The Truth the Dead Know by Anne Sexton: Summary and Critical Analysis

The Truth the Dead Know is a confessional elegy on the death of the poet's parents in 1959. Sexton's mother died in March, due to cancer and father died in June, mainly due to alcoholism. Her grief was, of course, too much to bear, but she also had a kind of strong resentment towards the dead; the burden of grief or any strong emotion is fact riddled with conflicting emotions as Keats says in his poems.

Anne Sexton (1928-1974)

The speaker says she returned from the church and didn’t attend the funeral of her parents. She then goes on to give certain ‘reasons’ indirectly, but she expresses her emotions about the world and her existence in it.

At the personal level, writing in the so-called confessional mode, explores her feelings for her father at his death, only three months after her mother’s death. Rather than honoring her father, Sexton “confesses” the truth about her father, including his alcoholism, his infidelity to her mother, and other failures as a parent. This kind of frank confrontation with the subject considered personal rather than universal by Western literary tradition, was the innovation of the confessional poets and continues as a dominant mode in poetry.

The poem opens up with her first reaction to the death of the dear parents. The persona finds quite hard to tolerate the sorrow which is manifest in the conflict within herself: her going to church (which pronounces her acceptance of loss) and refusing to participate in the funeral procession (that indicates her refusal) the conflict deepens and her enduring vitality dampens down “I am tired of being brave.”

Second stanza captures the speaker’s sense of isolation, her refuge to the nature, in order to obtain some solace. There are two images ‘sun guttering from the sky’ and ‘sea swinging in like an iron gate’ both of which show natural phenomena unconcerned with human sorrows. The persona of the poem experiences that these natural images are becoming cruel towards her. She immediately brings in an expression of the universal phenomenon of death to soften the chill she feels in her heart.

The hyperbolic expression of the first couple of lines from the third stanza marks an experience of an agonized soul about the routine natural process. Wind appears to be stones in her injured psyche. The experience of those who are alive and that of those who are dead are juxtaposed in this poem. The last stanza is the most crucial argument about what the speaker wants to deliver through the poem. Dead does not respond anything; it is senseless, indifferent about the world and life. Dead ignore both spiritual like a blessing as well as material like eye or knucklebone. The poem seems to challenge a traditional belief of life hereafter. The possible truth the dead know is senselessness, nothing and void. The poet tries to envision about the death and its effect. The poem is pessimistic in tone and subject matter. Dead is sailing away from her time. But she remains haunted by their stillness and their unknown ability. The sea that she is watching could become dead also but its calmness would not be as frozen as the stone faces she has looked upon. The poem “The Truth the Dead Know” concerns a funeral and its numb emotional aftermath. “The Truth the Dead Know” is notable because of the strength of the poet’s voice and her determination, even in the face of the deaths of her parents, to continue to live and love. She has learned the importance of accepting death and acting on that acceptance.

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Sharma, Kedar N. "The Truth the Dead Know by Anne Sexton: Summary and Critical Analysis" BachelorandMaster, 1 Nov. 2013,

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Confessional Poetry: A Genre of Poetry

Anne Sexton: Biography