I Tell You Beauty Bears An Ultra Fringe

Millay
Edna St. Vincent Millay

“I’m so tired of hearing about ‘Renascence,’ I’m nearly dead. I find it’s as hard to live down an early triumph as an early indiscretion.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay

XXXV
Fatal Interview

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Clearly my ruined garden as it stood
Before the frost came on it I recall –
Stiff marigolds, and what a trunk of wood
The zinnia had, that was the first to fall;
These pale and oozy stalks, these hanging leaves
Neverless and darkened, dripping in the sun,
Cannot gainsay me, though the spirit grieves
And wrings its hands at what the frost has done.
If in a widening silence you should guess
I read the moment with recording eyes,
Taking your love and all your loveliness
Into a listening body hushed of sighs . . . .
Though summer’s rife and the warm rose in season,
Rebuke me not.  I have a winter reason.


We experienced the best of winter this past weekend in Minneapolis, perfect for the pond hockey events around the area.  Cold enough to produce the bright white squeaky soft snow that muffles sound and reshapes the light so that you see the world in a different way.  The roads were bad, bad enough to close schools and cancel activities and force everyone inside to cook and play games for 24 hours.  It was warm enough, at least for Minnesotans that have the winter gear and proper attitude, that working and playing outside was comfortable. It was exactly the kind of January weekend I enjoy most.

Millay was bi-sexual, her first lovers all women during college. In my opinion, bisexuality is the least accepted consonant among the LGBQT community.  It is isn’t militant enough for some political factions of sexual politics, particularly feminist sexual politics, an undercurrent of “pick a side why don’t you” running through the underbelly of the discourse.  I don’t think Millay would have used that term to describe herself, labels on sexuality are a relatively new concept. She was a generous and self absorbed lover, never truly discarding anyone in her life it seems, once someone became her lover for a period of time. The passion could go out of the balloon quickly with Vincent in terms of sex, but she always surrounded herself with vibrant people and the most vibrant remained on as friends.

The circumstances leading up to her marriage to Eugen Boissevain are a bit convoluted.  She had pursued and rejected several marriage proposals for various reasons prior to her marrying Boissevain.  She was living in Europe and somewhat miserable and lonely, both her younger sisters having already married.   Millay was tired of the constant threat of unpaid bills hanging over her head and wanted more stability that a marriage could provide.   When Eugen entered Vincent’s life he was getting over the tragic death of his first wife, Inez Milholland, who had died 7 years earlier.   By all accounts, Eugen was  the pursuer and he got what he wanted. Eugen was a good fit for Vincent.   He was not threatened by her feminist politics, nor her talent as an artist and had enough money to allow her to focus on her literary pursuits.  He contained the poise and confidence to not be threatened by her love affairs with other men and women during the remainder of their lives and marriage, while being a good companion to Vincent.

A former lover of Vincent’s, Alyse Powers, described Eugen this way:

Jboissevain1
Edna St. Vincent Millay and Eugen Boissevain

“Handsome, reckless, mettlesome as a stallion breathing the first morning air, he would laugh at himself, indeed laugh at everything, with a laugh that scattered melancholy as the wind scatters the petals of the fading poppy… One day his house would be that of a citizen of the world, with a French butler to wait on the table and everything done with the greatest bienséance, the next the servants would have as mysteriously disappeared as bees from a deserted hive, and he would be out in the kitchen washing the dishes and whistling a haunting Slavic melody, as light-hearted as a troubadour. He had the gift of the aristocrat and could adapt himself to all circumstances … his blood was testy, adventurous, quixotic, and he faced life as an eagle faces its flight.”

In short, Eugen was as complicated a personality as Vincent and they fit together intricately for the remainder of their days. The next 15 years Vincent and Eugen traveled, lived and worked at Steepletop and made a life together.   Vincent worked hard as a writer and used this period to establish herself in both her place in literary and feminist history and influence.  That she eventually fell both out and into vogue subsequently is a testament to her greatness that is at the core of her best work.  True genius is rare and eventually finds its proper place in our collective cultural appreciation of art.


XLIII
The Harp-Weaver

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Still will I harvest beauty where it grows:
In coloured fungus and the spotted fog
Surprised on foods forgotten, in ditch and bog
Filmed brilliant with irregular rainbows
Of rust and oil, where have a city throws
Its empty tins; and in some spongy log,
Whence headlong leaps the oozy emerald frog. . . .
And a black pupil in the green scum shows,
Her the inhabiter of divers places
Surmising at all doors, I push them all.
Oh, you that fearful of a creaking hinge
Turn back forevermore with craven faces,
I tell you Beauty bears an ultra fringe
Unguessed of you upon her gossamer shawl!

