Friday, April 29, 2011

Heart, Have No Pity... (Sonnet 29 from Fatal Interview)

HEART, have no pity on this house of bone:
Shake it with dancing, break it down with joy.
No man holds mortgage on it; it is your own;
To give, to sell at auction, to destroy.
When you are blind to moonlight on the bed,
When you are deaf to gravel on the pane,
Shall quavering caution from this house instead
Cluck forth at summer mischief in the lane?
All that delightful youth forbears to spend
Molestful age inherits, and the ground
Will have us; therefore, while we're young, my friend--

The Latin's vulgar, but the advice is sound.
Youth, have no pity; leave no farthing here
For age to invest in compromise and fear.

(From "Fatal Interview")

This poem from Fatal Interview is a bittersweet one. In it Vincent proclaims that she wants to live every moment without reserve while she is young and not try to maintain her body for when she is older. I love that she addresses the heart here, and my favorite line is "Shake it with dancing, break it down with joy."

The bitter part is that Vincent did die fairly young, and very shortly after the love of her life, Eugen, died. She loved and lived brightly and with all of her heart and her life was short. She did indeed burn her "candle at both ends" and it did not last the night. But the light was brilliant indeed.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

My heart, being hungry, feeds on food
The fat of heart despise.
Beauty where beauty never stood,
And sweet where no sweet lies
I gather to my querulous need,
Having a growing heart to feed.

It may be, when my heart is dull,
Having attained its girth,
I shall not find so beautiful
The meagre shapes of earth,
Nor linger in the rain to mark
The smell of tansy through the dark.

(From "Harpweaver" 1922)

This poem was published in "Harpweaver and Other Poems" and she won a Pulitzer in 1923 for this volume. My favorite part of the particular poem is the last two lines. When I read them it makes me feel that I am standing in the rain, on a dark night, with the sweet scent of tansy rising up across the valley with the mist.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Thou Art Not Lovelier Than Lilacs

Thou art not lovelier than lilacs,--no,
Nor honeysuckle; thou art not more fair
Than small white single poppies,--I can bear
Thy beauty; though I bend before thee, though
From left to right, not knowing where to go,
I turn my troubled eyes, nor here nor there
Find any refuge from thee, yet I swear
So has it been with mist,--with moonlight so.
Like him who day by day unto his draught
Of delicate poison adds him one drop more
Till he may drink unharmed the death of ten,
Even so, inured to beauty, who have quaffed
Each hour more deeply than the hour before,
I drink—and live--what has destroyed some men.

(From "Renanscence" 1917)

This is a very early poem, from Millay's first book of poetry, "Renascence." She compares the beauty of nature to that of this person she loves, and claims that their brilliant light would destroy someone who, unlike her, had not spent time being awestruck by the beauty of the earth. I love the comparison, and the imagery. What a beautiful poem and when we remember how young she was when she wrote it - she was 25 when this volume was published - it is even more remarkable.

Love Is Not All (Fatal Interview Sonnet XXX)

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love cannot fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It may well be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It may well be. I do not think I would.

(From "Fatal Interview" 1931)

This sonnet is fairly well known, probably because it is so accessible and easy to remember. The verse structure makes it a classic sonnet but the content makes it classic Millay. The first part of the poem is often said to be the objective part while the second half is the introspective portion, but knowing what we know about this set of poetry and how it was written largely about her affair with Dillon, it is easy to see that the entire poem is very personal.

The first line is an excellent hook, it pulls the reader in with a general statement of truth. She draws pictures of how love cannot save the lives of people who are ill but reminds us that without love we can suffer greatly as well. Then she uses herself as an example of this fact and asks if there is anything that could force her to give away the feeling of the love they share, or the memory of this night together. She concludes, in her humanizing way, that it is possible. But not likely.

Millay knew how precious love was, and in this little sonnet, with its quaint rhymes and imagery, she reminds us to cherish our loves as well.

Monday, April 25, 2011

New England Spring, 1942

The rush of rain against the glass
Is louder than my noisy mind
Crying, "Alas!"

The rain shouts: "Hear me, how I melt the ice that clamps
the bent and frozen grass!
Winter cannot come twice
Even this year!
I break it up; I make it water the roots of spring!
I am the harsh beginning, poured in torrents down the hills,
And dripping from the trees and soaking, later,
and when the wind is still,
Into the roots of flowers, which your eyes, incredulous,
soon will suddenly find!
Comfort is almost here."

The sap goes up the maple; it drips fast
From the tapped maple into the tin pail
Through tubes of hollow elder; the pails brim;
Birds with scarlet throats and yellow bellies
sip from the pail's rim.
Snow falls thick; it is sifted
Through cracks about windows and under doors;
It is drifted through hedges into country roads. It cannot last.
Winter is past.
It is hurling back at us boasts of no avail.

