Monday, February 28, 2011

My Candle Burns At Both Ends and Midnight Oil

My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends -
It gives a lovely light.

I had the occasion to quote this lovely poem when someone asked "And when do you sleep?"

It is the perfect answer.

And it always makes me think of this one as well:

Midnight Oil
Cut if you will, with Sleep's dull knife,
Each day to half its length, my friend,--
The years that Time take off my life,
He'll take from off the other end!

(Both from "A Few Figs From Thistles" 1920)

The second is as flippant and funny as it is sadly true. Millay died quite young.

Perhaps I should endeavor to get some sleep after all :)

Sunday, February 27, 2011


And if I loved you Wednesday,
Well, what is that to you?
I do not love you Thursday -
So much is true.

And why you come complaining
Is more than I can see.
I loved you Wednesday, - yes - but what
Is that to me?

(From "First Fig" 1922)

A cheeky little poem for the weekend.

Friday, February 25, 2011

"I Shall Forget You" Sonnet

I shall forget you presently, my dear,
So make the most of this, your little day,
Your little month, your little half a year,
Ere I forget, or die, or move away,
And we are done forever; by and by
I shall forget you, as I said, but now,
If you entreat me with your loveliest lie
I will protest you with my favorite vow.
I would indeed that love were longer-lived,
And oaths were not so brittle as they are,
But so it is, and nature has contrived
To struggle on without a break thus far,—
Whether or not we find what we are seeking
Is idle, biologically speaking.

This sonnet was printed as a companion to one I posted earlier this month in the post entitled " 'I Should Have' Sonnet." While the first sonnet I posted speaks to a love lost, this one speaks to an current affair that she feels sure will end, although she wishes that it wouldn't. The boldness of the first line and the flippant character of the middle section complement each other wonderfully. She is dooming this flirtation to an end but while it goes on, she seems to say, we might as well have fun.

The last two lines have a haunting quality that speak beyond the present situation of the poem and to Millay's view of relationships in general. Our biological natures are not predisposed to aid us in our search for true love, and whether we find it or not we will live and die the same. It is a morbid take on the search for love, especially in such a flirty poem, but Millay was often grave and this little sonnet is simply no exception.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

"Whereas At Morning" Fatal Interview - Sonnet 24

Whereas at morning in a Jeweled Crown
I bit my fingers and was hard to please,
Having shook disaster till the fruit fell down
I feel tonight more happy and at ease:
Feet running in the corridors, men quick—
Buckling their sword-belts, bumping down the stair,
Challenge, and rattling bridge-chain, and the click
Of hooves on pavement—this will clear the air.
Private this chamber as it has not been
In many a month of muffled hours; almost,
Lulled by the uproar, I could lie serene
And sleep, until all's won, until all's lost,
And the door's opened and the issue shown,
And I walk forth Hell's Mistress—or my own.

(From "Fatal Interview" 1931)

This has been one of my favorite "Fatal Interview" sonnets since I first found Millay many years ago. Her medieval metaphor encompasses the entire poem here, and yet she still manages to make it a parable, not a just a story. Not a line of the poem steps outside the bounds of the scene she has set, yet we can tell she isn't really talking about a castle and a battle - she is talking about her relationship with Dillon.

This poem makes more sense in the context of Fatal Interview, as it is situated after a poem condeming falsehood and directly before a poem that likens desire to a dangerous walk in the woods at night. While the former poem is a decision not to lie and the latter is a description of the risk she has taken, the poem in the middle is an examination of her actions. It is more active than reflective, and it reminds me of poem 22 (two sonnets before this one) that begins "Now by this moon, before this moon shall wane/I shall be dead or I shall be with you!" The resemblance to the last line of this poem "And I walk forth Hell's Mistress—or my own" is clear. She has made a demand and awaits an answer that will either move her relationship forward or end it. It is bold, and somewhat feminist, and most of all it is excellent poetry.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Wine From These Grapes

Wine From These Grapes

Wine from these grapes I shall be treading surely
Morning and noon and night until I die.
Stained with these grapes I shall lie down to die.

If you would speak with me on any matter,
At any time, come where these grapes are grown;
And you will find me treading them to must.
Lean then above me sagely, lest I spatter
Drops of the wine I tread from grapes and dust.

Stained with these grapes I shall lie down to die.
Three women come to wash me clean
Shall not erase this stain.
Nor leave me lying purely,
Awaiting the black lover.
Death, fumbling to uncover
My body in his bed,
Shall know
There has been one
Before him.

