Early Poems

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In finely crafted lyrics and sonnets, Edna St. Vincent Millay gave voice to her generation's claim to personal freedom and earned a reputation as a sexually liberated free-thinker. But her subject matter varies widely - from meditations on nature, love, life, loss, death, and the reincarnation of the human soul to commentaries on politics and discrimination against women - and reveals poetic influences from the classical to the romantic. Comprising Millay's first three books - Renascence (1917), A Few Figs from ...
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Early Poems

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Overview

In finely crafted lyrics and sonnets, Edna St. Vincent Millay gave voice to her generation's claim to personal freedom and earned a reputation as a sexually liberated free-thinker. But her subject matter varies widely - from meditations on nature, love, life, loss, death, and the reincarnation of the human soul to commentaries on politics and discrimination against women - and reveals poetic influences from the classical to the romantic. Comprising Millay's first three books - Renascence (1917), A Few Figs from Thistles (1920; revised 1922), and Second April (1921) - this fully annotated volume presents the auspicious beginning of her career. As popular today as when the poet herself enraptured audiences, Millay's work is at last being appreciated for its beauty and depth as well as its impact on the American literary tradition.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780141180540
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 12/28/1998
  • Series: Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.24 (w) x 7.92 (h) x 0.54 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Early Poems


By EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY, SUZANNE E. JOHNSON

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2008 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-16010-8



CHAPTER 1

Renascence and Other Poems


    Renascence

    All I could see from where I stood
    Was three long mountains and a wood;
    I turned and looked another way,
    And saw three islands in a bay.
    So with my eyes I traced the line
    Of the horizon, thin and fine,
    Straight around till I was come
    Back to where I'd started from;
    And all I saw from where I stood
    Was three long mountains and a wood.

    Over these things I could not see:
    These were the things that bounded me.
    And I could touch them with my hand,
    Almost, I thought, from where I stand!
    And all at once things seemed so small
    My breath came short, and scarce at all.
    But, sure, the sky is big, I said:
    Miles and miles above my head.
    So here upon my back I'll lie
    And look my fill into the sky.
    And so I looked, and after all,
    The sky was not so very tall.
    The sky, I said, must somewhere stop
    And—sure enough!—I see the top!
    The sky, I thought, is not so grand;
    I 'most could touch it with my hand!
    And reaching up my hand to try,
    I screamed, to feel it touch the sky.

    I screamed, and—lo!—Infinity
    Came down and settled over me;
    Forced back my scream into my chest;
    Bent back my arm upon my breast;
    And, pressing of the Undefined
    The definition on my mind,
    Held up before my eyes a glass
    Through which my shrinking sight did pass
    Until it seemed I must behold
    Immensity made manifold;
    Whispered to me a word whose sound
    Deafened the air for worlds around,
    And brought unmuffled to my ears
    The gossiping of friendly spheres,
    The creaking of the tented sky,
    The ticking of Eternity.

    I saw and heard, and knew at last
    The How and Why of all things, past,
    And present, and forevermore.
    The Universe, cleft to the core,
    Lay open to my probing sense,
    That, sickening, I would fain pluck thence
    But could not,—nay! but needs must suck
    At the great wound, and could not pluck
    My lips away till I had drawn
    All venom out.—Ah, fearful pawn:
    For my omniscience paid I toll
    In infinite remorse of soul.
    All sin was of my sinning, all
    Atoning mine, and mine the gall
    Of all regret. Mine was the weight
    Of every brooded wrong, the hate
    That stood behind each envious thrust,
    Mine every greed, mine every lust.

    And all the while, for every grief,
    Each suffering, I craved relief
    With individual desire;
    Craved all in vain! And felt fierce fire
    About a thousand people crawl;
    Perished with each,—then mourned for all!

    A man was starving in Capri;
    He moved his eyes and looked at me;
    I felt his gaze, I heard his moan,
    And knew his hunger as my own.

    I saw at sea a great fog bank
    Between two ships that struck and sank;
    A thousand screams the heavens smote;
    And every scream tore through my throat.

