors but also through the simplicity of the poem itself. 

Written in her token confessional style, “Wanting to Die” eschews rhyme and meter schemes in favor of evocative metaphors and vivid, if mundane, imagery. The scenes of the final stanza—painful in their familiarity—place deadly tension on simple scenes such as a “phone off the hook” or a “book left carelessly open.” These images are briefly conjured and just as quickly set aside, but the repetition of “leaving” drives home the realization of finality; someone has died or is soon to die, and this is what they will leave behind. Thus, while it might be difficult for a person who does not want to die to understand the perspective of one who does, “Wanting to Die” successfully communicates this yearning to an unfamiliar audience.

The Poem

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 550

“Wanting to Die” is a short poem in free verse that divides its thirty-three lines into eleven tercets (three-line stanzas). Because it is written in the first person and is conversational in form, this poem has been described as one of Anne Sexton’s literary suicide notes. Because it presents a speaker attempting to explain to a sympathetic listener why she wants to kill herself, some critics have also suggested that it reads like a discussion between Sexton and her psychiatrist. The use of the first person in a poem often causes readers to assume that the poet’s voice and the speaker’s voice are the same—an assumption that, while often erroneous, holds true for this work. Besides being suicidal herself, Sexton often used letters or personal reminiscences as the foundations for her writing. “Wanting to Die,” in fact, was initially a free-association addendum attached to a letter written to her friend Anne Wilder when Wilder had asked Sexton why she was attracted to suicide. Knowing that Wilder was a psychiatrist and was, therefore, unlikely to overreact to even strong imagery, Sexton addressed Wilder’s very real question in poetic form.

In the opening lines of “Wanting to Die,” Sexton’s speaker chooses to respond honestly to the question posed to her even though the hearer may find the topic repellant. “Since you ask,” she says, she will tell. The speaker describes herself as walking unconsciously through life, unimpressed and unaffected by the world around her. The only passion she feels is “the almost unnameable lust” for death. In the next two tercets, she explains further that she has “nothing against life” and no hatred for “the grass blades” that symbolize the vitality of the living world; she simply loves death’s promise more. “[S]uicides have a special language,” she says, and “like carpenters, they want to know which tools./ They never ask why build.”

So far Sexton’s speaker has simply discussed her life in a detached, calm manner. At this point the speaker tries to explain the attraction that death holds and to translate her concept of death into words that the hearer can understand. The next two tercets describe in brief the speaker’s previous two suicide attempts; she has “possessed the enemy,” death, “taken on his craft,” and “rested.”

The question remains, however: Why does she want to kill herself? The last six tercets seem to provide an answer, however unsatisfactory it may be to others. The first three describe a suicidal person’s perception of life as a kind of “drug.” Although its pleasures are “so sweet,” life keeps the “body at needlepoint”; an addiction to life, like an addiction to drugs, prevents a person from seeing life’s bitter reality. Living an illusion has, the speaker asserts, made her “already [betray] the body” even before she attempted suicide. Further, death has been waiting, “year after year,” to “undo an old wound” and release the speaker from the body that has become a “prison.” Life is a kind of suffering (the “wound”) that only suicides recognize when they are “balanced there” between life and death. Even love, the ultimate reason for living, cannot provide the suicide with sufficient reason to stay alive; love is “an infection” that keeps them sick with life.

Forms and Devices

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 438

In writing “Wanting to Die,” Sexton rejected the strict formal patterns that permeate her earlier volumes of poetry. Although they are occasionally present, rhyme and meter in Live or Die are coincidental—the most important poetic devices of the volume are intense, compelling imagery and suggestive metaphor. Many critics have observed the strength behind Sexton’s creative vision; “Wanting to Die,” like most of her other suicide poems, is about a woman driven insane by the intensity of her emotions. Not surprisingly, then, other critics are repulsed by the immediate anguish and intimacy of Sexton’s confessional lines. They suggest that reading Sexton’s poems sometimes seems like a tour through her personal hell. Sexton’s imagery does tend to be repellant. The picture of the happy suicide having “rested, drooling at the mouth-hole” has a strong impact. Yet it is also a true picture of the complete “rest” that death brings. Drooling, lack of eye response, and incontinence (the image created when the speaker says, “the cornea and the leftover urine were gone”) are the realities of dying, however disgusting they may seem.

“Wanting to Die” is also a highly metaphorical poem. For the suicidal speaker, the desire for death is not easily explained to outsiders. The metaphor of the carpenter (with its suggestion of Christ, who himself could be seen as a kind of suicide in that he willingly chose to die) is used to describe why suicides do not seem to consider the impact of their actions before they act. Carpenters do not ask why they build—they presume that the act of building has a purpose. The carpenter’s only concern is which tools to use. Similarly, suicides do not ask why they wish to die; they, too, only need to know which “tools” to use.

For a normal person, death is tragic, even repugnant—the typical reader may not really want to know how the most disgusting qualities of death can be so compelling. Only the careful use of metaphor can overcome repulsion’s barriers by comparing what is visually acceptable and understandable to what is gross and incomprehensible. When the poem compares life to an addictive “drug,” the use of metaphor effectively explains why the suicide does not want to keep on living: He or she wants the power to choose life or death rather than be compelled to live by an addiction to the pleasures of living; “dazzled, they can’t forget a drug so sweet.” “Wanting to Die” may not make this rationale acceptable to normal readers, but its use of metaphor makes the suicidal person’s obsessions more understandable.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 106

Furst, Arthur. Anne Sexton: The Last Summer. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

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

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

McGowan, Philip. Anne Sexton and Middle Generation Poetry: The Geography of Grief. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004.

Middlebrook, Diane Wood. Anne Sexton: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

Sexton, Linda Gray, and Lois Ames, eds. Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.

Swiontkowski, Gale. Imagining Incest: Sexton, Plath, Rich, and Olds on Life with Daddy. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 2003.

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