(From "Wine From These Grapes" 1934)

This is the title poem from Millay's 1934 collection. During this time in her life she was married to Boissevain and they were traveling widely together. It's possible that she had been to parts of Italy and seen the women crushing grapes for wine, their legs stained red, and that image inspired her to write this poem.

This poem uses religious imagery to portray herself as being at constant work. I suppose she is referring to her writing, how it colors her life and defines who she is. She imagines that she will be so stained by her passion for writing that even Death will see the mark of her life's work on her body. This is not the only poem in which she casts Death as a sexual partner, and it is an intriguing metaphor. Throughout Millay's life she shared love and passion with many people and it is perhaps fitting that she imagined Death as yet another lover.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011



People that build their houses inland,
People that buy a plot of ground
Shaped like a house, and build a house there,
Far from the sea-board, far from the sound

Of water sucking the hollow ledges,
Tons of water striking the shore,--
What do they long for, as I long for
One salt smell of the sea once more?

People the waves have not awakened,
Spanking the boats at the harbor's head,
What do they long for, as I long for,--
Starting up in my inland bed,

Beating the narrow walls, and finding
Neither a window nor a door,
Screaming to God for death by drowning,--
One salt taste of the sea once more?

(From "Second April" 1921)

Growing up on the coast of Maine and living much of her life on the ocean, Millay had a strong attachment to sea and it features prominently in many of her poems. This poem is not about being near the ocean, it is about being away from the ocean and longing for all its qualities. It begins with a question: How do people live away from the ocean? Do they not feel the same way as she does? And it quickly grows louder and more intense until she portrays herself running around the house, crying and screaming.

I have asked this question myself, though not as intensely as Millay poses it here. How do people live in places far from large bodies of water? Don't they miss that smell, the sounds of the water, seeing the sun dancing on the waves? How can they stand to be so far away from it?

This poem is reminiscent of "Exiled," a poem I posted earlier this month, but it is more desperate. While "Exiled" has a contemplative bent, "Inland" is angry, passionate and demanding. These subjectively similar yet emotionally distinct poems show two sides of a vertisile and brilliant poet.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

"Night Is My Sister" From Fatal Interview

Night is my sister, and how deep in love,
How drowned in love and weedily washed ashore,
There to be fretted by the drag and shove
At the tide's edge, I lie - these things and more:
Whose arm alone between me and the sand,
Whose voice alone, whose pitiful breath brought near,
Could thaw these nostrils and unlock this hand,
She could advise you, should you care to hear.
Small chance, however, in a storm so black,
A man will leave his friendly fire and snug
For a drowned woman's sake, and bring her back
To drip and scatter shells upon the rug.
No one but night, with tears on her dark face,
Watches beside me in this windy place.

(From "Fatal Interview" 1931)

I love this poem. It sounds desperate, it's heavy on dark metaphor and it goes out of its way to rhyme, but I love it. There is something so loud and real about this poem, like hearing the sound of your own heartbeat in a pitch black room. I love the imagery of scattering shells on the rug in front of the fire. I can see the sand in her hair, smell the seaweed and hear the shells hitting the floor.

This is another sonnet from Fatal Interview, which means it is another sonnet about Dillon. Millay's turbulent relationship with him was terrible for her, but great for her poetry, and this poem is an excellent example of that. She describes herself as sad, pathetic, drowning in love with no hope of comfort - but she does so beautifully.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011



Butterflies are white and blue
In this field we wander through.
Suffer me to take your hand.
Death comes in a day or two.

All the things we ever knew
Will be ashes in that hour,
Mark the transient butterfly,
How he hangs upon the flower.

Suffer me to take your hand.
Suffer me to cherish you
Till the dawn is in the sky.
Whether I be false or true,
Death comes in a day or two.

(From "Second April" 1921)

Another poem from "Second April" today. Mariposa means butterfly in french, a language Millay used selectively in her poetry and her poem titles.

This poem communicates a sense of carpe diem applied to love that is both morbid and romantic. The last stanza "Suffer me to take you hand/Suffer me to cherish you" is a plea to love while we are still alive and to me connates a sense of unrequitedness and a desire to give love.

