Friday, October 25, 2019

The Collected Sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay

Source of book: I own this. 

I picked this book up used from the library - a random find that cost next to nothing. I will confess that I hadn’t read anything by Edna St. Vincent Millay since my high school days, and I didn’t remember that much about the experience. In retrospect, I think it is likely that I was given one of her “safe” poems, one that tends to get picked by literature courses, rather than her more dangerous and radical ones.

In any event, I was immediately taken by this collection - it is fantastic. It was one of the more pleasant surprises in this year’s reading. I am a great lover of sonnets anyway. The form itself speaks to me (and indeed, my pathetic attempts at poetry during high school were often in sonnet form), and hers are some of the best I have read. 

 Edna St. Vincent Millay was a fascinating character. Living and writing mostly during the first half of the 20th Century, she refused to adhere to convention. She was raised by a divorced mother, whose poverty was in contrast to her dedication to introducing her daughters to classic literature. All three daughters were infamous at school for speaking their minds. Edna herself insisted in being called by her middle name: Vincent. Her teacher refused, calling her by random female names starting with V. (The name comes from the St. Vincent hospital, where Millay’s uncle was saved from death at one point.) 

Millay was openly bisexual, documenting relationships with women from her teens. Many of her poems are about love between women, which caused some scandal during her lifetime. (Although, to be fair, times were less puritanical in the 1920s than they would become later.) Millay would eventually marry in her 30s, after a number of love affairs with both men and women, having refused multiple offers of marriage, gotten pregnant, and had an abortion. The marriage was explicitly an open relationship, with both spouses continuing to have affairs with others. Her husband (like her) was strongly feminist, and fully supported her work. In fact, he took primary responsibility for domestic duties. 

In 1936, she was flung from an automobile in a freak accident, and suffered significant nerve and spinal damage. In constant pain for the rest of her life, she became addicted to morphine and alcohol, which contributed to her death at age 58. 

Even more tragic than that, however, was the tale of her career. She had previously been opposed to war, but, seeing the dangers of Fascism long before most of her fellow artists, she strongly advocated in favor of the United States entering World War II. This led to her essentially being blacklisted in artistic circles, effectively ending her career. At the same time, pro-Fascist poets such as Ezra Pound continued to receive accolades. 

Millay wrote about 160 sonnets, about the same as Shakespeare. They are not all related in the same way, but there are definitely themes that flow through most of them. There are three sonnet sets, both of which are haunting and moving. The first is Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree, which tells, over the course of 17 poems, the story of a wife caring for her dying husband who she separated from years ago. The second is The Harp Weaver, a tale of a mother who freezes to death creating a lavish wardrobe for her child. It is not difficult to see in both of these a reflection of Millay’s mother, whose life was harshly circumscribed by her failed marriage to a worthless man, and her need to sacrifice herself to keep her children fed. The third collection is Fatal Interview, believed to have been written about a long term relationship of hers which had ended. It is a devastating look at love, loss, and the ravages of time and age. 

Although there are a few exceptions, these themes tend to run through the other sonnets as well. Millay’s musings on the nature of love, desire, sex, loss, grief, pain, and endings are just amazing, really. I had not realized that these poems existed, but this book is now one of my favorites. 

Here are a few that stood out - although I could have listed most of them here. This one is from her first collection, Renascence, written in her late teens. 

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.

This illustrates one of her skills: taking a mushy love-sentiment, and somehow turning it a wee bit poisonous. There is a sting in this and other poems. Like this one. 

Love, though for this you riddle me with darts,
And drag me at your chariot till I die,—
Oh, heavy prince! O, panderer of hearts!—
Yet hear me tell how in their throats they lie
Who shout you mighty: thick about my hair,
Day in, day out, your ominous arrows purr,
Who still am free, unto no querulous care
A fool, and in no temple worshiper!
I, that have bared me to your quiver’s fire,
Lifted my face into its puny rain,
Do wreathe you Impotent to Evoke Desire
As you are Powerless to Elicit Pain!
(Now will the god, for blasphemy so brave,
Punish me, surely, with the shaft I crave!)

A bit of reverse psychology there, and yet so much angst. 

This next one is definitely a favorite. Having been raised in a subculture pounded into us the ideas that Marriage is Miserable Hard Work™, Commitment™, Keep Your Vows Even If Abused™ and the rest of the idolatry of marriage and family, I have been drawn very much to the counter-idea: that a good relationship shouldn’t feel like martyrdom, and that one should actually be happy to be around one’s beloved. 