But Spring is wise. Pale and with gentle eyes,
one day somewhat she advances;
The next, with a flurry of snow into flake-filled skies retreats
before the heat in our eyes, and the thing designed
By the sick and longing mind in its lonely fancies—
The sally which would force her and take her.
And Spring is kind.
Should she come running headlong in a wind-whipped acre
Of daffodil skirts down the mountain into this dark valley
we would go blind.

(From "Mine The Harvest" 1954)

This is one to just enjoy.

How innocent we lie among

How innocent we lie among
The righteous!--Lord, how sweet we smell,
Doing this wicked thing, this love,
Bought up by bishops!--doing well,
With all our leisure, all our pride,
What's illy done and done in haste
By licensed folk on every side,
Spitting out fruit before they taste.

(That stalk must thrust a clubby bud,
Push an abortive flower to birth.)

Under the moon and the lit scud
Of the clouds, the cool conniving earth
Pillows my head, where your head lies;

Weep, if you must, into my hair
Tomorrow's trouble: the cold eyes
That know you gone and wonder where.

But tell the bishops with their sons,
Shout to the City Hall how we
Under a thick barrage of guns
Filched their divine commodity.

(From "Mine The Harvest" 1954)

Where to start? The first important thing to note is that this poem is found in "Mine The Harvest," one of Millay's later books. The maturity of the verse structure makes sense for this timing but the subject matter does not. The beauty of this poem, for me, is in its ability to blend social commentary with joyous passion. I love the alliteration she uses with "cool, conniving earth." But my favorite part of this poem is the last part. It has a victorious feel to it, a rebellious, young and free declaration.

Song For Young Lovers In A City

Though less for love than for the deep
Though transient death that follows it
These childish mouths grown soft in sleep
Here in a rented bed have met,

They have not met in love's despite.
Such tiny loves will leap and flare
Lurid as coke-fires in the night,
Against a background of despair.

To treeless grove, to grey retreat
Descend in flocks from corniced eaves
The pigeons now on sooty feet,
To cover them with linden leaves.

(Published in Poetry Magazine, 1938)

This poem is interesting in that it is about someone else (at least in theory). Millay wrote very often about her own feelings and experiences, and less often about what she imagined others felt and did. In this poem she draws for us a picture of two people younger than herself, genders unspecified. The first lines pose a riddle, what is the "transient death" she is talking about here that draws these two together? I love the line "lurid as coke-fires in the night" and the image of a sad, grey city that she paints to contrast the relationship she describes. There is a beautiful, song-like quality to the last stanza that sticks with you as the poem ends. Enjoy!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Doubt No More That Oberon

Doubt no more that Oberon—
Never doubt that Pan
Lived, and played a reed, and ran
After nymphs in a dark forest,
In the merry, credulous days,—
Lived, and led a fairy band
Over the indulgent land!
Ah, for in this dourest, sorest
Age man's eye has looked upon,
Death to fauns and death to fays,
Still the dog-wood dares to raise—
Healthy tree, with trunk and root—
Ivory bowls that bear no fruit,
And the starlings and the jays—
Birds that cannot even sing—
Dare to come again in spring!

(From "Second April")

This poem was running through my head today, perhaps because spring is starting to show itself, even through the rain.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Little Hill (an Easter poem)

The Little Hill

Oh, here the air is sweet and still,
And soft's the grass to lie on;
And far away's the little hill
They took for Christ to die on.

And there's a hill across the brook,
And down the brook's another;
But, oh, the little hill they took,--
I think I am its mother!

The moon that saw Gethsemane,
I watch it rise and set:
It has so many things to see,
They help it to forget.

But little hills that sit at home
So many hundred years,
Remember Greece, remember Rome,
Remember Mary's tears.

And far away in Palestine,
Sadder than any other,
Grieves still the hill that I call mine,--
I think I am its mother!

(From "Second April")

Millay is not known as a religious poet, and perhaps this poem is not as religious as it is sentimental. This is a beautiful little poem that communicates an enormous grief in five little rhyming sets of four lines. The emotion she shows us here is a full-felt, whole-soul empathy with the tragic pain that comprises the first half of the Easter story. Perhaps it is not a healthy empathy or a good emphasis but it is a beautiful poem and this seems like the best time of year to appreciate it.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Theme and Variations VIII "The Time of Year Ennobles You"

Theme and Variations VIII

The time of year ennobles you.
The death of autumn draws you in.

The death of those delights I drew
From such a cramped and troubled source
Ennobles all, including you,
Involves you as a matter of course.

You are not, you have never been
(Nor did I ever hold you such)
Between you banks, that all but touch -
Fit subject for heroic song...
The busy stream not over-strong.
The flood that any leaf could dam...

Yet more than half of all I am
Lies drowned in shallow water here:
And you assume the time of year.

I do not say my love will last;
Yet Time's perverse, eccentric power
Has bound the hound and stag so fast
That strange companions mount the tower
Where Lockhart's fate with Keats is cast
And Booth with Lincoln shares the hour.

That which quelled me, lives with me,
Accomplice in catastrophe.

From "Huntsman, What Quarry?"

This is one of eight exquisite poems in a series called "Theme and Variation." The set of poems is about the end of a relationship and it has both comforted and inspired me. Even when I am not in a place where I can directly relate to the theme of the poems, the imagery and haunting verse structure always draw me in. Enjoy.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Dirge Without Music

Dirge Without Music

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains, --- but the best is lost.
The answers quick & keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,
They are gone. They have gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

(From "Buck In The Snow" 1928)

I read this poem as part of a poetry presention I did for Speech competitions in high school. I made it to state and through the quarter finals. I didn't enough points to progress past semi-finals and I remember clearly reading in the critiques of my presentation that my reading of this poem - Millay's "Dirge Without Music" was too emotional and dramatic, and thus I didn't get the full amount of points from the judges.

They were right, to a point. Speech competitions are about professional, reserved presentation. But perhaps I made the wrong choice of poem, because how can anyone read something so powerful, defiant and soulful without feeling it resonante throughout their being?

Working at the hospital I meet many inspirational people. But they are not well, and some of them pass away, and it is difficult to accept that these beautiful, strong people are gone.

I know that I've mentioned before that Millay suffered many losses early in her life, and death took many of the people she loved from her. This poem is so uniquely Vincent. It is about death but not about mourning. Perhaps the most tear-jerking line in the poem "More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world", happens near the end, and I feel that the poem does move from reserve to emotionality, with the feeling of the poem peaking at the second to last line. And then she ends the way she began with "I am not resigned."

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sonnet "Oh You Will Be Sorry"

Oh, oh, you will be sorry for that word!
Give back my book and take my kiss instead.
Was it my enemy or my friend I heard?-
"What a big book for such a little head!"
Come, I will show you now my newest hat,
And you may watch me purse my mouth and prink.
Oh, I shall love you still and all of that.
I never again shall tell you what I think.
I shall be sweet and crafy, soft and sly;
You will not catch me reading any more
I shall be called a wife to pattern by;
And someday when you knock and push the door,
Some sane day, not too bright and not to stormy
I shall be gone, and you may whistle for me.

(From "A Few Figs From Thistles")

Millay was so ahead of her times when it came to the recognition of women as the intellectual equals of men. For her first poetry competition she submitted her epic work "Renascence" and got second place, even though most people agreed her poem was better than the first place poem, which was written by a man. In fact, the man who wrote the winning poem wrote her a letter telling her that he believed her poem was better than his, and that she should have won first place.

I like the flippancy of this poem too. The casual endearment of the line "I shall love you still and all of that" but her determination that she will be gone one day because he does not appreciate her for what she really is.

Indeed, the man she married was in love, not just with Vincent, but with her poetry as well.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Penitent

I had a little Sorrow,
Born of a little Sin,
I found a room all damp with gloom
And shut us all within;
And, "Little Sorrow, weep," said I,
"And, Little Sin, pray God to die,
And I upon the floor will lie
And think how bad I've been!"

Alas for pious planning—
It mattered not a whit!
As far as gloom went in that room,
The lamp might have been lit!
My little Sorrow would not weep,
My little Sin would go to sleep—
To save my soul I could not keep
My graceless mind on it!

So I got up in anger,
And took a book I had,
And put a ribbon on my hair
To please a passing lad,
And, "One thing there's no getting by—
I've been a wicked girl," said I:
"But if I can't be sorry, why,
I might as well be glad!"

From "A Few Figs From Thistles"

What a funny little poem! It sure sticks in my head at times though. Very flippant and trite and full of whimsy, but still it resonates. And there's a message there too - because we all "might as well be glad"

Monday, April 11, 2011

Fatal Interview Sonnet XI - "Not In A Silver Casket"

Sonnet XI

Not in a silver casket cool with pearls
Or rich with red corundum or with blue
Locked, and the key withheld, as other girls
Have given their loves, I give my love to you.
Not in a lovers'-knot, not in a ring
Worked in such fashion and the legend plain-
Semper fidelis,
where a secret spring
Kennels a drop of mischief for the brain:
Love in the open hand, no thing but that,
Ungemmed, unhidden, wishing not to hurt,
As one should bring you cowslips in a hat
Swung from the hand, or apples in her skirt,
I bring you, calling out as children do:
"Look what I have! - And these are all for you."

