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Anne Sexton's "Courage"

Updated on December 17, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Anne Sexton

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Courage"

In religions and philosophical traditions, the lifetime of a human being is often sectioned into four stages: 1) childhood, 2) young adulthood, 3) family life, and 4) old age. Each stage prepares the individual for the next succeeding stage. In Anne Sexton, "Courage," the speaker focuses on these stages in four verse paragraphs (versagraphs).

The first and fourth versagraphs look at childhood and old age. While these two versagraphs might well represent a majority of human experience, the second and third versagraphs are more limited to a particular life.

Courage

It is in the small things we see it.
The child’s first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike,
wallowing up the sidewalk.
The first spanking when your heart
went on a journey all alone.
When they called you crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy
and made you into an alien,
you drank their acid
and concealed it.

Later,
if you faced the death of bombs and bullets
you did not do it with a banner,
you did it with only a hat to
cover your heart.
You did not fondle the weakness inside you
though it was there.
Your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing.
If your buddy saved you
and died himself in so doing,
then his courage was not courage,
it was love; love as simple as shaving soap.

Later,
if you have endured a great despair,
then you did it alone,
getting a transfusion from the fire,
picking the scabs off our heart,
then wringing it out like a sock.
Next, my kinsman, you powdered your sorrow,
you gave it a back rub
and then you covered it with a blanket
and after it had slept a while
it woke to the wings of the roses
and was transformed.

Later,
when you face old age and its natural conclusion
your courage will still be shown in the little ways,
each spring will be a sword you’ll sharpen,
those you love will live in a fever of love,
and you’ll bargain with the calendar
and at the last moment
when death opens the back door
you’ll put on your carpet slippers
and stride out.

Reading of Anne Sexton's "Courage"

Commentary

First Versagraph: Beginning as a Child

It is in the small things we see it.
The child’s first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike,
wallowing up the sidewalk.
The first spanking when your heart
went on a journey all alone.
When they called you crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy
and made you into an alien,
you drank their acid
and concealed it.

The speaker claims that courage is on display in the everyday events in life. She backs up this claim by referring to the first step taken by a child, finding that first step, "as awesome as an earthquake."

Other childhood events that demonstrated courage were learning to ride a bike, taking that first spanking, which is momentous, for the speaker metaphorically claims that the young child's '"heart / went on a journey all alone." That lonely journey, then, shows the courage of the young child enduring that spanking.

And then when some bully at school called her that name, "fatty or crazy,"" and made her feel that she did not belong, the child showed courage again by drinking ""their acid" and hiding her pain of feeling like an outcast.

The speaker emphasizes the starker occasions by representing them with strong metaphors, as in the lines, "The first spanking when your heart / went on a journey all alone," and "you drank their acid."

Second Versagraph: The Life of a Soldier in the Battle of Life

Later,
if you faced the death of bombs and bullets
you did not do it with a banner,
you did it with only a hat to
cover your heart.
You did not fondle the weakness inside you
though it was there.
Your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing.
If your buddy saved you
and died himself in so doing,
then his courage was not courage,
it was love; love as simple as shaving soap.

The second verse paragraph moves on to later in a person's life. This particular life is that of a soldier in a war zone. The speaker again shows how in little ways even the soldiers courage is displayed.

Even though he is there to protect the flag of his country, he is there with only some protective gear, and again the speaker stresses the act of courage by metaphorically likening it to a small coal that the soldier must continue to swallow.

About the act of courage that most citizens would deem the greatest, the act of saving a fellow soldier's life, this speaker claims that act was not courage at all but love: '"it was love; love as simple as shaving soap."

Third Versagraph: Those Who Have Suffered Much

Later,
if you have endured a great despair,
then you did it alone,
getting a transfusion from the fire,
picking the scabs off our heart,
then wringing it out like a sock.
Next, my kinsman, you powdered your sorrow,
you gave it a back rub
and then you covered it with a blanket
and after it had slept a while
it woke to the wings of the roses
and was transformed.

In the third versagraph, the speaker delineates the activities of the person who has simply suffered; we do not learn the cause of the suffering because it does not matter. The speaker metaphorically focuses on the heart and circulatory system saying that the suffering was like getting a transfusion of fire, which caused the heart to bleed and then the sufferer had to pick scabs off the heart and then wring it out like a wet sock.

Something of an interesting mixed metaphor/simile here. Then again, the speaker personifies the sorrow which the sufferer gives a back rub and covers with a blanket. After the sorrow was allowed to sleep awhile, it woke to some relief, . . . "to the wings of the roses / and was transformed."

Fourth Versagraph: As the End Approaches

Later,
when you face old age and its natural conclusion
your courage will still be shown in the little ways,
each spring will be a sword you’ll sharpen,
those you love will live in a fever of love,
and you’ll bargain with the calendar
and at the last moment
when death opens the back door
you’ll put on your carpet slippers
and stride out.

The fourth versagraph focuses on old age and death and how the person will show courage in small ways in the face of these inevitable facts of life: the person will want spring to be sharp like a sword, and she will love her loved ones with greater affection.

And the last small detail is that at the very end after death has finally called, the speaker will simply slip out the back door wearing her house slippers. The smallest detail yet accompanying the greatest event! The speaker has taken the reader/listener through a life showing how this life was lived with courage in the small details of life.

Of course, we become very aware that this poem represents just one person's view. The speaker''s interpretations of what is a small thing might be open to challenges.

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  • Maya Shedd Temple profile image
    Author

    Linda Sue Grimes 4 weeks ago from Spring Hill, TN

    Thank you, Karkye. Yes, Anne Sexton was a rather skillful poet. A bit gloomy at times, but nevertheless quite readable for the most part.

  • KrakyePoku profile image

    Krakye Omane Poku 4 weeks ago from Ghana

    A really impressive work done on the commentary. The poem too is a great one.

  • Maya Shedd Temple profile image
    Author

    Linda Sue Grimes 2 years ago from Spring Hill, TN

    Thank you, John. Always love finding out that my commentaries are useful to folks! Have a great, blessed day . . .

  • Jodah profile image

    John Hansen 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

    I love this poem by Anne Sexton., your analysis, and the reading. Thank you for sharing.