OH, THINK not I am faithful to a vow!
Faithless am I save to love's self alone.
Were you not lovely I would leave you now:
After the feet of beauty fly my own.
Were you not still my hunger's rarest food,
And water ever to my wildest thirst,
I would desert you–think not but I would!–
And seek another as I sought you first.
But you are mobile as the veering air,
And all your charms more changeful than the tide,
Wherefore to be inconstant is no care:
I have but to continue at your side.
So wanton, light and false, my love, are you,
I am most faithless when I most am true.  

Elizabeth Barrett Browning also captured some of this in her sonnets (also favorites of mine - I’m a hopeless romantic). Here is another one with delightful ambiguity about love:

Loving you less than life, a little less
Than bitter-sweet upon a broken wall
Or brush-wood smoke in autumn, I confess
I cannot swear I love you not at all.
For there is that about you in this light—
A yellow darkness, sinister of rain—
Which sturdily recalls my stubborn sight
To dwell on you, and dwell on you again.
And I am made aware of many a week
I shall consume, remembering in what way
Your brown hair grows about your brow and cheek
And what divine absurdities you say:
Till all the world, and I, and surely you,
Will know I love you, whether or not I do.

Less lighthearted is this one:

Once more into my arid days like dew,
Like wind from an oasis, or the sound
Of cold sweet water bubbling underground,
A treacherous messenger, the thought of you
Comes to destroy me; once more I renew
Firm faith in your abundance, whom I found
Long since to be but just one other mound
Of sand, whereon no green thing ever grew.
And once again, and wiser in no wise,
I chase your colored phantom on the air,
And sob and curse and fall and weep and rise
And stumble pitifully on to where,
Miserable and lost, with stinging eyes,
Once more I clasp,—and there is nothing there.

Again, just a brilliant picture. Bitter and yet full of desire. 

This next one is another favorite. 

Let you not say of me when I am old,
In pretty worship of my withered hands
Forgetting who I am, and how the sands
Of such a life as mine run red and gold
Even to the ultimate sifting dust, "Behold,
Here walketh passionless age!"—for there expands
A curious superstition in these lands,
And by its leave some weightless tales are told.
In me no lenten wicks watch out the night;
I am the booth where Folly holds her fair;
Impious no less in ruin than in strength,
When I lie crumbled to the earth at length,
Let you not say, "Upon this reverend site
The righteous groaned and beat their breasts in prayer." 

A few layers to this one, to say the least. Millay challenges the idea that the elderly are sexless, or extra-righteous, or merely to be reverenced. She is still herself, passionate, impious, and the same as she ever was. 

I quote this next one because of an experience of my wife. This obnoxious racist dickhead who was the parent of a kid (poor guy) who was in band with one of my kids came up to her and said something nearly word for word as that said in this poem. (Do I even need to add that this guy is a huge Trump fan? Or that he was FINALLY banned from a local homeschool forum after repeated posts of neo-confederate and other vile propaganda?) 

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 crafty, soft and sly;
You will not catch me reading any more:
I shall be called a wife to pattern by;
And some day when you knock and push the door,
Some sane day, not too bright and not too stormy,
I shall be gone, and you may whistle for me.

Dude was literally acting surprised my wife was reading a “big book.” He probably has no idea about the stuff that she read while still a kid. After this incident, when she withered him with a glare, we have taken to calling him “Tiny Books.” Because his books are probably like the “hands” of his political idol. I am also reminded of one of my favorite bits by James Thurber

I unfortunately cannot quote all of Fatal Interview, but highly recommend it as a poem cycle. Here is the opening sonnet:

What thing is this that, built of salt and lime
And such dry motes as in the sunbeam show,
Has power upon me that do daily climb
The dustless air?—for whom those peaks of snow
Whereup the lungs of man with borrowed breath
Go labouring to a doom I may not feel,
Are but a pearled and roseate plain beneath
My wingèd helmet and my wingèd heel.
What sweet emotions neither foe nor friend
Are these that clog my flight? what thing is this
That hastening headlong to a dusty end
Dare turn upon me these proud eyes of bliss?
Up, up, my feathers!—ere I lay you by
To journey barefoot with a mortal joy.