    No hurt I did not feel, no death
    That was not mine; mine each last breath
    That, crying, met an answering cry
    From the compassion that was I.
    All suffering mine, and mine its rod;
    Mine, pity like the pity of God.

    Ah, awful weight! Infinity
    Pressed down upon the finite Me!
    My anguished spirit, like a bird,
    Beating against my lips I heard;
    Yet lay the weight so close about
    There was no room for it without.
    And so beneath the weight lay I
    And suffered death, but could not die.

    Long had I lain thus, craving death,
    When quietly the earth beneath
    Gave way, and inch by inch, so great
    At last had grown the crushing weight,
    Into the earth I sank till I
    Full six feet under ground did lie,
    And sank no more,—there is no weight
    Can follow here, however great.
    From off my breast I felt it roll,
    And as it went my tortured soul
    Burst forth and fled in such a gust
    That all about me swirled the dust.

    Deep in the earth I rested now
    Cool is its hand upon the brow
    And soft its breast beneath the head
    Of one who is so gladly dead.
    And all at once, and over all
    The pitying rain began to fall;
    I lay and heard each pattering hoof
    Upon my lowly, thatchèd roof,
    And seemed to love the sound far more
    Than ever I had done before.
    For rain it hath a friendly sound

    To one who's six feet under ground;
    And scarce the friendly voice or face,
    A grave is such a quiet place.

    The rain, I said, is kind to come
    And speak to me in my new home.
    I would I were alive again
    To kiss the fingers of the rain,
    To drink into my eyes the shine
    Of every slanting silver line,
    To catch the freshened, fragrant breeze
    From drenched and dripping apple-trees.
    For soon the shower will be done,
    And then the broad face of the sun
    Will laugh above the rain-soaked earth
    Until the world with answering mirth
    Shakes joyously, and each round drop
    Rolls, twinkling, from its grass-blade top.

    How can I bear it, buried here,
    While overhead the sky grows clear
    And blue again after the storm?
    O, multi-colored, multi-form,
    Belovèd beauty over me,
    That I shall never, never see
    Again! Spring-silver, autumn-gold,
    That I shall never more behold!—
    Sleeping your myriad magics through,
    Close-sepulchred away from you!
    O God, I cried, give me new birth,
    And put me back upon the earth!
    Upset each cloud's gigantic gourd
    And let the heavy rain, down-poured
    In one big torrent, set me free,
    Washing my grave away from me!

    I ceased; and through the breathless hush
    That answered me, the far-off rush
    Of herald wings came whispering
    Like music down the vibrant string
    Of my ascending prayer, and—crash!
    Before the wild wind's whistling lash
    The startled storm-clouds reared on high
    And plunged in terror down the sky!

    And the big rain in one black wave
    Fell from the sky and struck my grave.

    I know not how such things can be;
    I only know there came to me
    A fragrance such as never clings
    To aught save happy living things;
    A sound as of some joyous elf
    Singing sweet songs to please himself,
    And, through and over everything,
    A sense of glad awakening.
    The grass, a-tiptoe at my ear,
    Whispering to me I could hear;
    I felt the rain's cool finger-tips
    Brushed tenderly across my lips,
    Laid gently on my sealèd sight,
    And all at once the heavy night
    Fell from my eyes and I could see!—
    A drenched and dripping apple-tree,
    A last long line of silver rain,
    A sky grown clear and blue again.
    And as I looked a quickening gust
    Of wind blew up to me and thrust
    Into my face a miracle
    Of orchard-breath, and with the smell,—
    I know not how such things can be!—
    I breathed my soul back into me.

