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.

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
comver 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.

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.

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.

Summary of Courage

  • Popularity of “Courage”: With its one-word title and beautiful theme, this short and precise poem of Anne Sexton, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, shows the poet at her best. The poem first appeared in her last collection, The Awful Toward God. The collection was first published in 1975 when Houghton Mifflin started marketing it. Tragically, the poet committed suicide a year back in 1974 when she published The Death Notebooks. Despite the expression of courage during different periods of her life, Anne Sexton mysteriously left this world, ending her own life. This has made this poem even more enigmatic.
  • “Courage” As a Representative of Courage: The speaker of the poem, who seems to be the poet herself, talks in a casual and yet serious manner, saying that courage comes when a child takes the first step. Then the child continues taking little steps until he becomes a full boy, facing bickering and insults from his friends and the world. Later, when he becomes young, he faces bombs in war and sees the courage of his friend, who saves him but dies himself. This continues with failure in love or having an unrequited love until the last stage, which is old age. The speaker presents old age as the age of exiting the world. Therefore, a man takes up the courage and moves ahead with his final exit. This all happens, the poet argues, due to courage.
  • Major Themes in “Courage”: Courage, man’s lifecycle, love, and death are major themes of the poem. Although the poet has touched on childhood and the courage that a child picks up when learning to walk, she is of the view that it is soldiering, a lover’s life, and old age that test a man’s courage and strength. Therefore, real courage lies when a person resignedly and bravely accepts these periods of life, plays his part, and leaves. Yet, the stanzas seem to present the entire life of man, from childhood to a young soldier, then from a lover to an old man going to his grave. This shows that man’s lifecycle has four stages in the eyes of the poet. However, this also shows sub-themes such as love when a person is young and death when a person touches his old age.

Analysis of Literary Devices Used in Courage

Anne Sexton used various literary devices to enhance the intended impact of his poem. Some of the major literary devices are analyzed below.

  1. Allusion: It means to use references from society, history, or culture to stress the main idea. The poet used allusions of war, such as bombs and love, as in heart and dead, as in the back door.
  2. Anaphora: It is the occurrence of repetition of a word or a phrase in successive verses. The poem shows the use of anaphora, such as “you did” in the second stanza.
  3. Assonance: Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in the same line, such as the sound of /i/ in “The first time you rode a bike” and the sound of /o/ in “you did not do it with a banner.”
  4. Consonance: Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds in the same line, such as the sound of /d/ and /b/ in “if you faced the death of bombs and bullets” and the sound of /d/ and /s/ in “You did not fondle the weakness inside you.”
  5. Imagery: Imagery is used to make readers perceive things involving their five senses. Anne Sexton used imagery in this poem, such as “If your buddy saved you”, “if you have endured a great despair” and “Next, my kinsman, you powdered your sorrow.”
  6. Metaphor: It is a figure of speech in which an implied comparison is made between objects that are different in nature. The poet used the metaphor of the sword for death, showing that it becomes sharpened during old age.
  7. Personification: It means to attribute human emotions to inanimate objects. The poet used the personifications such as sorrow showing that it has emotions and a life of its own.
  8. Simile: This literary device shows a direct comparison of things to clarify the meanings of the thing being compared. For example, the poem shows the similes of “wringing it out like a sock”, “love as simple as shaving soap” or “first step / as awesome as an earthquake.”
  9. Symbolism: Symbolism is using symbols to signify ideas and qualities, giving them symbolic meanings that are different from the literal meanings. The poem shows symbols such as child, step, bike, crybaby, and acid to show childhood and its issues.

Analysis of Poetic Devices Used in Courage

Poetic and literary devices are the same, but a few are used only in poetry. Here is an analysis of some of the poetic devices used in this poem.

  1. Diction: It means the type of language. The poem shows good use of formal and poetic diction.
  2. Free Verse: It means to write or use poetry without any rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The poem shows the use of free verse.
  3. Refrain: A line or phrase repeated successively in the poem becomes a refrain. “Later” occurs at the beginning of the last three stanzas, making it the refrain of the poem.
  4. Stanza: A stanza is a poetic form of some lines. There are four stanzas, with each having twelve verses.
  5. Tone: It means the voice of the text. The sonnet shows a playful, exciting, pedantic, and tragic tone at different places.

Quotes to be Used

The following lines are useful to quote when talking about old age and the end of life.

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.