It is true, life is short and the short, beautiful life a butterfly is a poignant reminder of that fact. I love the enormous meaning she packs into this short poem, and the heartbreaking quality of her rhymes in this piece.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn't a train goes by all day
But I hear its whistle shrieking.
All night there isn't a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming
But I see its cinders red on the sky,
And hear its engine steaming.
My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I'll not be knowing,
Yet there isn't a train I wouldn't take,
No matter where it's going.

(From “Second April” 1921)

That sound of a train in the distance, the image of its the cinders on the sky - that is what I love most about this poem. No metaphors here, just her skill at detailing an emotion and connecting it to a physical reality.

It is an odd feeling to know that where you are is a good place, the people who surround you are the sorts of people you want to be with and yet in an instant you would leave it behind to jump on a train that is going somewhere, anywhere new.

Millay had a great deal of wanderlust, she traveled to throughout Europe and the US during her lifetime and didn't settle in one place until she moved to Steepletop with Eugen near the end of her short life. This poem is an earlier work, and it has a sense of youthfulness to it but the emotions are mature.

I think of this poem when I'm in my room and I hear and I hear a train whistle. And for me, it goes hand in hand with this song: Video Link - Matt Kearney "Nothing Left To Lose"

Monday, February 14, 2011

Modern Declaration

Modern Declaration

I, having loved ever since I was a child a few things, never having
In these affections; never through shyness in the houses of the
rich or in the presence of clergymen having denied these
Never when worked upon by cynics like chiropractors having
grunted or clicked a vertebra to the discredit of those 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.

(From "Huntsman, What Quarry?" 1939)

Seeing as it is St. Valentine's day, I thought it fitting to share one of Millay's few poems about lasting love. In this poem she makes use of a few metaphors to make her point, but there is no overarching metaphor that runs throughout the poem. She is more realistic here, describing what type of a person she is and why her declaration of love is one that can be counted upon. She names it "Modern Declaration" probably because her metaphors are drawn from modern life - wars, politics, clergy, critics, chiropractors, job interviews - these references are starkly different from her usual nature metaphors and references to ancient myth. They are modern and they are plainly stated. The last part of the poem connects us back to the first line and pulls out the simple statement behind the elongated verse: "I have loved very few things in my life but I have always been true to them, so when I say I love you, I mean forever."

It could be seen as making a case for her own devotion but I think there is more to it than that. She acknowleges the cares and concerns of modern life and says that yes, these exist, but my love for you is better than that.

Its not flowery or passionate, but I think that this may perhaps be the most romantic poem Vincent ever published.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Flirty Sonnet

I, being born a woman and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
To bear your body's weight upon my breast:
So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possessed.
Think not for this, however, the poor treason
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity, - let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.

(From "Harpweaver" 1923)

Oh come on, you know what this is about.

I love the blunt sincerity she pummels the reader with, with every line becoming more logical and cold and less impulsively passionate. My favorite line here is "To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind."

This is one for the wild times; you can give it out with your fake phone number.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Above These Cares

Above these cares my spirit in calm abiding
Floats like a swimmer at sunrise, facing the pale sky;
Peaceful, heaved by the light infrequent lurch of the heavy wave serenely sliding
Under his weightless body, aware of the wide morning, aware of the gull on the red buoy bedaubed with guano, aware of his sharp cry;
Idly athirst for the sea, as who should say:
In a moment I will roll upon my mouth and drink it dry.

Painfully, under the pressure that obtains
At the sea's bottom, crushing my lungs and my brains
(For the body makes shift to breathe and after a fashion flourish
Ten fathoms deep in care,
Ten fathoms deep in an element denser than air
Wherein the soul must perish)
I trap and harvest, stilling my stomach's needs;
I crawl forever, hoping never to see
Above my head the limbs of my spirit no longer free
Kicking in frenzy, a swimmer enmeshed in weeds.

(From "Wine From These Grapes" 1934)

This is an excellent example of Millay's late work. Mature, quiet, full of metaphor but not overflowing, her poetry took a much more subtle, thoughtful turn in her later years. She had gained a great deal of experience, both in the literary world and her personal life. Many losses had touched her and she wrote a great deal about death throughout her lifetime, and the cumulative toll of these losses aged her. In 1934, at the age of 42, she was not writing love poems but poems about mankind. "Wine From These Grapes," the collection this poem comes from, also contains a set of sonnets called "Epitaph for the Race of Man," which addressed the human condition and broke from her tradition of writing mostly nature and love poetry.

