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

Edna St. Vincent Millay


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,

      .                   .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.

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).

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.

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.”

Truth Made Tangible, Is Truth Indeed

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




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:


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.