    Ah! Up then from the ground sprang I
    And hailed the earth with such a cry
    As is not heard save from a man
    Who has been dead, and lives again.
    About the trees my arms I wound;
    Like one gone mad I hugged the ground;
    I raised my quivering arms on high;
    I laughed and laughed into the sky;
    Till at my throat a strangling sob
    Caught fiercely, and a great heart-throb
    Sent instant tears into my eyes:
    O God, I cried, no dark disguise
    Can e'er hereafter hide from me
    Thy radiant identity!
    Thou canst not move across the grass
    But my quick eyes will see Thee pass,
    Nor speak, however silently,
    But my hushed voice will answer Thee.
    I know the path that tells Thy way
    Through the cool eve of every day;
    God, I can push the grass apart
    And lay my finger on Thy heart!

    The world stands out on either side
    No wider than the heart is wide;
    Above the world is stretched the sky,—
    No higher than the soul is high.
    The heart can push the sea and land
    Farther away on either hand;
    The soul can split the sky in two,
    And let the face of God shine through.
    But East and West will pinch the heart
    That can not keep them pushed apart;
    And he whose soul is flat—the sky
    Will cave in on him by and by.


    Interim

    The room is full of you!—As I came in
    And closed the door behind me, all at once
    A something in the air, intangible,
    Yet stiff with meaning, struck my senses sick!—

    Sharp, unfamiliar odors have destroyed
    Each other room's dear personality.
    The heavy scent of damp, funeral flowers,—
    The very essence, hush-distilled, of Death—
    Has strangled that habitual breath of home
    Whose expiration leaves all houses dead;
    And wheresoe'er I look is hideous change.
    Save here. Here 'twas as if a weed-choked gate
    Had opened at my touch, and I had stepped
    Into some long-forgot, enchanted, strange,
    Sweet garden of a thousand years ago
    And suddenly thought, "I have been here before!

    You are not here. I know that you are gone,
    And will not ever enter here again.
    And yet it seems to me, if I should speak,
    Your silent step must wake across the hall;
    If I should turn my head, that your sweet eyes
    Would kiss me from the door.—So short a time
    To teach my life its transposition to
    This difficult and unaccustomed key!—
    The room is as you left it; your last touch—
    A thoughtless pressure, knowing not itself
    As saintly—hallows now each simple thing;
    Hallows and glorifies, and glows between
    The dust's grey fingers like a shielded light.

    There is your book, just as you laid it down,
    Face to the table,—I cannot believe
    That you are gone!—Just then it seemed to me
    You must be here. I almost laughed to think
    How like reality the dream had been;
    Yet knew before I laughed, and so was still.
    That book, outspread, just as you laid it down!
    Perhaps you thought, "I wonder what comes next,
    And whether this or this will be the end";
    So rose, and left it, thinking to return.
    Perhaps that chair, when you arose and passed
    Out of the room, rocked silently a while
    Ere it again was still. When you were gone
    Forever from the room, perhaps that chair,
    Stirred by your movement, rocked a little while,
    Silently, to and fro ...

    And here are the last words your fingers wrote,
    Scrawled in broad characters across a page
    In this brown book I gave you. Here your hand,
    Guiding your rapid pen, moved up and down.
    Here with a looping knot you crossed a "t,"
    And here another like it, just beyond
    These two eccentric "e's." You were so small,
    And wrote so brave a hand!
    How strange it seems
    That of all words these are the words you chose!

    And yet a simple choice; you did not know
    You would not write again. If you had known—
    But then, it does not matter,—and indeed
    If you had known there was so little time
    You would have dropped your pen and come to me
    And this page would be empty, and some phrase
    Other than this would hold my wonder now.
    Yet, since you could not know, and it befell
    That these are the last words your fingers wrote,
    There is a dignity some might not see
    In this, "I picked the first sweet-pea today."
    Today! Was there an opening bud beside it
    You left until tomorrow?—O my love,
    The things that withered,—and you came not back!
    That day you filled this circle of my arms
    That now is empty. (O my empty life!)
    That day—that day you picked the first sweet-pea,—
    And brought it in to show me! I recall
    With terrible distinctness how the smell
    Of your cool gardens drifted in with you.
    I know, you held it up for me to see
    And flushed because I looked not at the flower,
    But at your face; and when behind my look
    You saw such unmistakable intent
    You laughed and brushed your flower against my lips.
    (You were the fairest thing God ever made,
    I think.) And then your hands above my heart
    Drew down its stem into a fastening,
    And while your head was bent I kissed your hair.     I wonder if you knew. (Belovèd hands!     Somehow I cannot seem to see them still.     Somehow I cannot seem to see the dust     In your bright hair.) What is the need of Heaven     When earth can be so sweet?—If only God     Had let us love,—and show the world the way!     Strange cancellings must ink the eternal books     When love-crossed-out will bring the answer right!