Here Might You Bless Me

Millay_library

 

“The longest absence is less perilous to love than the terrible trials of incessant proximity.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay

 

XXX
The Harp Weaver

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Sometimes when I am wearied suddenly
Of all the things that are the outward you,
And my gaze wanders ere your tale is through
To webs of my own weaving, or I see
Abstractedly your hands about your knee
And wonder why I love you as I do,
Then I recall, “Yet Sorrow thus he drew”;
Then I consider, “Pride thus painted he.”
Oh, friend, forget not, when you fain wound note
In me a beauty that was never mine,
How first you knew me in a book I wrote,
How first you loved me for a written line:
So are we bound till broken in the throat
Of Song, and Art no more leads out the Nine.


Millay’s critics did not like the direct way she dealt with art as Art, love as Love, sorrow as Sorrow and pride as Pride.  They felt it too direct and complained endlessly that it was immature, some even going so far to label it as “bad writing.” What is bad writing? I would really like to know. Is it like the definition of pornography in some people’s minds, they really can’t describe it, but they know it when they read it?

All reading, and particularly, reading poetry, is so incredibly subjective and personal.  I have poems that I love for one line, one image, one feeling they impart, the rest of it can grate on my ears like fingernails on a chalkboard and it doesn’t bother me a bit, in fact I almost seem to enjoy it more for having to waddle through a bit of stuff I can’t seem to wrap my head around for that moment of clarity that leaps off the page as a complete human connection.

Do people really read poetry for understanding to analyze line by line every intention of the poet?  I hope not. Do you go to an art gallery trying to figure out the meaning of every brush stroke of a painting? Do you take in every pixel of a photograph?  Of course not.   You stand back and you let your eye roam around and land on where it pleases you and then see if the brain can make something of the images in ways that make you think, or laugh, or something else. Why does ART have to be serious?  Why does poetry have to make sense?  Can it be just an image that our eye finds floating about within the poem and our mind then can land on what we find interesting?

Next time you read a poem or a novel or a news article that you don’t like, its obvious its to your eyes”bad writing,” try this; don’t read it all and don’t read it linearly.  Scan it and see it, go to the middle, go the end, and see if you find something your like, something that perks your interest,  read that.   Who knows what you may find afterwards….


 

XLV
Fatal Interview

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I know my mind and I have made my choice;
Not from your temper does my doom depend;
Love me or love me not, you have no voice
In this, which is my portion to the end.
Your presence and your favours, the full part
That you could give, you now can take away:
What lies between your beauty and my heart
Not even you can trouble or betray.
Mistake me not – unto my inmost core
I do desire your kiss upon my mouth;
They have not craved a cup of water more
That bleach upon the deserts of the mouth;
Here might you bless me; what you cannot do
Is bow me down, who have been loved by you.


Fatal Interview in my opinion was Millay at the absolute height of her powers as an artist.  Many of her most famous sonnets are contained within its pages and it is written during a period of what appears to be the most stability of her life.   It is written during her time at Steepletop, the home and farm she shared with her husband, Eugen Boissevain.  Their marriage was enduring, successful and met each of their needs to be themselves in all their tortured glory.  I reject this idea that longevity is the only measure of a life well lived.  To live well in the moment and to string as many of those moments together, like pearls, whether it is a long chain or a single beautiful ball of shining hardened mucus. Vincent bet her fortune on love and left nothing for retirement. She never intended to get old.   It was not her idea of a good idea.


XXIX
Fatal Interview

By Edna St. Vincent Millay

Heart, have no pity on this house of bone:
Shake it with dancing, break it down with joy.
No man holds mortgage on it, it is your own;
To give, to sell at auction, to destroy.
When you are blind to moonlight on the bed,
When you are deaf to gravel on the pane,
Shall quavering caution from this house instead
Chuck forth at summer mischief in the lane?
All that delightful youth forbears to spend
Molestful age inherits, and the ground
Will have us, therefore, while we’re young, my friend —
The Latin’s vulgar, but the advice is sound.
Youth have no pity, leave no farthing here
For age to invest in compromise and fear.

