Wanting to Die

by Anne Gray Harvey

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

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.

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