    That first sweet-pea! I wonder where it is.
    It seems to me I laid it down somewhere,
    And yet,—I am not sure. I am not sure,
    Even, if it was white or pink; for then
    'Twas much like any other flower to me,
    Save that it was the first. I did not know,
    Then, that it was the last. If I had known—
    But then, it does not matter. Strange how few,
    After all's said and done, the things that are
    Of moment.

    Few indeed! When I can make
    Of ten small words a rope to hang the world!
    "I had you and I have you now no more."
    There, there it dangles,—where's the little truth
    That can for long keep footing under that
    When its slack syllables tighten to a thought?
    Here, let me write it down! I wish to see
    Just how a thing like that will look on paper!

    "I had you and I have you now no more."

    O little words, how can you run so straight
    Across the page, beneath the weight you bear?
    How can you fall apart, whom such a theme
    Has bound together, and hereafter aid
    In trivial expression, that have been
    So hideously dignified?

    Would God
    That tearing you apart would tear the thread
    I strung you on! Would God—O God, my mind
    Stretches asunder on this merciless rack
    Of imagery! O, let me sleep a while!
    Would I could sleep, and wake to find me back
    In that sweet summer afternoon with you.
    Summer? 'Tis summer still by the calendar!
    How easily could God, if He so willed,
    Set back the world a little turn or two!—
    Correct its griefs, and bring its joys again!

    We were so wholly one I had not thought
    That we could die apart. I had not thought
    That I could move,—and you be stiff and still!
    That I could speak,—and you perforce be dumb!
    I think our heart-strings were, like warp and woof
    In some firm fabric, woven in and out;
    Your golden filaments in fair design
    Across my duller fibre. And today
    The shining strip is rent; the exquisite
    Fine pattern is destroyed; part of your heart
    Aches in my breast; part of my heart lies chilled
    In the damp earth with you. I have been torn
    In two, and suffer for the rest of me.
    What is my life to me? And what am I
    To life,—a ship whose star has guttered out?

    A Fear that in the deep night starts awake
    Perpetually, to find its senses strained
    Against the taut strings of the quivering air,
    Awaiting the return of some dread chord?

    Dark, Dark, is all I find for metaphor;
    All else were contrast;—save that contrast's wall
    Is down, and all opposed things flow together
    Into a vast monotony, where night
    And day, and frost and thaw, and death and life,
    Are synonyms. What now—what now to me
    Are all the jabbering birds and foolish flowers
    That clutter up the world? You were my song!
    Now, now, let discord scream! You were my flower!
    Now let the world grow weeds! For I shall not
    Plant things above your grave—(the common balm
    Of the conventional woe for its own wound!)
    Amid sensations rendered negative
    By your elimination stands today,
    Certain, unmixed, the element of grief;
    I sorrow; and I shall not mock my truth
    With travesties of suffering, nor seek
    To effigy its incorporeal bulk
    In little wry-faced images of woe.
    I cannot call you back; and I desire
    No utterance of my immaterial voice.
    I cannot even turn my face this way
    Or that, and say, "My face is turned to you";
    I know not where you are, I do not know
    If heaven hold you or if earth transmute,
    Body and soul, you into earth again;
    But this I know:—not for one second's space
    Shall I insult my sight with visionings
    Such as the credulous crowd so eager-eyed
    Beholds, self-conjured in the empty air.
    Let the world wail! Let drip its easy tears!
    My sorrow shall be dumb!

    —What do I say?

