Edna St. Vincent Millay

Admit that you admire the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) before a gathering of postmodernists, or even modernists, and you may be pelted with tomatoes! Some of her better-known verses sound breathy and even frilly to today’s ear and their subjects seem conventional: the seasons, youthful exuberance, romantic love. Indeed, Millay is arguably the finest poet of romantic love in English Literature, and also one of its greatest sonneteers. But it’s a calumny to pigeonhole her work this way. Her poems got tougher over the years, both in subject matter and diction, and if you acquaint yourself with her entire opus, you will understand why this famously “feminine” poet preferred to be called by her masculine middle name, Vincent. She had some chops.

Millay was adored in her day. Her books sold well, her readings drew throngs, she was a popular celebrity on the radio. She seemed to her fans like the very epitome of the poetess, with her delicate bone structure and her Titian hair. In her autobiography, Margaret Mead tells of she and a group of friends serenading the poet beneath her Greenwich Village window. She had star quality.

She was also a bohemian and a libertine, sexually adventurous yet loyal, in her way, to her husband of 24 years, Eugen Boissevan, who granted her every freedom even as he catalyzed her writing and managed her career. When they were apart, Millay had affairs, yet still carried on a sexy correspondence with Eugen.

As she moved into her 40’s, Millay became unwell; chronic pain resulting from a car accident plummeted her into drug addiction. She burned out young, as might have been predicted from her early boasts about her candle burning at both ends. She died sadly, and prematurely, having survived her husband by a year. She left behind her incandescent poetry, still giving a lovely light, just like her candle.




God’s World

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
       Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
       Thy mists, that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour! That gaunt crag
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!

Long have I known a glory in it all,
               But never knew I this:
               Here such passion is
As stretcheth me apart, —Lord, I do fear

Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year;
My soul is all but out of me, —let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.


Siege

This I do, being mad:
Gather baubles about me,
Sit in a circle of toys, and all the time
Death beating the door in.

White jade and an orange pitcher,
       Hindu idol, Chinese god, —
Maybe next year, when I’m richer—
       Carved beads and a lotus pod. . . .


And all this time
Death beating the door in.


The Anguish

I would to God I were quenched and fed
As in my youth
From the flask of song, and the good bread
Of beauty richer than truth.

The anguish of the world is on my tongue.
My bowl is filled to the brim with it; there is no more that I can eat.
Happy are the toothless old and the toothless young,
That cannot rend this meat.


Counting-out Rhyme

Silver bark of beech, and sallow
Bark of yellow birch and yellow
       Twig of willow.

Stripe of green in moosewood maple,
Colour seen in leaf of apple,
       Bark of popple.

Wood of popple pale as moonbeam,
Wood of oak for yoke and barn-beam,
       Wood of hornbeam.

Silver bark of beech, and hollow
Stem of elder, tall and yellow
       Twig of willow.


[Sonnet]

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide.
There are a hundred places where I fear
To go, —so with his memory they brim.
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.


Apostrophe to Man

(on reflecting that the world is ready to go to war again)

Detestable race, continue to expunge yourself, die out.
Breed faster, crowd, encroach, sing hymns, build bombing airplanes;
Make speeches, unveil statues, issue bonds, parade;
Convert again into explosives the bewildered ammonia and the distracted cellulose;
Convert again into putrescent matter drawing the flies
The hopeful bodies of the young; exhort,
Pray, pull long faces, be earnest, be all but overcome, be photographed.
Confer, perfect your formulae, commercialize
Bacteria harmful to human tissue,
Put death on the market;
Breed, crowd, encroach, expand, expunge yourself, die out,
Homo called sapiens.


An Ancient Gesture

I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:
Penelope did this too.
And more than once: you can’t keep weaving all day
And undoing it all through the night;
Your arms get tired, and the back of your neck gets tight;
And along towards morning, when you think it will never be light,
And your husband has been gone, and you don’t know where, for years,
Suddenly you burst into tears;
There is simply nothing else to do.

And I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:
This is an ancient gesture, authentic, antique,
In the very best tradition, classic, Greek;
Ulysses did this too.
But only as a gesture, —a gesture which implied
To the assembled throng that he was much too moved to speak.
He learned it from Penelope . . .
Penelope, who really cried.


Ragged Island Excerpt

There, there where those black spruces crowd
To the edge of the precipitous cliff,
Above your boat, under the eastern wall of the island;
And no wave breaks; as if
All had been done, and long ago, that needed
Doing; and the cold tide, unimpeded
By shoal or shelving ledge, moves up and down,
Instead of in and out;
And there is no driftwood there, because there is no beach;
Clean cliff going down as deep as clear water can reach;

No driftwood, such as abounds on the roaring shingle,
To be hefted home, for fires in the kitchen stove;
Barrels, banged ashore about the boiling outer harbour;
Lobster-buoys, on the eel-grass of the sheltered cove:

There, thought unbraids itself, and the mind becomes single.


[Sonnet]

The doctor asked her what she wanted done
With him, that could not lie there many days.
And she was shocked to see how life goes on
Even after death, in irritating ways;
And mused how if he had not died at all
‘Twould have been easier—then there need not be
The stiff disorder of a funeral
Everywhere, and the hideous industry,
And crowds of people calling her by name
And questioning her, she’d never seen before,
But only watching by his bed once more
And sitting silent if a knocking came . . .
She said at length, feeling the doctor’s eyes,
“I don’t know what you do exactly when a person dies.”


[Untitled]

Intense and terrible, I think, must be the loneliness
Of infants—look at all
The Teddy-bears clasped in slumber in slatted cribs
Painted pale-blue or pink.
And all the Easter Bunnies, dirty and disreputable, that deface
The white pillow and the sterile, immaculate, sunny, turning
       pleasantly in space,
Dainty abode of Baby—try to replace them
With new ones, come Easter again, fluffy and white, and with a
       different smell;
Release with gentle force from the horrified embrace,
That hugs until the stitches give and the stuffing shows,
His only link with a life of his own, the only thing he really knows . . .
Try to sneak it out of sight.
If you wish to hear anger yell glorious
From air-filled lungs through a throat unthrottled
By what the neighbours will say;
If you wish to witness a human countenance contorted
And convulsed and crumpled by helpless grief and despair,
Then stand beside the slatted crib and say There, there, and take the toy away.

Pink and pale-blue look well
In a nursery. And for the most part Baby is really good:
He gurgles, he whimpers, he tries to get his toe to his mouth;
       he slobbers his food
Dreamily—cereals and vegetable juices—onto his bib;
He behaves as he should.

But do not for a moment believe he has forgotten Blackness; nor the deep
Easy swell; nor his thwarted
Design to remain for ever there;
Nor the crimson betrayal of his birth into a yellow glare.
The pictures painted on the inner eyelids of infants juts before they sleep,
Are not pastel.


Modern Declaration

I, having loved ever since I was a child a few things, never having wavered
In these affections; never through shyness in the houses of the rich or in the
       presence of clergymen having denied these loves;
Never when worked upon by cynics like chiropractors having grunted or
       clicked a vertebra to the discredit of these loves;
Never when anxious to land a job having diminished them by a conniving
       smile; or when befuddled by drink
Jeered at them through heartache or lazily fondled the fingers of their alert
       enemies; declare

That I shall love you always.
No matter what party is in power;
No matter what temporarily expedient combination of allied interests wins the war;
Shall love you always.



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