(15) Courage [By Anne Sexton]

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Poem Instructions: Find two journey poems by well-known authors and write a paragraph analysis of each.

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Courage (Poem)

by Anne Sexton

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.
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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.
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Later,
if you have endured a great despair,
then you did it alone,
getting a transfusion from the fire,
picking the scabs off your 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.
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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.

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Courage (Poem Analysis)

The poem is talking about a person’s journey in life and the persistence of courage. Each stanza represents a major stage in the person’s life journey and how courage is constantly being displayed through different acts and ways (small, ordinary events in life). The poem goes through the child’s first steps, riding the bike for the first time, first spanking, being bullied, young adulthood, experiencing a war, witnessing a friend’s death, and facing death.

Sexton uses a lot of imagery and strong metaphors to bring forth her points in a more meaningful and engaging manner. The child showed courage when he took his first steps (ventured into the world; first steps of his life journey) and when he rode his bike for the very first time (tried something new). When the speaker says that the child’s heart “went on a journey all alone”, it shows the tremendous courage of the child when he endured the first spanking. As the child moved on and started going to school, he showed courage by “drinking the acid.” The acid represents the bullying and name-calling that he had to go through. The child hid his pain which burnt like acid (hurt that he felt every day), and concealed his feelings of being an outcast.

The next stage in the speaker’s life is when he is at war as a soldier. The hat that was used to cover the heart shows that the speaker had fear but hid it. The small coal represents the power of love that was used to fuel courage. The shaving soap represents the simplicity of love and shows how it was the powerful force that drove him to save his fellow soldier’s life.

In the next stage in the speaker’s life, he describes a person who is suffering from some event (not specified). The speaker describes how the suffering is like a “transfusion of fire” which caused the heart to bleed. The scabs on the speaker’s heart represents that the pain was deep and how it was there for a very long time. Even when the speaker picked the scabs off and wrung it out like a sock, some of the pain was still left there (when you wring a wet sock, it gets rid of some of the water, but the sock still remains partially wet). The speaker then personifies the pain and sorrow. The person who is suffering gives sorrow a rub on the back and covers it with a blanket. The sorrow was allowed to sleep, and woke to the “wings of the roses.” The “wings of the roses” represent the relief to which the sorrow woke to. When the sorrow woke, it was transformed.

The last stanza focuses on old age as the speaker faces death. Even at this late stage in the speaker’s life journey, he still manages to show courage in small ways. The “sword you’ll sharpen” represents bravery, courage, and something that you can defend yourself with, as well as attack life with. The speaker bargains with the calendar over how many days he has left to live. The last detail that pays tribute to the speaker’s courage is how the speaker simply slips out the backdoor wearing his house slippers when his days are up and death comes to greet him (the speaker is relaxed and not afraid to embrace death).

The poem goes over the unconventional definition of courage that is shown by everyone throughout their life journeys, and touches on the relationship between pain and courage. Sexton wrote the poem in free verse to symbolize that life is an ongoing and erratic journey, and that we cannot predict things in life.

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Courage (Teacher Comment)

Mr. Nollan: (Analysis: 5/5) You’ve given way more analysis on the poems than necessary.

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