I Don’t Know What You Do Exactly When Someone Dies

Vincent
Edna St. Vincent Millay

 

XVIII
Sonnets from An Ungrafted Tree

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Gazing upon him now, severe and dead,
It seemed a curious thing that she had lain
Beside him many a night in that cold bed,
And that had been which would not be again.
From his desirous body the great heat
Was gone at last, it seemed, and the taut nerves
loosened forever.  Formally the sheet
Set forth for her today those curves
And lengths familiar as the bedroom door.
She was as one who enters, sly and proud,
To where her husbands speaks before a crowd,
And sees a man she never saw before –
The man who eats his victuals at her side,
Small, and absurd, and hers: for once, not hers,
unclassified.

      .                   .Finis


Reading the sonnets contained within Sonnets from An Ungrafted Tree, it is hard to reconcile the timeline of when they were penned to the content.   Edna St. Vincent Millay published them in 1923, several years before she met and wed her husband and more than 20 years before a sequence of deaths of men she loved would begin to surround her like a shroud. I am not one to investigate literary criticism, which ties all kinds of obscure politics and literary references to lines of poetry.  I know that is what great poets do,  they write literary criticism, they read literary criticism, they translate other great poets from other languages and they write poetry with depth so literary critics have something to do.  But I am not a great poet.  I am consumer of poetry and as I have stated before, I approach poetry with the same approach I drink wine,  I consume what I like, regardless of what other people think or the gravitas it has received.

There are seventeen sonnets in the sequence from Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree that deal with Death, using the view point of a wife watching and helping her husband die. Vincent constructed these sonnets slightly different than her previous work, but the construction in my mind is not intent on making a statement on Feminism as much as they fit the disjointed nature of the subject matter – death.  I do believe that great poets and novelists are able to create something in words that is entirely more real than the life in which they live.  These sonnets are written in third person, not first person and by doing so, they are not autobiographical, but at the same time they are chillingly personal.

The first sonnet in the sequence tells the story of many marriages, one that has subsided in working like a marriage should, but there is still a kind of connection with a history of love that cannot ever completely unchain one from the other.  The first lines speaks volumes of what has come and gone. And like most things in life, do not express the totality of the wife’s sentiments, which are flushed out in subsequent sonnets.

I
Sonnets from An Ungrafted Tree

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

So she came back into his house again.
And watched beside his bed until he died,
Loving him not all.  The winter rain
Splashed in the painted butter-tub outside,
Where once her red geraniums had stood,
Where still their rotted stalk were to be seen;
The thin log snapped; and she went out for wood,
Bareheaded, running the few steps between
The house and shed; there, from the sodden eaves
Blown back and forth on ragged ends of twine,
Saw the dejected creeping-jinny vine,
(And one, big aproned, blithe, with stiff blue sleeves
Rolled to the shoulder that warm day in spring,
Who planted seeds, musing ahead to their far blossoming).

XIV
Sonnets from An Ungrafted Tree

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

She had a horror he would die at night.
And sometimes when the light began to fade
She could not keep from noticing how white
The birches looked – and then she would be afraid,
Even with a lamp, to go about the house
And lock the windows; and as night wore on
Toward morning, if a dog howled, or a mouse
Squeaked in the floor, long after it was gone
Her flesh would sit awry on her.  By day
She would forget somewhat, and it would seem
A silly thing to go with just this dram
And get a neighbor to come at night and stay.
But it would strike her sometimes, making the tea:
She had kept that kettle boiling all night long,
for company. 


I have had more than my fair share of deaths in my circle of loved ones in the past year.  It can get to feel like death is ganging up on you.  And it has been interesting to watch how all impacted in various spheres of my life, have dealt with the grief and finality of change that death brings.  There is no one way to grieve and no right or wrong way to experience the loss of beloved ones and creatures in our lives.  Grief is entirely a personal experience best shared with others, even if it feels awkward.  In a recent conversation with someone who has experienced a bucketful of tragedy and loss in a short period of time, she stated it astutely, “I did the best that I could.”  Vincent channels that sense of being lost and doing the best you can in the final sonnet I will share from this sequence.


XVI
Sonnets from An Ungrafted Tree

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

The doctor asked what she wanted done
With him, that could not lie there many days,
and she was shocked to see how life goes on
Even after death, in irritating ways;
And mused how if he had not died at all
‘Twould have been easier – then there need not be
The stiff disorder of a funeral
Everywhere, and the hideous industry,
And crowds of people calling her by name
And questioning her, she’d never seen before,
But only watching by his bed once more
And sitting silent if a knocking came . . .
She said at length, feeling the doctor’s eyes,
“I don’t know what you do exactly when a person dies.”

