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.