The Poets

February 22, 2010

Assault- Another Millay Poem

Here's another great poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay. The imagery here is especially gorgeous, and I can easily imagine myself aesthetically absorbed on a stroll such as hers . (Notice again here her stress on Beauty's overwhelming presence: waylaid by Beauty.)



I had forgotten how the frogs must sound
After a year of silence, else I think
I should not so have ventured forth alone
At dusk upon this unfrequented road.


I am waylaid by Beauty. Who will walk
Between me and the crying of the frogs?
Oh, savage Beauty, suffer me to pass,
That am a timid woman, on her way
From one house to another!

Of the Poem (in Brief):

This particular poem pulled me into the very moment Millay was referring to, especially the first quatrain. The second stanza moves from purely empirical imagery to transcendental symbols pertaining to savage Beauty, and does so very compellingly. A great poem indeed.

There’s an audio clip attached to this poem at, click on the link and check it out.

God's World- a Millay Poem

God's World

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
Thy mists, that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour! That gaunt crag
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!

Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew I this;
Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart,—Lord, I do fear
Thou'st made the world too beautiful this year;
My soul is all but out of me,—let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.

Of the Poem:

I first read this poem last year. It was so powerful a message that I remember exactly- down to the singular most detail of the day- where I was when I read it.

The reason it moved me so deeply is because I've long understood and known the overwhelming presence of Beauty that exists in the world. It's everywhere, crushing in all around me to the point that I feel unable to talk or move or think ... I see it in the trees, I smell it in the air, I feel it permeate dark summer nights. Beauty's everywhere. Everywhere!

It's a mystifying aspect of existence I know all too well, and it sits perpetually by just waiting for me to pause and acknowledge it, and the second I do- every time without fail!- it breaks in on me with the force of a sacred deluge, and inundates everything I am to the point of irreversible rapture ...

I believe this is the point of Millay's poem: Beauty's overwhelming glory made manifest in this humble world. In the first stanza she can't seem to get enough of it, but by the end of the second stanza she doubts whether she can take in anymore of its incredible glory: My soul is all but out of me, she says, and continues:

let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.

Should another autumn leaf fall or bird sing she feels she'll loose herself entirely in the beauty of it.

When I read this poem I’m reminded of William Wordsworth’s Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802, and how amazed he was that there are those in the world who hardly recognize the beauty that surrounds them:

Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty

I’m also reminds of a beautiful quote from a scene out of American Beauty:

“It was one of those days when it's a minute away from snowing and there's this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. And this bag was, like, dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. And that's the day I knew there was this entire life behind things, and... this incredibly benevolent force, that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video's a poor excuse. But it helps me remember... and I need to remember... Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world I feel like I can't take it, like my heart's going to cave in.”

With that I’d like to say Happy Birthday to this poet, whose date of birth was on February 22, 1892 … Happy Birthday, Edna St. Vincent Millay. We'll see you on the other side.


Poetic Parameters:

Rhyme Scheme: abbccaa (per stanza)

Meter: Mixed- Lines 1 and 4 through 7 are done in pentameter (i.e. five metric feet), while lines 2 and 3 consist of three metric feet (or trimeter)

Stanza: Septet (i.e. 7 lines)

Edna St. Vincent Millay*

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 - 1950)

Poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay was born in Rockland, Maine, on February 22, 1892. Her mother, Cora, raised her three daughters on her own after asking her husband to leave the family home in 1899. Cora encouraged her girls to be ambitious and self-sufficient, teaching them an appreciation of music and literature from an early age. In 1912, at her mother's urging, Millay entered her poem "Renascence" into a contest: she won fourth place and publication in The Lyric Year, bringing her immediate acclaim and a scholarship to Vassar. There, she continued to write poetry and became involved in the theater. She also developed intimate relationships with several women while in school, including the English actress Wynne Matthison. In 1917, the year of her graduation, Millay published her first book, Renascence and Other Poems. At the request of Vassar's drama department, she also wrote her first verse play, The Lamp and the Bell (1921), a work about love between women.

Millay, whose friends called her "Vincent," then moved to New York's Greenwich Village, where she led a notoriously Bohemian life. She lived in a nine-foot-wide attic and wrote anything she could find an editor willing to accept. She and the other writers of Greenwich Village were, according to Millay herself, "very, very poor and very, very merry." She joined the Provincetown Players in their early days, and befriended writers such as Witter Bynner, Edmund Wilson, Susan Glaspell, and Floyd Dell, who asked for Millay's hand in marriage. Millay, who was openly bisexual, refused, despite Dell's attempts to persuade her otherwise. That same year Millay published A Few Figs from Thistles (1920), a volume of poetry which drew much attention for its controversial descriptions of female sexuality and feminism. In 1923 her fourth volume of poems, The Harp Weaver, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. In addition to publishing three plays in verse, Millay also wrote the libretto of one of the few American grand operas, The King's Henchman (1927).

Millay married Eugen Boissevain, a self-proclaimed feminist and widower of Inez Milholland, in 1923. Boissevain gave up his own pursuits to manage Millay's literary career, setting up the readings and public appearances for which Millay grew quite famous. According to Millay's own accounts, the couple acted liked two bachelors, remaining "sexually open" throughout their twenty-six-year marriage, which ended with Boissevain's death in 1949. Edna St. Vincent Millay died in 1950.

*Biography from

February 20, 2010

Atlantic Waters

It hugged the pillars of that pier
With trumpet waves that crashing sprayed
And low above it seagulls sang
To I, the priest who by it prayed

That green New Jersey ocean smelled
Of seaweed, rotted wood, and grime
But I, the priest who by it prayed
Felt nary ever better time

For seagulls loved the lapping sea
The lapping sea the seagull's song
And I the priest who prayed by both
Felt high elation ever strong


February 12, 2010

Comus in the Margins

There's a poem quoted in the margins of one of Benjamin Jowett's translations of the works of Plato- specifically the book of Phaedo. The quote there was to serve as a comparison to what Socrates was elaborating on, namely, how some spirits are still so carnally-minded after death that they are so weighed down by it that they cannot ascend to the heavenly world ...

But the soul which has been polluted, and is impure at the time of her departure, and is the companion and servant of the body always, and is in love with and fascinated by the body and by the desires and pleasures of the body, until she is led to believe that the truth only exists in a bodily form, which a man may touch and see and taste, and use for the purposes of his lusts,—the soul, I mean, accustomed to hate and fear and avoid the intellectual principle, which to the bodily eye is dark and invisible, and can be attained only by philosophy;—do you suppose that such a soul will depart pure and unalloyed?

She is held fast by the corporeal, which the continual association and constant care of the body have wrought into her nature.

And this corporeal element, my friend, is burdensome and weighty and earthly, and is visible; a soul thus hampered is depressed and dragged down again into the visible world, because she is afraid of the invisible and of the other world- prowling about tombs and sepulchers, near which, as they tell us, are seen certain ghostly apparitions of souls, spectres emanating from souls that have not departed pure, but still retain something of the visible element: which is why they can be seen.

-Phaedo, 80

Jowett, or perhaps the publishers, thought that a good comparison of the thought above might be found in a section of a poem entitled Comus, and so it was inserted …

But, when lust,
By unchaste looks, loose gestures, and foul talk,
But most by lewd and lavish act of sin,
Lets in defilement to the inward parts,
The soul grows clotted by contagion,
Imbodies, and imbrutes, till she quite lose
The divine property of her first being.
Such are those thick and gloomy shadows damp
Oft seen in charnel-vaults and sepulchers,
Lingering and sitting by a new-made grave,
As loth to leave the body that it loved,
And linked itself by carnal sensuality
To a degenerate and degraded state.