This Beast That Rends Me

IMG_7825
George Dillon (1906 – 1968)

Address To The Doomed

by George Dillon

Say it is life that matters. Say the bone
And flesh that blazoned it are but a book
Mislaid, forgotten, and the meaning known.
I will believe, but I have lived to look
On the cold body of the beautiful dead,
White and immobile as the moon in air –
The imperious heart being strangely quieted,
And the proud spirit flown I know not where.
Say it is earth again.  Let it be hid
In ruined leaves.  Account it as the dust
That quarrels not with doom and never did,
And reckon me among the quick who must.
Yet would I sleep tonight at the rose’s root,
Seeing what TIme has trampled underfoot.

October 1930


George Dillon and Edna St. Vincent Millay shared several things, both won the Pulitzer Prize, Millay for The Ballad of the Harp Weaver and Other Poems in 1923 and Dillon for The Flowering Stone in 1932.  They also shared a bed. The two would cross paths in Chicago in 1928, while Vincent was on a reading tour and despite a 14 year age gap, the two were smitten on first sight. Millay was the pursuer and wrote volumes of letters and poems to Dillon in those first torrid months. Millay was married and confided instantly to her husband about her new found boy-toy.  He was wise enough to know that this too would pass, and on the face of it accepted Millay’s love affair with Dillon, which both chronicled in sonnets and poetry; Millay in Fatal Interview and Dillon in The Flowering Stone.   This unconventional mutual confessions of unfaithfulness was a big nothing burger in their own personal lives, but was just the kind of juicy romance that the reading public was hungry for at the time.  To have a strong, beautiful woman, in charge of her own sexuality was an awakening force in evolving norms towards women’s independence and sexual liberation.

Millay simultaneously wrote sonnets to both her husband and Dillon during the years 1928 to 1930 and it is a bit confusing reading Fatal Interview which was written to whom. The sonnet below Millay wrote in pencil on her first lunch with Dillon in 1928 in Chicago, so completely was she infatuated, she gave it to him immediately.  Her opening salvo completely prophetic, so much was she confident in her love language and natural tendencies.

This beast that rends me in the sight of all,
This love, this longing, this oblivious thing,
That has me under as the last leaves fall,
Will glut, will sicken, will be gone by spring.
The wound will heal, the fever will abate,
The knotted hurt will slacken in the breast;
I shall forget before the flickers mate
Your look that is today my east and west.
Unscathed, however, from a claw so deep
Though I should love again I shall not go:
Along my body, waking while I sleep,
Sharp to the kiss, cold to the hand as snow,
The scar of this encounter like a sword
Will lie between me and my troubled lord.

Edna St. Vincent Millay 1928

Dillon went on to become an editor for Poetry magazine from 1937 to 1949.  Today, Dillon is largely forgotten as a poet. His literary legacy did not survive his generation.  He stopped writing poetry by age 41 and eventually faded off the literary landscape. His only present day notoriety is as one of many of Vincent’s lovers. And in that regard, he is in very good company.


To Losers

by George Dillon

Let loneliness be mute. Accuse
Only the wind for what you lose,
Only the wind has ever known
Where anything you lost has gone.
It is the wind whose breath shall come
To quench tall-flaming trees and numb
The narrow bones of birds. It is
The wind whose dissipating kiss
Disbands the soft-assembled rose.
It is the wordless wind that knows
Where every kind of beauty goes.

And if you lose love in the end
Say it was taken by the wind.

I Met The Wolf Alone

Edna St. Vincent Millay
Edna St. Vincent Millay in the middle.

“Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay

First Fig

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends –
It gives a lovely light!

Second Fig

Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!


First Fig, one of Vincent’s simplest poems, would become her most iconic.  It transferred to a generation of men and women a tiny piece of her essence. Although Millay’s popularity has ebbed and flowed in the intervening years, there has always been a place for her in reader’s hearts, who recognize in her words, their own desires for freedom and love. I have read a fair number of introductions, historical footnotes and descriptions of Vincent. I find many of them blunt and salacious in attempting to describe what was a very complicated woman. There is no question that she was a feminist, an independent thinker, sexually liberated and willing to love whomever she choose. But after that, I quail a bit at putting definitions or terms to her private relationships, as some well meaning biographies come across as intentionally trying to titillate. Her poetry demonstrates she lived passionately, and Milford’s biography regrettably catalogs the long list of lovers Vincent had over her lifetime.  But, after a while, there are aspects of Milford’s recounting that became tedious and I thought unnecessarily superficial in the retelling. I felt like Milford at some point was almost putting her on trial and my inner voice screamed, “Have you no decency Madam, is there no such thing as privacy for this lovely woman!”