"Above These Cares" paints a vivid picture of the spirit at peace even while the mind must be troubled with daily cares. The first few lines of this poem seem to evoke such a sense of complete and perfect peace. And the wish she ends with is one that I think most people make. That we may have within us a quiet calm even when we are forced to wrestle with our daily realities of stresses and demands. That we might feel that some part of ourselves is still floating "like a swimmer at sunrise" no matter our present circumstances.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


Searching my heart for its true sorrow,
This is the thing I find to be:
That I am weary of words and people,
Sick of the city, wanting the sea;

Wanting the sticky, salty sweetness
Of the strong wind and shattered spray;
Wanting the loud sound and the soft sound
Of the big surf that breaks all day.

Always before about my dooryard,
Marking the reach of the winter sea,
Rooted in sand and dragging drift-wood,
Straggled the purple wild sweet-pea;

Always I climbed the wave at morning,
Shook the sand from my shoes at night,
That now am caught beneath great buildings,
Stricken with noise, confused with light.

If I could hear the green piles groaning
Under the windy wooden piers,
See once again the bobbing barrels,
And the black sticks that fence the weirs,

If I could see the weedy mussels
Crusting the wrecked and rotting hulls,
Hear once again the hungry crying
Overhead, of the wheeling gulls,

Feel once again the shanty straining
Under the turning of the tide,
Fear once again the rising freshet,
Dread the bell in the fog outside,—

I should be happy,—that was happy
All day long on the coast of Maine!
I have a need to hold and handle
Shells and anchors and ships again!

I should be happy, that am happy
Never at all since I came here.
I am too long away from water.
I have a need of water near.

I thought it was time for an ocean poem. Millay grew up on the ocean in northern Maine but she lived most of her adult life travelling and settled in upstate New York with Boissevain. Her description of the sounds, smells and sights of a fishing village are so real and evocative, it makes me feel that I am there with her, and I can almost hear the gulls and smell the salt water. Her declaration the she "has a need to hold and handle/shells and anchors and ships again!" is so decisive it is a call to rush to the beach! I also love the way she begins this poem, trying to found out why she feeling sad and realizing that past all of these daily cares, the true reason for her depression is distance from the ocean. I think that many people can relate to that feeling of being most alive when you are near the ocean, whether it be Pacific, Atlantic or any other!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

"I Should Have" Sonnet

I think I should have loved you presently,
And given in earnest words I flung in jest;
And lifted honest eyes for you to see,
And caught your hand against my cheek and breast;
And all my pretty follies flung aside
That won you to me, and beneath your gaze,
Naked of reticence and shorn of pride,
Spread like a chart my little wicked ways.
I, that had been to you, had you remained,
But one more waking from a recurrent dream,
Cherish no less the certain stakes I gained,
And walk your memory's halls, austere, supreme,
A ghost in marble of a girl you knew
Who would have loved you in a day or two.

I love the simple statement this poem makes about attractions that don’t turn into romances, and the certainty she has, both about what the future would have been and about the memory that this person has of her. It addresses us as the opportunity lost and tells us what we have missed. And she is describing a real phenomenon, the moment when games and flirtation turn to love and seriousness. My favorite line from this poem is “But one more waking from a recurrent dream” as it calls to mind the way multiple similar days can feel like waking up in the same day over and over again.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Afternoon On A Hill

I will be the gladdest thing
Under the sun!
I will touch a hundred flowers
And not pick one.

I will look at cliffs and clouds
With quiet eyes,
Watch the wind bow down the grass,
And the grass rise.

And when lights begin to show
Up from the town,
I will mark which must be mine,
And then start down!

I just love the joy and enthusiasm of this short piece. It is an early work, so it shows the raw talent she began with. In the dead of winter, it seems like a good reminder that summer will be here again!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Now By The Path I Climbed

Now by the path I climbed, I journey back.
The oaks have grown; I have been long away.
Talking with me your memory and your lack
I now descend into a milder day;
Stripped of your love, unburdened of my hope,
Descend the path I mounted from the plain;
Yet steeper than I fancied seems the slope
And stonier, now that I go down again.
Warm falls the dusk; the clanking of a bell
Faintly ascends upon this heavier air;
I do recall those grassy pastures well:
In early spring they drove the cattle there.
And close at hand should be a shelter, too,
From which the mountain peaks are not in view.

