Today’s edition of Poetry Sunday features another freethinking poet of the 20th century, the American playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay. Joseph Parisi’s 100 Essential Modern Poets calls her “glamorous and bold”, and notes that she was known “as much for her unconventional lifestyle as for her gift for poetry”. Millay was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize, the second to win the Frost Medal, and the English novelist Thomas Hardy called her poetry one of America’s two greatest creations (the other being the skyscraper).
Millay was born in Maine in 1892. Unlike Wallace Stevens, her literary career started young: she was first published at the age of 14, and became well-known early on for losing a contest, when her epic poem “Renascence” won only fourth prize in an annual competition – a slight which was protested by the public and critics alike. After graduating from Vassar College, she moved to New York City’s Greenwich Village, where she led a bohemian life with many literary friends and numerous lovers (both male and female). Her “First Fig”, published in A Few Figs from Thistles in 1920, was a famous unofficial anthem of the Roaring Twenties. Millay was critically acclaimed, wealthy and successful in her time, and highly sought after for readings both in person and on the radio. Later in life, she wrote some overtly political poems in support of the Allied effort during World War II.
Today’s poem is Millay’s “Dirge Without Music”, first published in The Buck in the Snow and Other Poems (1928). Like many of her poems, it deals with themes of death and mortality. I personally find it one of the most haunting and beautiful elegies ever written on the subject, and it strikes the perfect balance for a freethinker: sorrowful, reluctantly accepting, but with a hint of brave defiance.
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 and 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.
Other posts in this series: