Poetry Sunday: Dirge Without Music

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:

Weekend Bonus Music: Hard Believer
New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God’s Existence
I Get Religious Mail: If Wishes Were Airplanes
A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 11
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    “I am not resigned” reads to me almost like a counterpoint to “Do not go gentle…” (link). One from the person left behind, and one a request to the person going, but both of them a pure spark of impotent, important defiance of the inevitable.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Yes, very much so. But what I like about this poem is the subtle refusal to accept that this must forever be the state of affairs – an idea which is the epitome of humanism, if you ask me.

  • terrence

    The closest I ever got to comfort was Greta Christina’s wonderful post on the necessity of death for life, i.e, you can’t hear a Bach piece unless the G dies and becomes an A-flat, etc. Everybody knows “Do not go gentle,” but for a further explication check out Mr. Thomas’s weird and wonderful “The Ballad of trhe Long-legged Bait.” I don’t know how to link (:

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    But what I like about this poem is the subtle refusal to accept that this must forever be the state of affairs – an idea which is the epitome of humanism, if you ask me.

    Know what? That idea scares me. Which probably means it’s a good one. But I’m going to cry if I hold it in my head for too long.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    (I did cry. Best cry I’ve had in, oh, two and a half years. For which I can only offer my sincere thanks. There is grief in this world which ought to be beyond the power of all joy to allay. I know. But I do not approve. And let what beauty there is help me, for I am not resigned.)

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    I fully understand the feeling – I’ve been moved to tears by this poem as well. Paradoxically, there can be true beauty in tragedy, for all that I would end it in a second if I had the power.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    There can be true beauty in tragedy, but actually the thing I like most about this poem is that it — or parts of it — can also speak to tragedy where that’s not the case, tragedy that is ugly and shattering and wasteful and that won’t teach you anything beyond the fact that sometimes you can feel quite unromantically like shit for months or years on end in ways that won’t teach you anything beyond the fact that…

    ‘I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned’ breaks the cycle of that thought quite nicely :)

  • http://crazyrainbowunderwear.blogspot.com yinyang

    I’m glad I didn’t get around to reading this until today. It’s fitting.

  • Rob

    This is my favorite poem.

    I must strongly disagree with your interpretation though. You say she is “reluctantly accepting”? Where do you get that? What part of I am NOT resigned don’t you get?
    I find it sad that so many–even atheists–seem to give in to the idea that death is an inevitability. This may have been the case not so long ago, but I believe escape velocity with regards to death is within our grasp for the first time. We need only dare to hope and commit the resources necessary to find a “cure.” Be not resigned! See the Methuselah Mouse Prize at mprize.org for details.

  • Jim Baerg

    “I find it sad that so many–even atheists–seem to give in to the idea that death is an inevitability.”

    Actually even if tomorrow a way to stop & reverse aging was discovered, eventually some accident would take out each of us. I would be delighted to have centuries of good physical & mental health to look forward to, even not knowing just how many.

  • Rob

    “Actually even if tomorrow a way to stop & reverse aging was discovered, eventually some accident would take out each of us.”

    Yes. Probably true enough, but I don’t mean by immortality that my body is somehow going to being preserved and protected like it is for eternity. Eliminating the aging of my meat machine is just a start!

    Not to sound too new-agey, but I think we are very rapidly evolving (literally, not spititually) towards something greater than what we are now. Our conception of ourselves will change with time in ways we can scarce imagine. Something of me–some continuity, if not identity–will remain. I’m still getting all this clear in my head, but more and more I’m thinking of myself as a cyberneticist. See http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/CYBIMM.html for details if you haven’t already written me off as a kook.

  • Jim Baerg

    I’ve read SF stories in which the contents of the human brain can be copied to a computer system. This gets into interesting philosophical dilemmas about the nature of identity. Does it make sense to say the copy is ‘me’?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    I like Richard Chappell’s take on that question: once we’ve described all the physical and psychological facts about a situation like that, there’s nothing else to discover. The hypothesis “the computer copy actually is me” and the hypothesis “the computer copy is a conscious being exactly like me” are not competing possibilities. There is no further fact that could differentiate between those two. Whether a copy of me really is me isn’t a question that can be decided by some suitably careful study of the world, but merely a matter of how we decide the term “me” should be used.

  • Rob

    Thanks for sharing that Chappell piece. He’s witty. That is probably about where I am.

    I like Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained. It share’s a lot with Parfit, but he also ties everything together with some very interesting research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience. Dennett is a great writer to boot!

    I think the important question in this regard is the pragmatic question of “What am I comfortable with?” I see us gradually handing over more and more of the work of our brains to neural prostheses. These devices will not only interface with our individual brains, but also with all other brains (and artificial intelligences) through the internet (or whatever replaces it). When I have the same access to your thoughts and experiences as you do, the question of where I start and you begin starts to lose its meaning. Eventually we will be entirely synthetic and distributed throughout the network. But we will still stand in R Relation (to use Parfit’s phrase) to our former selves and thus we’ll hardly notice or object at each stage in the transformation. I personally don’t feel like “I” would be “lost” in the process, but YMMV.

  • Jim Baerg

    OK Rob, now I see what variant of the idea you are thinking of.

    Some SF futures have a way of making a backup of all ones memories & restoring them to a clone if one dies. This variant means that there are two mes, the one at the time of the backup that in effect woke up after unconsciousness & the me that developed from the time of backup to the point of ‘death’. The second one is dead even though a very similar me continues.

    Your variant covers the objection I had.

  • james

    I really don’t think the poem has anyting to do with denying or beating death or not accepting death as an eventuality. Rather I think it is a beautiful and powerfully worded proclomation that death, although full of grief, is not an end of the person and we should not be so transfixed on the “buriel” of the body and in doing so fully smother the life of the deceased. Instead I think she is saying we should allow for the continued life of the person in cherished thoughts and memories by holding them as precious as we do life itself. It’s very soulful and much like Christ’s message on the cross.

  • Rictus Howl

    If, before devoting any intelligent study to Millay’s life and work in general and this poem in particular, you believe you can twist one of the best and most ubiquitous responses by an agnostic mourning the beloved into a goddamned prayer, then you’re not simply coming to an atheist’s blog to impose your version of Christianity. You’re also proving yourself an instrument of critical censorship.

    You strive to rewrite and whitewash with false interpretation the content of a work of art that doesn’t please you ideologically. Your attempt is that much worse because it is really a means of demoralizing your enemies: You strive to take away from skeptics everywhere one of the poems that validate the emotional and intellectual resonance of their position. You do this because even Christians can see it is beautiful.

    I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

  • Rictus Howl

    Here is Millay herself on the prerequisites for attaining happiness:

    A job – something at which you must work for a few hours every day; An assurance that you will have at least one meal a day for at least the next week; An opportunity to visit all the countries of the world, to acquaint yourself with the customs and their culture; Freedom in religion, or freedom from all religions, as you prefer; An assurance that no door is closed to you, – that you may climb as high as you can build your ladder.