(From Fatal Interview)

Fatal Interview is an extensive series of sonnets Millay wrote about her turbulent affair with George Dillon. This sonnet is found in the second half of the collection, so it makes sense that here is speaking about the end of the passionate relationship she had with Dillon. The metaphor of descending from a hill in the springtime is a descriptive one, and I love the alteration between metaphor and reality. This is especially apparent in the lines "Talking with me your memory and your lack/I now descend into a milder day" where in the first line she refers to the loss of her lover and in the second casts the scene of walking down a mountain into milder weather. Although she undoubtedly loved Dillon, he was not the love of her life, and in fact her affair with him occurred during her marriage to the man she loved most, Eugen Jan Boissevain.

I plan on sharing many more sonnets from this Fatal Interview, as there are some of Millay's most descriptive and passionate work, but I always find it interesting to keep in mind that the person who inspired these poems was but a turbulent season in a life full of many loves.

Saturday, February 5, 2011


My heart is what it was before,
A house where people come and go;
But it is winter with your love,
The sashes are beset with snow.

I light the lamp and lay the cloth,
I blow the coals to blaze again;
But it is winter with your love,
The frost is thick upon the pane.

I know a winter when it comes:
The leaves are listless on the boughs;
I watched your love a little while,
And brought my plants into the house.

I water them and turn them south,
I snap the dead brown from the stem;
But it is winter with your love,
I only tend and water them.

There was a time I stood and watched
The small, ill-natured sparrows' fray;
I loved the beggar that I fed,
I cared for what he had to say,

I stood and watched him out of sight:
Today I reach around the door
And set a bowl upon the step;
My heart is what it was before,

But it is winter with your love;
I scatter crumbs upon the sill,
And close the window, —and the birds
May take or leave them, as they will.

February is the dead of winter here in New England and Millay paints a nuanced picture of the sadness inherent in this cold, frozen, limited season. Plants tended, birds fed and lamp glowing, all there is to do is wait for spring.

And yet winter is her chosen metaphor and not the actual subject of the poem. It is winter she is writing of, but not the literal season. Its the season of romance that is cold and ungiving, and that is what causes her to limit her emotional investments and draw parallel to the wait for spring.

As sad as this poem is, there is hope inherent in the seasonal metaphor. If it is winter with her beloved's affections, spring is sure to come eventually.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Sonnet Time!

When I too long have looked upon your face,
Wherein for me a brightness unobscured
Save by the mists of brightness has its place,
And terrible beauty not to be endured,
I turn away reluctant from your light,
And stand irresolute, a mind undone,
A silly, dazzled thing deprived of a sight
From having looked too long upon the sun.
Then is my daily life a narrow room
In which a little while, uncertainly,
Surrounded by impenetrable gloom,
Among familiar things grown strange to me
Making my way, I pause, and feel, and hark,
Till I become accustomed to the dark.

This sonnet captures so perfectly the sensation of being awestruck and the sorrow that so often follows such experiences.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


Just a rainy day or two
In a windy tower,
That was all I had of you—
Saving half an hour.

Marred by greeting passing groups
In a cinder walk,
Near some naked blackberry hoops
Dim with purple chalk.
I remember three or four
Things you said in spite,
And an ugly coat you wore,
Plaided black and white.

Just a rainy day or two
And a bitter word.
Why do I remember you
As a singing bird?

This poem really speaks about the changeable and emotional nature of memory. Although she remembers this person with vivid detail, her sense of their time together contradicts the specifics of her memory. It reminds me that sometimes moments are etched on our memories not because of what happened, but because of the way we felt.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Snow Storm

No hawk hangs over in this air:
The urgent snow is everywhere.
The wing adroiter than a sail
Must lean away from such a gale,
Abandoning its straight intent,
Or else expose tough ligament
And tender flesh to what before
Meant dampened feathers, nothing more.
Forceless upon our backs there fall
Infrequent flakes hexagonal,
Devised in many a curious style
To charm our safety for a while,
Where close to earth like mice we go
Under the horizontal snow.

(From Huntsman, What Quarry (1939) )

Today we are having quite the blizzard, and Millay manages to capture the very essence of being in the midst of a New England snow storm in this poem. No birds were flying about today, they knew that the wind would be too much. And the people who did venture out looked like little mice running around the huge piles of snow that have accumulated in the parking lot. My favorite turn of phrase in this poem is in the second line: "The urgent snow is everywhere." It does indeed seem this way today, and I'm sure it must have looked even more like that in the huge storms they had in Maine when she was a little girl.