I think what makes Vincent’s poetry special are a couple of things I learned early on about writing sonnets. First, writing sonnets in first person, allows the reader to experience the ideas in a different way, it personalizes even the fiction. The use of the word – I, changes the nature of the interaction of the reader with the words. It allows the reader to take on the mantle of arousal, passion, love, arrogance, rejection, honesty and lies that make up the contradictory complexity of what it is to be human contained within Millay’s poetry. Vincent took sexuality beyond a thing hidden in flowery language, and brought the raw emotions and politics that are the nuts and bolts of human relations to the structure of fourteen lines. She never recoiled away from the uncomfortable truth that not all relationships are equal and that the vast majority of them in our lifetime are transient. Vincent dared to speak what few are willing to declare: we take from each other and give to each other what we want and what we need, when we choose and for the lucky few for whom love lasts on and on, know you are blessed.  For the rest of us, we either have to live on in the afterglow of the blaze or move on.

It is almost impossible to pick what are Vincent’s finest sonnets on the subject of love because what underlies so many of the ones that speak most clearly to me, are not the declarations of undying devotion, but rather deal with the complexity of relationships beginning and ending. For often it is in those moments of transition that emotions are most raw, the muse speaks with the clearest tongue and the question is whether as a writer you are going to smear your blood upon the page.

I find the following little poem fascinating.  It is rarely quoted or included in common references and anthologies of her poetry.  It was published in her last volume of original poetry published in her lifetime in 1939.  The True Encounter is an ingenious little rhyme and a wonderful example of how rhyming poetry can hide the serious nature of the idea’s it represents. I can approach this poem from several different angles and relate to it and consider the poet’s experiences and intentions.  Enjoy.


The True Encounter

“Wolf!” cried my cunning heart
. . At every sheep it spied,
. . and roused the countryside.

“Wolf! Wolf!” – and up would start
. . Good neighbors, bringing spade
. . And pitchfork to my aid.

At length my cry was known:
. . Therein lay my release.
I met the wolf alone
. . And was devoured in peace.

 

Up The Walk She Went With Pride

Millay portrait
Charles Ellis portrait of Edna St. Vincent Millay 1934

I pray if you love me, bear my joy
A little while, or let me weep your tears;
I, too, have seen the quavering Fate destroy
Your destiny’s bright spinning – the dull  shears
Meeting not neatly, chewing at the thread, –
Nor can you well be less aware how fine,
How staunch as wire, and how unwarranted
Endures the golden fortune that is mine.
I pray you for this day at least, my dear,
Fare by my side, that journey in the sun;
Else must I turn me from the blossoming year
And walk in grief the way that you have gone
Let us go forth together to the spring:
Love must be this, if it be anything.

Edna St. Vincent Millay


 

The Little Ghost

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I knew her for a little ghost
That in my garden walked;
The wall is high—higher than most—
And the green gate was locked.

And yet I did not think of that
Till after she was gone—
I knew her by the broad white hat,
All ruffled, she had on.

By the dear ruffles round her feet,
By her small hands that hung
In their lace mitts, austere and sweet,
Her gown’s white folds among.

I watched to see if she would stay,
What she would do—and oh!
She looked as if she liked the way
I let my garden grow!

She bent above my favourite mint
With conscious garden grace,
She smiled and smiled—there was no hint
Of sadness in her face.

She held her gown on either side
To let her slippers show,
And up the walk she went with pride,
The way great ladies go.

And where the wall is built in new
And is of ivy bare
She paused—then opened and passed through
A gate that once was there.

Truth Made Tangible, Is Truth Indeed

IMG_7839
Edna St. Vincent Millay around the time of publishing the poem Renascence.

“It’s not true that life is one damn thing after another; it’s one damn thing over and over.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay

re·nas·cence

/rəˈnasns,rēˈnasns/

noun

FORMAL
noun: renascence; plural noun: renascences
  1. the revival of something that has been dormant.
    “the renascence of poetry as an oral art”
    • another term for Renaissance.
      noun: Renascence

Renascence (excerpt final stanza)

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

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.