(From "Fatal Interview" 1931)

I was reminded of this poem by a comment on "No Lack of Counsel," a poem I posted in March. These two sonnets are similar, as the commenter noted, in their depiction of a woman who is honest about her intentions and emotions, even though she knows that her honesty puts her at a disadvantage in her attempts to charm the man she loves.

Millay was indeed intoxicated with her attraction to Dillon, and this poem strikes me as remarkable in its dedication to simple beauty in the midst of such a turbulent affair. It almost sounds as if it was written for Boissevain, and perhaps it was, but it appears in the middle of a book of sonnets written for Dillon.

She begins by saying what she is not doing, and it may help to know that red corundum is ruby and blue is sapphire. Her love is not locked away as others might, or dependent on a ring to keep a vow. She is giving her love freely, though she knows that is risky, as she writes in "No Lack of Counsel."
I admire her ability to love so freely. She had suffered many losses and heartbreaks, as her earlier poetry makes clear, and yet she loved without reservation still. It is a lesson and an inspiration and I'm so grateful that such a soulful person was also such a talented poet.

Thursday, April 7, 2011



Not for these lovely blooms that prank your chambers did I come. Indeed,
I could have loved you better in the dark;
That is to say, in rooms less bright with roses, rooms more casual, less aware
Of History in the wings about to enter with benevolent air
On ponderous tiptoe, at the cue, "Proceed."
Not that I like the ash-trays over-crowded and the place in a mess,
Or the monastic cubicle too unctuously austere and stark,
But partly that these formal garlands for our Eighth Street Aphrodite are a bit too Greek,
And partly that to make the poor walls rich with our unaided loveliness
Would have been more chic.
Yet here I am, having told you of my quarrel with the taxi-driver over a line of Milton, and you laugh; and you are you, none other.
Your laughter pelts my skin with small delicious blows.
But I am perverse: I wish you had not scrubbed--with pumice, I suppose--
The tobacco stains from your beautiful fingers. And I wish I did not feel like your mother.

(From "Huntsman, What Quarry?" 1939)

This poem was running through my head last night but I'm not entirely sure why. Perhaps it is Vincent's declaration that she "could have loved you better in the dark" and her quick correction of herself to show that she merely means that the room is overly decorated. And perhaps it is the simply perfect expression she uses when she says "you are you, none other" and adds a line about laughter that surprises me in its elegance.

In retrospect, perhaps I was trying to work out exactly what Vincent was talking about when she says she was quarreling with a taxi driver "over a line of Milton." I had always thought it was some antiquated expression for money or a place she was trying to go but now I think that Vincent, ever the intellectual as well as the poet, was actually arguing with the driver of her taxi over what the exact phrasing was of a line from one of Milton's poems! Now that would be an interesting story.

And the story of this poem is interesting. She sent it to Dillon with a large collection of other poems but this was the one he published in his magazine, the only one he seemed to like completely. Perhaps it is his odd taste to refuse rhyme in place of casual verse, or perhaps it just seemed the most fitting description of how things really were between the two of them.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Song Of A Second April

April this year, not otherwise
Than April of a year ago
Is full of whispers, full of sighs,
Dazzling mud and dingy snow;
Hepaticas that pleased you so
Are here again, and butterflies.
There rings a hammering all day,
And shingles lie about the doors;
From orchards near and far away
The gray wood-pecker taps and bores,
And men are merry at their chores,
And children earnest at their play.
The larger streams run still and deep;
Noisy and swift the small brooks run.
Among the mullein stalks the sheep
Go up the hillside in the sun
Pensively; only you are gone,
You that alone I cared to keep.

(From "Second April" 1921)

First, a few definitions. Both hepaticas and mullein are flowering plants that Millay refers to by their latin names. They are common in the northeast, and being perennial plants they herald the coming of a new season. Both are generally in bloom in April, as one would expect from Vincent's description.

The mud and snow are here in New England during this April of 2011 as well. Spring is finally starting to show itself in slightly warmer temperatures and the sound of songbirds in the mornings. It is a beautiful season, full of hope for summer and warm days.

But it is also a season of memory, remembering last April and the ways in which is was more full of a naive kind of love than this April is. Every sign of the season returns this April, but there are some things that the changing of the season will not bring back, and as Vincent ironically points out in her final lines, those are often the things you would most long for with the return of Spring.