    God! God!—God pity me! Am I gone mad
    That I should spit upon a rosary?
    Am I become so shrunken? Would to God
    I too might feel that frenzied faith whose touch
    Makes temporal the most enduring grief;
    Though it must walk a while, as is its wont,
    With wild lamenting! Would I too might weep
    Where weeps the world and hangs its piteous wreaths
    For its new dead! Not Truth, but Faith, it is
    That keeps the world alive. If all at once
    Faith were to slacken,—that unconscious faith
    Which must, I know, yet be the corner-stone
    Of all believing,—birds now flying fearless
    Across, would drop in terror to the earth;
    Fishes would drown; and the all-governing reins
    Would tangle in the frantic hands of God
    And the worlds gallop headlong to destruction!

    O God, I see it now, and my sick brain
    Staggers and swoons! How often over me
    Flashes this breathlessness of sudden sight
    In which I see the universe unrolled
    Before me like a scroll and read thereon
    Chaos and Doom, where helpless planets whirl
    Dizzily round and round and round and round,
    Like tops across a table, gathering speed
    With every spin, to waver on the edge
    One instant—looking over—and the next
    To shudder and lurch forward out of sight!

    Ah, I am worn out—I am wearied out—
    It is too much—I am but flesh and blood,
    And I must sleep. Though you were dead again,
    I am but flesh and blood and I must sleep.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Early Poems by EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY, SUZANNE E. JOHNSON. Copyright © 2008 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Introduction
Suggestions for Further Reading
A Note on the Text
Renascence 3
Interim 11
The Suicide 19
God's World 24
Afternoon on a Hill 25
Sorrow 26
Tavern 27
Ashes of Life 28
The Little Ghost 29
Kin to Sorrow 31
Three Songs of Shattering 32
The Shroud 34
The Dream 35
Indifference 36
Witch-Wife 37
Blight 38
When the Year Grows Old 40
Thou art not lovelier than lilacs, - no 42
Time does not bring relief; you all have lied 43
Mindful of you the sodden earth in spring 44
Not in this chamber only at my birth 45
If I should learn, in some quite casual way 46
Bluebeard 47
First Fig 51
Second Fig 51
Recuerdo 52
Thursday 53
To the Not Impossible Him 54
Macdougal Street 55
The Singing-Woman from the Wood's Edge 57
She Is Overheard Singing 59
The Prisoner 61
The Unexplorer 62
Grown-up 63
The Penitent 64
Daphne 65
Portrait by a Neighbour 66
Midnight Oil 67
The Merry Maid 68
To Kathleen 69
To S. M. 70
The Philosopher 71
I do but ask that you be always fair 72
Love, though for this you riddle me with darts 73
I think I should have loved you presently 74
Oh, think not I am faithful to a vow 75
I shall forget you presently, my dear 76
Spring 79
City Trees 80
The Blue-Flag in the Bog 81
Journey 89
Eel-Grass 91
Elegy Before Death 92
The Bean-Stalk 93
Weeds 95
Passer Mortuus Est 96
Pastoral 97
Assault 98
Travel 99
Low-Tide 100
Song of a Second April 101
Rosemary 102
The Poet and His Book 103
Alms 108
Inland 110
To a Poet that Died Young 111
Wraith 113
Ebb 115
Elaine 116
Burial 117
Mariposa 118
The Little Hill 119
Doubt No More that Oberon 120
Lament 121
Exiled 122
The Death of Autumn 124
Ode to Silence 125
Memorial to D. C. 133
Wild Swans 139
We talk of taxes, and I call you friend 140
Into the golden vessel of great song 141
Not with libations, but with shouts and laughter 142
Only until this cigarette is ended 143
Once more into my arid days like dew 144
No rose that in a garden ever grew 145
When I too long have looked upon your face 146
And you as well must die, beloved dust 147
Let you not say of me when I am old 148
Oh, my beloved, have you thought of this 149
As to some lovely temple, tenantless 150
Cherish you then the hope I shall forget 151
Explanatory Notes 153
Index of Titles and First Lines 169
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