Friday, January 14, 2011

Poem for Friday: Dirge Without Music "I am not resigned"

She is the first poet I ever remember loving. Before Bishop, before Dickinson, before Levertov or Plath. "Think Madonna" an elderly woman told me in the 1980's, at the height of Madonna's fame. "Comparing Vincent to a poet of today misses the point; she was a rock star."

I've always loved much of Millay's work and yet it seems indelicate to say so. Her sonnets are (as Richard Wilbur says) some of the best written in the 20th Century. I loved them as a teenager and love them now, too. 

Perhaps what I appreciate more today is the figure of Millay as a political poet as she matured. She wrote against the death penalty, against the guilty verdict of the Sacco and Vanzetti case, against the dropping of the bomb on Nagasaki. 

In fact, her "unpatriotic" stance cost her in terms of her reputation. She used her fame to speak out against World War I and it cost her. Here are some of her poems. I hope there are other closet Millay fans or perhaps, some that are about to come into being. The Millay Colony was also the first residency that I was ever accepted at and although the writers and artists sleep and work in what was her barn, we did get a tour of her homestead. This was the first time I saw a writer's "shed" as a separate space from the main house. Her writing studio was a tiny house in the woods, just a few minutes from the main house. Millay also had an incredible gun collection, including one with a mother of pearl handle. Here's to Vincent (as she was called).

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 are 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.

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why

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 the 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.

"I shall forget you presently, my dear" 

I shall forget you presently, my dear,
So make the most of this, your little day,
Your little month, your little half a year,
Ere I forget, or die, or move away,
And we are done forever; by and by
I shall forget you, as I said, but now,
If you entreat me with your loveliest lie
I will protest you with my favorite vow.
I would indeed that love were longer-lived,
And vows were not so brittle as they are,
But so it is, and nature has contrived
To struggle on without a break thus far,
Whether or not we find what we are seeking
Is idle, biologically speaking.


  1. Oh, I love her, too! I have her collected poems, and numerous individual books, and devoured Savage Beauty, by Nancy Milford, when it came out!!

  2. Here is my favorite Millay (I especially love the last line):


    by: Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)

    O what purpose, April, do you return again?
    Beauty is not enough.
    You can no longer quiet me with the redness
    Of little leaves opening stickily.
    I know what I know.
    The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
    The spikes of the crocus.
    The smell of the earth is good.
    It is apparent that there is no death.
    But what does that signify?
    Not only under ground are the brains of men
    Eaten by maggots.
    Life in itself
    Is nothing,
    An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
    It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
    Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.


  3. Thank you, Peter, I didn't remember this one -- it is excellent -- especially the last line.