Sunday, February 3, 2013

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay was born in 1898 and died in 1950. Raised by a strong mother, who divorced her incompetent father, Millay grew up, reading classical literature and scoffing at the demands of authority. Perhaps as a result of her unconventional upbringing, Millay continued to flout the demands society placed on women. She was openly bisexual and turned down Edmund Wilson's (her editor) proposal of marriage because she feared domesticity would inhibit her development as an artist. Millay displayed an immense vivacity and plunged herself into her experiences unreservedly. Perhaps as a result of her uninhibited thirst for life and the longing for fulfillment that such a lifestyle connotes, Millay developed a remarkable ability to capture an immense sense of loss and incompletion. This ability is vividly evident in the poems quoted below. (For a more detailed bio, see:

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more. 

[I would call this poem a lament, a lament for the self. What does the poet know? Nothing, except that something lovely and happy has gone out of her. And so, she laments, not for her forgotten lads, but for past selves, forgotten and lost, that tap and sigh upon the glass.]

What Savage Blossom

Do I not know what savage blossom only under the pitting hail
Of your inclement season could have prospered? Here lie
Green leaves to wade in. And of the many roads not one road 
    leading outward from this place
But is blocked by boughs that will hiss and simmer when they 
    burn--green autumn, lady, green autumn on this land!

Do I not know what inward pressure only could inflate its petals 
    to withstand
(No, no, not hate, not hate) the onslaught of a little time with 

(No, no, not love, not love) Call it by name,
Now that it's over, now that it is gone and cannot hear us.

It was an honest thing. Not noble. Yet no shame.

[This poem also connotes a kind of grief. It is a concession to the poet's weakness; she herself is no savage blossom. Which makes us ask, what is she? An ordinary blossom? Lovely and fragile. I've often looked at my rose bushes after the rain and loved how red the ground became from bruised petals. But even in the bringing forth of a new beauty, the old one is destroyed. The blossom is broken by the rain, by the hail. So, we are left with a broken poet, who boldly proclaims that there is no shame. But, why, if there is no shame, we ask, must she so boldly announce it?]

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