“Courage” features in Anne Sexton’s eighth and last original poetry collection, The Awful Rowing Toward God, published by Houghton Mifflin. This collection was published in 1975, a year after her suicide (biography). In “Courage,” Sexton takes the reader through four stages of life, using a sequence of symbolic metaphors to illustrate the courageous ways in which humans counter adversity.
Sexton uses the enticing title “Courage” as a theme that she then goes on to explain in the poem. In the first stanza, the “it” is courage and the examples of courage are listed after “it.”
“Courage,” contains four freeverse stanzas, each focusing on a different phase in a human’s lifetime. The first and fourth stanzas respectively concentrate on childhood and old age. The second and third stanzas focus on specific possibilities. Both the second and third sections start with an “if” clause, which limits their subject to a particular life and not as universal.
The first stanza begins with the line, “It is in the small things we see it” (line 1). Here, Sexton is claiming that courage is displayed in ordinary life events. In her first example, she describes “the child’s first step” (line 2) as being “as awesome as an earthquake” (line 3).
Other childhood events that she lists as requiring courage include learning to ride a bike and getting a first spanking (line 5/6). Referring to the latter, Sexton symbolically claims that the child’s “heart / went on a journey all alone” (line 6/7).
In all of the listed examples, Sexton demonstrates the courageous side of everyday events. As Sexton is a confessional poet, she is probably addressing another part of herself. Nevertheless, such events are universal as well, and she highlights this point by using the second person “we” and “you.” Moreover, the majority of these examples are features of childhood, a period of investigation and firsts. It is also the most vulnerable time for a human being. Such vulnerability frequently results in repressed suffering. Presumably, this is what Sexton meant by the lines “you drank their acid / and concealed it (line 11/12).” The “they” are the bullies and abusers of the world.
The poet highlights the more negative occasions by using strong metaphors. Examples include “The first spanking when your heart / went on a journey all alone” (line 6/7), and “you drank their acid” (line 11).
The second stanza starts with a one-word line, “Later” (line 14), meaning the time after childhood, or early adulthood. The conditional “if” is directed at people who may have fought in the Vietnam War.
Once again, the poet illustrates how, even in small ways, the soldier’s courage is evident. Although the soldier is in Vietnam to protect his country, he has with him only some protective gear. Sexton underlines this in the line: “Your courage was a small coal / that you kept swallowing” (line 21/22). Furthermore, when referring to the act of one soldier sacrificing his life for that of another soldier’s, Sexton describes the martyrdom as “not courage / it was love; love as simple as shaving soap” (line 25/26).
The third stanza begins with the line “Later, / if you have endured a great despair,” (line 28/29). Here, Sexton outlines the actions of a person who has suffered. The cause of the suffering is not explained, but within the context of the poem it is irrelevant anyway. The poet uses the heart and circulatory system as a metaphor for pain. A good example of this is, “getting a transfusion from the fire, / picking the scabs off your heart, / then wringing it out like a sock” (line 31-33).
Later on in the stanza, Sexton personifies “sorrow” (line 34), and tells the reader “you gave it a back rub / and then you covered it with a blanket” (line 35/36).
The fourth and final stanza centres around old age and death. The stanza begins with the lines: “Later, / when you face old age and its natural conclusion” (line 41/42). Sexton goes on to describe how, in old age, the individual will continue to display courage in small ways in spite of the inevitable. One example is the way in which the older person will give all the love they can to their family, in the time they have left (line 45).
The final three lines of the poem are, quite rightly, the most powerful: “when death opens the back door / you’ll put on your carpet slippers / and stride out” (lines 48-50). Sexton uses eloquent enjambment for this climax and it works effectively in grabbing the reader and leaving them with something to think about. The enjambment also matches the words and the idea of the lines: of marching out with no hesitation. To die bravely is the ultimate act of courage, and Sexton depicts this concept subtly but perfectly.
Throughout “Courage,” Sexton leads her readers through four different stages of life, highlighting the ways in which courage is depicted through small, often mundane, events. The poem explores typical Sexton themes such as death wishes, searches for meaning, loneliness, and pain. Nevertheless, even to a reader who is familiar with much of Sexton’s work, this poem remains unique.
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Sexton, Anne. “Courage”. The Awful Rowing Toward God. Houghton Mifflin, 1975. Print.