Anne Sexton: “The Truth the Dead Know”
Anne Gray Harvey took the married name Sexton in 1948, thereby joining Swift, Wordsworth, and Frost as one of English literature’s most perfectly named poets. The word sexton, meaning a church officer who serves as bell ringer and gravedigger, is rich in both symbolism and literary history. The figure of the sexton appears in such mainstays of the canon as Hamlet (with its two gravedigger-clowns), Emily Dickinson’s thwarted-love poem “I cannot live with You,” and Hart Crane’s haunting ode “The Broken Tower.” In her brief career, Sexton lived up to virtually all the associations—tragedy and comedy, music and melancholy, death and the embedded word sex—that her name prepared for her.
A member of the mercurial, mid-20th-century group called the confessional poets, Sexton worked in an impressive range of forms and modes, from witty ballads to raw free verse. She broke poetic taboos with flair, writing frankly about menstruation, female masturbation, bipolar disorder, and other topics considered all but untouchable at the time. “A Sexton audience might hiss its displeasure or deliver a standing ovation,” Maxine Kumin recalls in the introduction to Sexton’s Complete Poems. “It did not doze off during a reading.” Like her friend and rival Sylvia Plath, Sexton committed suicide, suffocating herself in her garage at age 45.
Sexton’s titles alone often sound like dispatches from the graveyard. The Pulitzer Prize–winning 1966 collection Live or Die prepared the way for The Death Notebooks (1974) and The Awful Rowing Toward God (posthumous, 1975). Her poems include “The Hangman,” “Imitations of Drowning,” “Suicide Note,” “Godfather Death,” “For Mr. Death Who Stands With His Door Open,” and “Wanting to Die.” Then there’s “The Truth the Dead Know,” the opening poem of All My Pretty Ones (1962) and one of the 20th century’s outstanding poems of loss.
As revealed in its dedication, “The Truth the Dead Know” is an elegy with a double subject:
For my mother, born March 1902, died March 1959
and my father, born February 1900, died June 1959
These are the actual birth and death dates of Mary Gray Staples and Ralph Harvey; their daughter’s poem emerged three years after they died in quick succession. Such autobiographical details, now common in poetry, were then a cutting-edge gesture. In the 1962–1963 Hudson Review, Cecil Hemley reacted with mixed feelings:
There is no doubt that the poet wants us to associate herself with the “I” of the poem. … This identification with the writer has the advantage of intensifying our feelings, but the disadvantage of embarrassing us slightly. There were good reasons why past eras were reticent on such matters. However, the poem rises above the confession and achieves great beauty.
This far removed from confessionalism, Hemley’s embarrassment seems both quaint and beside the point. Distracted by the minor novelty of the framework, he downplays the extent to which the poem is deeply, deliberately traditional. Its imagery could belong to just about any century: church, grave, hearse, shoes, stones, boats, sea, gate, sun that “gutters” like a candle flame.
What was and is fresh about the poem is its bluntness:
Gone, I say and walk from church,
refusing the stiff procession to the grave,
letting the dead ride alone in the hearse.
It is June. I am tired of being brave.
We drive to the Cape. I cultivate
myself where the sun gutters from the sky,
where the sea swings in like an iron gate
and we touch. In another country people die.
From that stark “Gone” onward, the diction is so austerely Anglo-Saxon that the few Latinate words seem like extravagances. Amid stanzas rife with monosyllables, procession sounds highly formal, and cultivate, dangling at the end of a line, sounds almost luxuriant. But cultivate, too, is somehow stiff or hollow in light of the poem’s theme. Both words imply progress, a concept that death mocks. Both offer momentary changes of pace from the prevailing style, which is as plain as loss.
A change of pace is exactly what this speaker craves. Having lost both parents in the space of four months, she escapes to the beach with her unnamed “darling.” There the two lovers feel a sense of overwhelming connection, even communion:
My darling, the wind falls in like stones
from the whitehearted water and when we touch
we enter touch entirely. No one’s alone.
Men kill for this, or for as much.
Despite the bond the couple forges, “this” is no paradise. The “whitehearted water” could be an agitated cousin of Homer’s “wine-dark sea.” It swings “like an iron gate,” recalling the “iron gates of Life” through which Marvell, in “To His Coy Mistress,” insists that we must “tear our pleasures” if we’re to enjoy them at all. The lovers seem besieged, threatened: “the wind falls in like stones,” as in punishment by stoning, and the speaker reflects that “Men kill for this.” Both human and natural forces exact a price for such intense love.
Soon romance fades altogether as Sexton’s dirge marches to its close:
And what of the dead? They lie without shoes
in their stone boats. They are more like stone
than the sea would be if it stopped. They refuse
to be blessed, throat, eye and knucklebone.
This final stanza contains just three polysyllabic words: without, refuse, knucklebone. All three reinforce the image of death as a kind of asceticism. The corpses lie shoeless and motionless. Their refusal echoes the speaker’s refusal of the funeral: just as she abandoned the dead en route to the grave, so the dead now dispense with the blessings of the living. That last exposed knucklebone seems pugnacious and, at the same time, naked.
Meanwhile Sexton’s stone sea recalls at least two of Emily Dickinson’s most chilling images: the corpse as stopped clock and the “Valves” of the soul closing “like Stone.” “Stone boats” (i.e., coffins) evokes the long mythological tradition of death-voyages, from Charon rowing souls across the Styx to the Lady of Shalott drifting glassy-eyed into Camelot. The water that pelted the lovers with spray now seems to have engulfed and petrified Sexton’s imagination. Sea, boats, and bodies become stone, stone, stone. Death is universal and irreversible.