To read the entire poem, click on this link:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/55993/renascence


Renascence was a defining moment for Vincent’s career as an artist and as a person.  It accomplished two things, it brought her to the attention of a broader reading audience, as well as publishers, and solidified the backing of a wealthy patroness, Miss Caroline B. Dow.  Here is how it came about.  The summer Vincent was 20, 1912,  she left the family home in Camden to visit her Aunts in Massachusetts. The funds that bankrolled the trip were the result of Vincent winning ten dollars at an oration contest in which Miss Dow was in the audience.  From that day forward, Dow began thinking about how she could help Vincent maximize her talents, so taken was she by Vincent’s reading of several poems on stage.

Late in that summer, her mother Cora wrote Vincent a letter asking her to come home to Camden.  The enticement was news of a contest being held by The Lyric Year – with a $1,000 being awarded in prize money to the top three poems. Authors could submit unlimited number of poems to Mitchell Kennerley, a New York publisher.  There would be three judges, Edward Wheeler, editor of the Current Opinion, William Braithwaite, poetry editor of the Boston Transcript and the editor of The Lyric Year, who remained nameless. Vincent submitted Renascence and then had the pluck to write to the editors of The Lyric Year several letters, inquiring about how they were progressing in picking a winner. She did it in such unguarded cheeky fashion, that her poems and the letters caught the attention of Ferdinand Earle, one of the editors at Kennerley, who began to correspond with Vincent, praising her poem and suggesting she would be a winner. The complimentary tones on each side continued and Vincent was lead to believe she would be in the top three.

It was a crushing disappoint when the awards were announced and Vincent’s Renascence was out of the money, receiving an honorable mention. The slight in handing several inferior poems cash prizes resulted in critics attempting to make up for the injustice by praising Renascence and the young female poet in their reviews. Even fellow poets included in the anthology wrote to her telling her she should have won. It was Vincent’s first brush with the politics of publishing and it would not be her last. However, Renascence placement in the highly regarded The Lyric Year refocused Miss Dow’s attention on Vincent and solidified her belief in Vincent as a real talent, now with the backing of a prestigious publishing house’s and several critics’s endorsement. And so, Dow went to Camden to speak with Cora, Vincent’s Mother, about finding a way to get Vincent into Vassar College, in Poughkeepsie, New York, to give Vincent the opportunity of a college education.

Miss Dow realized that Vincent lacked not only the finances but the depth of formal education at high school to be admitted based on her transcript alone.  Vincent would have to prove herself college worthy on college admission tests, for languages, Latin, math, science and the humanities.  Vincent buckled down and prepared herself and passed the tests, only just barely making the minimum marks required on math and the sciences. But Vincent knew, though she would never be class valedictorian for academics, she would light up Vassar’s college theater, musical productions and the social scene. With Miss Dow’s financial backing and those of Dow’s friends, the princely sum of $400 was assembled to cover the costs for Vincent’s first year, with promises to continue to assist as long as she kept up her grades. Vincent was about to embark on what would be a life changing experience at Vassar, a future she could never  have imagined just a year before.

What’s interesting is I don’t consider Renascence a great poem. I don’t think its even in her top 50 poems in my opinion.  I think many of Vincent’s sonnets have much more staying power across time and literary landscape. But it was a poem that fit the period for sentiment and style. Young Vincent was smart enough to realize she had to fit in first in the publishing world, before she could stand out on her own.

Vincent penned the forward to her collected sonnets in 1941 and shares what she thinks is her first sonnet, written at age 15, that she unearthed among her papers, written in pencil on lined paper.  It is eerily prophetic and though simpler than her best sonnets, I know that as a writer, if the 49 year old Millay was not proud of her younger self she would not have included it.

Here it is:

Old Letters

By E. ST. V. M

I know not why I am so loath to lay
Your yellowed leaves along the glowing log,
Unburied dead, that cling about and clog –
With indisputable, insistent say
Of the stout past’s all inefficient fray –
The striving present, rising like a fog
To rust the active me, that am a cog
In the great wheel of industry today.
Yet, somehow, in this visible farewell
To the crude symbols of a simpler creed,
I find a pain that had not parallel
When passed the faith itself, – we give small heed
To incorporeal truth, let slack or swell;
But truth made tangible, is truth indeed.