From there, the cycle veers from the ecstacy of love to the depths of despair to the resignation to the depredations of time. This one, from early in the series, is as good of a love poem as I have read. 

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."

It just gets better every time I re-read it. And the form is perfect. The two ideas in the two quatrains, followed by the turn in line nine, and the last couplet so memorable and true. 

A later poem from the series take the theme carpe diem, but with the twist that what youth doesn’t use, age will twist into something ugly. Unfortunately, what came to mind with this one was the way that my parents’ generation has mostly grown unwise with age, giving in to “compromise and fear,” selling their souls to preserve a mythical past. 

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.

This next one is pretty dang dark. The relationship has begun to turn a bit, and the combination of doubt, ennui, and suspicion creep around the corner. 

Most wicked words!-forbear to speak them out.
Utter them not again; blaspheme no more
Against our love with maxims learned from Doubt:
Lest Death should get his foot inside the door.
We are surrounded by a hundred foes;
And he that at your bidding joins our feast,
I stake my heart upon it, is one of those,
Nor in their councils does he sit the least.
Hark not his whisper: he is Time’s ally,
Kinsman to Death, and leman of Despair:
Believe that I shall love you till I die;
Believe; and thrust him forth; and arm the stair;
And top the walls with spikes and splintered glass
That he pass gutted should again he pass.”

While not the bulk of the poems, there are a few which are about altogether different topics. One that I found particularly interesting is this one, written in honor of suffragist Inez Milholland. Who also happened to be Millay’s husband’s first wife - she died a few years prior to Millay’s relationship with her husband. 

Upon this marble bust that is not I
Lay the round, formal wreath that is not fame;
But in the forum of my silenced cry
Root ye the living tree whose sap is flame.
I, that was proud and valiant, am no more; ---
Save as a dream that wanders wide and late,
Save as a wind that rattles the stout door,
Troubling the ashes in the sheltered grate.
The stone will perish; I shall be twice dust.
Only my standard on a taken hill
Can cheat the mildew and the red-brown rust
And make immortal my adventurous will.
Even now the silk is tugging at the staff:
Take up the song; forget the epitaph.

That’s a seriously great epitaph. Milholland would die before realizing the dream of voting rights for women - a cause Millay also supported. 

This next poem is more about nature - both nature in the sense of the natural world, but also in the sense of human nature. And not a very nice part of that second nature either. 

Enormous moon, that rise behind these hills
Heavy and yellow in a sky unstarred
And pale, your girth by purple fillets barred
Of drifting cloud, that as the cool sky fills
With planets and the brighter stars, distills
To thinnest vapor and floats valley-ward, —
You flood with radiance all this cluttered yard,
The sagging fence, the chipping window sills!
 Grateful at heart as if for my delight
You rose, I watch you through a mist of tears,
Thinking how man, who gags upon despair,
Salting his hunger with the sweat of fright
Has fed on cold indifference all these years,
Calling it kindness, calling it God’s care.

Millay was concerned about the modern American - or perhaps Western - tendency toward social darwinism and of a “science” devoid of humanity or empathy. In our own times, we are still continuing to pay for this soulless vision of technology and raw capitalism. As Millay points out, we embrace data points without context, without wisdom, without kindness. It is power for power’s sake. 

Upon this age, that never speaks its mind,
This furtive age, this age endowed with power
To wake the moon with footsteps, fit an oar
Into the rowlocks of the wind, and find
What swims before his prow, what swirls behind ---
Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,
Rains from the sky a meteoric shower
Of facts . . . they lie unquestioned, uncombined.
Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
Is daily spun; but there exists no loom
To weave it into fabric; undefiled
Proceeds pure Science, and has her say; but still
Upon this world from the collective womb
Is spewed all day the red triumphant child. 

It’s a bit of a downer to end on, alas. Millay’s poems do seem to get darker over time, and it is easy enough to see why. This poem was published in a collection dated 1939, and there is no secret about the state of the world at that time. Fascism threatened to envelope at least Europe, and possibly the world. Although it would be anachronistic to read the horrors of nuclear war into this poem, it fits all too well. 

The collection as a whole is more thoughtful than exuberant, more focused on time and loss than on the ecstacy of love - although that is present as well. The poems stand up so well, though, because of this emotionally realistic approach to life and love. All is not well, and along with joy and love come loss and pain. 

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