-Comus, 469

Now I can’t be certain of the exact time I first read those lines, but it was definitely prior to 1995, and therefore prior to my formal introduction to poetry. I mention this because the poet who wrote those lines, John Milton, is the selfsame poet whose works pulled me deep into the realm of poetry years later (which I mention in an earlier post).

I should probably be clear on something here, or rather on two points.

First of all, John Milton is a man- no more and no less than I am. Although he happens to be my favorite poet, my praises to him resemble that of praises I’d render to a friend.

Nevertheless, and secondly (and the self-reflecting point of this post), I find it fascinating that his poetic influence reached further back than I had imagined. I must have read and reread that margin note twenty times or more, and never once- until recently- did it occur to me to find out who was responsible for those lines.

It goes without saying, when I did find out who was responsible for those lines, it reaffirmed the aesthetic preference I have for his style of writing- not to mention I was amazed and happy about it.

One of the very first things I did when I set this blog up was to indicate why poetry interests me. I wrote:

My longstanding interest in philosophy and theology- both sparked by my interest and belief in God- are what brought me to poetry, hence here.

Isn’t it delightfully coincidental that my first exposure to Milton was while reading Phaedo years ago- a deeply philosophical work whose subject revolves around the question of life after death and immortality? I believe that it’s questions like these, ultimately, that brought me to poetry … even more so, respectfully, than Milton.

Side Note: The above link under Phaedo leads to an awesome lecture that I recommend checking out.

February 11, 2010

Poetry vs. Histroy- Aristotle Quote

Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history; for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular.


A Philosopher's Hymn to Virtue

Aristotle is a philosopher who I admire a great deal. Last week I decided I'd take up another comprehensive study of one of his best known works, the Nicomachean Ethics (this is something that I’ve been meaning to do for a while now, a sort of back-to-the-basics type thing).

Anyhow, this new resolution brought me back to a poem that's attributed to him- the poem's called Hymn to Virtue (Ἀρετή, Areté).

This is a poem dedicated to Hermias (said to be Aristotle’s uncle-in-law), a poem modeled on an early poetic form well known to the ancient Greeks: Paean.

It's very important to realize that there were several transliterations of this poem, and that, despite the beauty of the poem we English speakers are familiar with, we might have lost some of the poetic parameters intended by Aristotle.

Of course, this doesn't mean its meaning is lost to us- far from it. What it means is that we ought to be very cautious ascribing parameters to the poem that are not intended in the original Greek.*

What's more important however, is that as we read this work we remember it came from the hand of a man who quite literally dedicated his entire life to a life of virtue in the purest sense of the word, and that as he did so, he became one of the highest contributors to the very foundations of Western civilization as we know it- and more. Yeah, I admire this guy a lot.

With that said, here’s that poem below, enjoy.


Hymn to Virtue

O sought with toil and mortal strife
By those of human birth,
Virtue, thou noblest end of life,
Thou goodliest gain on earth!
Thee, Maid, to win, our youth would bare,
Unwearied, fiery pains; and dare
Death for thy beauty’s worth;
So bright thy proffer’d honours shine,
Like clusters of a fruit divine.

Sweeter than slumber’s boasted joys,
And more desir’d than gold,
Dearer than nature’s dearest ties: -
For thee those heroes old,
Herculean son of highest Jove,
And the twin-birth of Leda, strove
By perils manifold:
Pelides’ son, with like desire,
And Ajax, sought the Stygian fire.

The bard shall crown with lasting bay,
And age immortal make
Atarna’s sovereign, ‘reft of day
For thy dear beauty’s sake:
Him, therefore, the recording Nine
In songs extol to heights divine,
And every chord awake;
Promoting still, with reverence due,
The meed of friendship, tried and true.

*To me the structure resembles that of an ode whose rhyme scheme (per stanza) is as follows: a.b.a.b.c.c.b.d.d

The meter of lines 1, 3, 5, 6, and 8 (of each stanza) seem to loosely resemble a tetrameter; whereas the rest want to express six to seven syllable counts.

As of April 9th, 2010