I am glad I paid so little attention to good advice; had I abided by it I might have been saved from some of my most valuable mistakes.
Edna St. Vincent Millay
On Hearing a Symphony of Beethoven’s
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Sweet sounds, oh, beautiful music, do not cease!
Reject me not into the world again.
With you alone is excellence and peace,
Mankind made plausible, his purpose plain,
Enchanted in your air benign and shrewd,
With limbs asprawl and empty faces pale,
The spiteful and the stingy and the rude
Sleep like scullions in the fairy tale.
This moment is the best the world can give:
The tranquil blossom on the tortured stem.
Reject me not, sweet sounds! oh, let me live,
Till Doom espy my towers and scatter them,
A city spellbound under the aging sun,
Music my rampart, and my only one.
In reading Nancy Milford’s biography of Millay titled Savage Beauty, I was struck by how important the role of music played in Vincent’s life. Poetry and poets are not the same thing. You can not reconstruct the poet from the accumulated words of a lifetime. You can get a glimpse of their souls, their personalities, some of their beliefs, but the flesh and blood is far more spurious and complicated. Millay could channel joy in her poetry almost like a melody that runs through many of her poems. Vincent learned to read music at the same time she learned to read poetry.
In 1900 when Vincent was 8 years old, her parents separated and never reconciled, divorcing soon after. The Millay’s was a modest household prior to the separation but now, Edna and her sisters were thrown into domestic chaos that would shape the co-dependent relationships that were both vibrant and at their core somewhat rotten between her, her siblings and her mother Cora. Cora spent the next 25 years as a traveling nurse-maid, skilled in the art of nursing sick children back to health from the myriad of childhood diseases at the time. She rarely was home and so Edna, her younger sisters Norma and Kathleen, ran their own household, in a broken down shack, knowing that the best way to not attract unwanted attention in the community from their plight was for the three little girls to run their lives with pristine efficiency. A list of chores titled “Do It Now” outlined the tasks that each was to complete from 6:00 am to 6:30 pm and then off to bed at 8 pm. The girls often made play of the work by singing to each other, making up songs and crafted a conscious air of happiness, that surrounded them and that was real in their bond to each other, but masked an underlying sadness that pervaded their pain of having no consistent support, financial or domestic, from either parent. That domestic happiness that the three girls created was a source of intrigue and envy that drew others into their inner circle like moths to a flame throughout their lifetime. It created an unbreakable bond between sisters and between Edna and her Mother. But not all bonds are forged from only good. The nuanced way Edna deals with sorrow, indifference and love, I think comes from a deep well of complicated circumstances and hardship. Edna was a generation older than my parents, both born during the height of the depression, but I have witnessed how “making do” with not much at a young age creates its own pandora’s box of issues that are both positive and negative in shaping young minds.
There are many recordings of Edna reading her poetry. I will share a few in upcoming posts, but listening to recordings of her voice today, it sounds oddly foreign, a bit jilted, with a curious accent more English than New England. It sounds like she is putting on airs, trying to impress the rich crowd that she would not only aspire to eventually be part of, but would succeed, though never feeling like she completely fit in. Whether she had a softer, gentler voice for her companions in every day life we will not know, but based on her prolific letter writing and the playful, gentle teasing that pervades it, I have a feeling her unrecorded voice was much softer in song and favored company.
Fragments of Millay’s poetry are pervasive to this day in our collective culture. Her words inspiration for other writers, other artists and pop songs. I have included a video of Deb Talan’s song the Gladdest Thing that is based on Millay’s poem Afternoon on a Hill. Enjoy.
Afternoon on A Hill
By Edna St. Vincent Millay
I will be the gladdest thing
Under the sun!
I will touch a hundred flowers
And not pick one.
I will look at cliffs and clouds
With quiet eyes,
Watch the wind bow down the grass,
And the grass rise.
And when lights begin to show
Up from the town,
I will mark which must be mine,
And then start down!