“Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.”
Edna St. Vincent Millay
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!
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.