But poems themselves soon die if they freeze into straightforward statements. To survive, they must preserve restless undercurrents of ambiguity. What, if anything, is still moving at the end of Sexton’s poem?
One answer lies in that double-edged word refuse. Paradoxically, Sexton grants the dead an action—an emphatic, line-ending verb that combines cold negation and warm defiance. Moreover, their refusal mirrors the speaker’s, so that living and dead, parents and child, each partake of the activity (and, figuratively, the condition) of the other. “In another country people die,” the speaker declares, echoing Hamlet’s image of death as “The undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns.” Yet like the ghost-haunted Hamlet, Sexton finds that the separation isn’t so absolute. The two countries are joined by a murky psychological sea (Hamlet’s “sea of troubles,” Sexton’s stony waters) and by the indissoluble link between generations.
Sexton’s parents can’t visit her as literal ghosts, but the thought of them in their “stone boats” returns just as she’s trying to get away from it all. Perhaps, as Hemley imagines, they’re “sailing away from her in time,” or perhaps they’re emissaries, harbingers of her own death, floating toward her. Regardless, their “Truth” is what she has to learn and what she has to teach us.
“The Truth the Dead Know” employs a timeless diction, and its theme is as old as parents and children. With a slight change to the headnote, it could be a fictional construct about an anonymous speaker. Yet Sexton takes care to present it as a slice of her own life. As Hemley observes, this may have “the advantage of intensifying our feelings”; it also tempts us to read other biographical factors into the poem.
In 1959, the year Sexton’s parents died, Robert Lowell published Life Studies, widely acknowledged as the foundational text of confessional poetry. In that same year, Sexton took one of Lowell’s workshops at Boston University alongside an ambitious young poet named Sylvia Plath. The competitive friendship between the two women has become legendary. Over happy-hour martinis at the Boston Ritz-Carlton, they talked poetry, planned illustrious futures, and traded stories of suicide attempts. Through their mutual admiration ran a vein of envy: Plath brooded in her diary when Sexton landed her first book deal, and Sexton coveted “a scholarship to McLean,” the psychiatric hospital where Plath and Lowell had both been patients. (She taught a poetry seminar there in 1968–69 before finally being admitted herself in 1973.) Sexton even reacted with jealous resentment to Plath’s suicide, as she confessed in “Sylvia’s Death” (1964):
… and I know at the news of your death,
a terrible taste for it, like salt.
And now, Sylvia,
with death again,
that ride home
with our boy.)
Inescapably, they influenced each other. One revealing way to read “The Truth the Dead Know” is in comparison with “The Colossus,” the title poem of Plath’s first (1960) collection and another distinguished elegy by a grieving daughter.
In “The Colossus,” Plath’s speaker crawls over the massive wreck of a statue she calls “father,” fruitlessly trying to reassemble him. The landscape is eerie, primal, a mix of “the Oresteia” and Dalí. The diction is wildly varied (pig-grunt, acanthine, Lysol), the tone both melodramatic and comic, the speaker’s situation both noble and futile. Plath adopts, in critic Margaret Dickie’s words, “the ancient role of the female who mourns the dying god, or the heroine who tends the idol,” but she’s lost all hope of fulfilling her task. She’s doomed to endless filial duty, the same duty she would later renounce in the explosive “Daddy.”
“The Colossus” was Plath’s first masterpiece, and it can’t be a coincidence that Sexton’s poem, published two years later, tackles the same theme from a virtually opposite angle. No mythic conceit. No verbal razzle-dazzle. The speaker anything but noble. Sexton is not the loyal but the disloyal daughter, not a tragic heroine persisting in rites of mourning but a flawed human resisting grief. The dead father in Plath’s poem remains passive and mysterious; the dead parents in Sexton’s, as if punishing their daughter, flatly “refuse / to be blessed.”
“The Truth the Dead Know” is not superior to “The Colossus,” but it is more raw—and that rawness was the product of enormous effort. Kumin reports that the poem “went through innumerable revisions before arriving at its final form, an a b a b rhyme scheme that allows little room for pyrotechnics.” One unpublished version, available via recording, contains phrases such as “loose brows” and “a blushing hermit in the sun”; it ends on a conventional carpe diem note:“live now, live now.” This redemptive ending feels as alien to the final work as the stylized diction. In both respects, Sexton pared the poem down to the bone.
Plath’s “Daddy” may have been, in part, another entry in this contest of one-upmanship. (If Sexton could abandon her father at his funeral, Plath could call hers “you bastard.”) Similarly, the baroque morbidity of Sexton’s late poems may have been a bid to out-Plath Plath. Both poets took confessionalism to startling extremes, but “The Truth the Dead Know” achieves a starkness neither of them found (or perhaps sought) again. It’s both vulnerable and stoic, colloquial and classically restrained. Along with Dickinson’s “I heard a Fly buzz” and Philip Larkin’s “Aubade,” it’s one of the least comforting death poems in the language. Its power hinges not on the revelation of private details but on the recognition of an impersonal truth—one that we all learn sooner or later.
Austin Allen’s first poetry collection, Pleasures of the Game (Waywiser Press), won the 2016 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. His poems and essays have appeared widely. He lives and teaches in Cincinnati.