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Wednesday, February 15

Edna St. Vincent Millay

One more poet and then I’m done. Edna St. Vincent Millay is a minor American poet whose reputation rests on traditional sonnets and lyric poems expressing her Twenties non-conformity. She may be the best writer of sonnets in American literature. The sonnets, either traditional Italian or English, are most often poems about lost love or the passing of time, some using poetic diction, some in a modern idiom, all expressing the non-conformist stance typical of the Twenties. Her best-known sonnet, in Italian sonnet form, exemplifies the world-weariness, the new-found freedom, especially of women, in the Flapper era:

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 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.

“First Fig” and “Second Fig,” although little more than flippant throwaways, are two short lyrics that state her attitude best:

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!

Safe upon the solid rock
The ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace
Built upon the sand!

Another that shows her seeming disdain for conventional love:

“To the Not Impossible Him”

How shall I know, unless I go
To Cairo and Cathay,
Whether or not this blessed spot
Is blest in every way?
Now it may be, the flower for me
Is this beneath my nose;
How shall I tell, unless I smell
The Carthaginian rose?
The fabric of my faithful love
No power shall dim or ravel
Whilst I stay here,–but oh, my dear
If I should ever travel!

Two English sonnets express in quiet, prosaic language her main theme about unrequited love:

If I should learn, in some quite casual way,
That you were gone, not to return again—
Read from the back-page of a paper, say,
Held by a neighbor in a subway train,
How at the corner of this avenue
And such a street (so are the papers filled)
A hurrying man—who happened to be you—
At noon to-day had happened to be killed,
I should not cry aloud—I could not cry
Aloud, or wring my hands in such a place—
I should but watch the station lights rush by
With a more careful interest on my face,
Or raise my eyes and read with greater care
Where to store furs and how to treat the hair.

Pity me not because the light of day
At close of day no longer walks the sky;
Pity me not for beauties passed away
From field and thicket as the year goes by;
Pity me not the waning of the moon,
Nor that the ebbing tide goes out to sea,
Nor that a man's desire is hushed so soon,
And you no longer look with love on me.
This have I known always: Love is no more
Than the wide blossom which the wind assails,
Than the great tide that treads the shifting shore,
Strewing fresh wreckage gathered in the gales:
Pity me that the heart is slow to learn
What the swift mind beholds at every turn.

Millay, though not a great poet, is certainly good enough to look at if only to see how she reflected the attitudes of that generation we think of as “The Jazz Age.”

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