The Truth the Dead Know

By Anne Sexton


Welcome to our journey through Anne Sexton’s moving poem, “The Truth the Dead Know.” Anne Sexton, an American poet known for her personal and confessional verse, crafted this poem in 1962, shortly after the death of both her parents. This piece reflects on grief, loss, and the existential disconnection that can follow the death of loved ones. 🌹📜

Sexton’s work often grapples with complex emotional landscapes, and “The Truth the Dead Know” is no exception. This poem belongs to the genre of confessional poetry, a style that focuses on extreme personal experiences, often from a first-person perspective. In this guide, we’ll uncover the layers of meaning and the literary craftsmanship that make this poem a profound exploration of human emotion.

Meaning of The Truth the Dead Know

Opening section “The Truth the Dead Know” begins with a stark reflection on the aftermath of death, setting a somber tone:

“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.”

In these lines, Sexton conveys the narrator’s exhaustion with the rituals of mourning and a desire to break away from them, highlighting a deep-seated alienation from the societal expectations surrounding grief.

Mid section The middle part of the poem shifts to a more introspective examination of the personal impact of loss:

“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.”

Here, Sexton juxtaposes personal healing attempts with ongoing distant tragedies, suggesting a universal, yet often ignored, continuum of suffering and loss.

Concluding section The poem concludes with a powerful resolution that nothing can restore the loss:

“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.”

The final lines acknowledge the profound need for connection and the extremes to which individuals will go to achieve or maintain such intense moments of togetherness, pointing to the underlying truth that death exposes about human desperation for connection.

In-depth Analysis

Stanza One —

  • Literary Techniques: The poem opens with a narrative technique, directly addressing the experience of leaving a funeral. The use of stark, simple language and the refusal of traditional rites captures the rawness of grief.
  • Syntax and Diction: Short, declarative sentences and the use of the word “Gone” set a tone of finality and detachment.

Stanza Two —

  • Figurative Language: Imagery of the sun guttering and the sea swinging like an iron gate conveys a sense of nature’s indifference to human suffering, a harsh backdrop to personal grief.
  • Syntax and Diction: The contrast in the imagery of a picturesque landscape with the harsh reality of death elsewhere heightens the sense of isolation.

Stanza Three —

  • Literary Techniques: The final stanza employs powerful metaphors, like “the wind falls in like stones,” to evoke the physical sensation of emotional pain.
  • Themes and Symbols: The touch and the connection it brings is symbolic of life’s most cherished moments, set against the backdrop of universal mortality and violence.

Poetic Devices used in The Truth the Dead Know

Device NameExample from the Poem
Metaphor“the wind falls in like stones” – Comparing the suddenness and impact of wind to falling stones.
Simile“sea swings in like an iron gate” – Comparing the motion of the sea to the heavy, ponderous swing of an iron gate.
Alliteration“sun gutters from the sky” – The repetition of the initial ‘s’ sound creates a soft, sibilant effect.
Personification“the sun gutters” – Giving the sun human-like actions of faltering or diminishing.
Imagery“whitehearted water” – Vividly depicts the sea’s appearance, enhancing the emotional tone.
Symbolism“touch” – Repeated references to touch symbolize connection and emotional closeness, central to grappling with grief.
Irony“In another country people die” – Highlights the irony of personal grief against the backdrop of universal suffering.
RepetitionThe repetition of “touch” underscores its thematic significance and the human need for connection.
AnaphoraRepeated use of “we” in the final stanza emphasizes a collective experience and unity in suffering.
EnjambmentThe flow across lines without terminal punctuation emphasizes a stream of consciousness and the continuity of thoughts and emotions.

The Truth the Dead Know – FAQs

Q: What is the main theme of ‘The Truth the Dead Know’? A: The main theme revolves around grief and the existential reflections on life and death prompted by the loss of loved ones.

Q: How does Anne Sexton use form and structure in the poem? A: Sexton uses a free verse structure, allowing the emotional content to dictate the poem’s rhythm and flow rather than conforming to a specific metrical pattern.

Q: What poetic devices does Sexton employ to convey the theme of grief? A: Sexton utilizes a mix of metaphors, similes, and imagery to vividly portray the emotional landscape of mourning and detachment from societal expectations.

Q: What inspired Anne Sexton to write ‘The Truth the Dead Know’? A: Anne Sexton wrote this poem after the death of her parents, using the piece as a means to articulate her grief and existential contemplations about life, death, and the meaning—or lack thereof—in mourning rituals.

Q: Can ‘The Truth the Dead Know’ be considered a typical example of confessional poetry? A: Yes, “The Truth the Dead Know” is a quintessential example of confessional poetry. It delves into very personal themes of grief and loss, presented through Sexton’s intimate and candid narrative voice, which is characteristic of the confessional genre.

Q: What does the title ‘The Truth the Dead Know’ suggest about the poem’s perspective on knowledge and death? A: The title suggests that there is some existential truth or knowledge that only the dead have access to, which the living can only speculate about. It implies a profound sense of separation between the experiences of the living and the dead, and a resigned acknowledgment of the mysteries of death that remain out of reach.

Q: How does the setting contribute to the themes of the poem? A: The settings described in the poem—from a church to the Cape—serve as backdrops against which the themes of isolation and the stark contrast between societal expectations and personal emotional realities are explored. These settings also help in creating a visual and emotional landscape that complements the poem’s somber tone.

The Truth the Dead Know Study Guide

Exercise: List all the devices used in this verse:

“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.”


  • Repetition: “I am tired of being brave.” – Emphasizes the weariness and emotional exhaustion of the speaker.
  • Imagery: “letting the dead ride alone in the hearse.” – Creates a vivid picture of the funeral procession, highlighting isolation.
  • Personification: “June” is subtly personified as a witness to the speaker’s emotional state.
  • Metaphor: “stiff procession” metaphorically suggests the rigid, unyielding nature of funeral rituals.

This verse uses various poetic devices to convey the speaker’s internal conflict and disillusionment with conventional expressions of mourning, making it a rich source for analysis and discussion in understanding Sexton’s use of language to express deep personal grief.