Sunday, February 22, 2009

Love is Not All

Today is the birthday of one of my all-time favorite American poets, Edna St. Vincent Millay. She was born in 1892 in a lovely town on the Maine coast, Rockland, and grew up in a rather liberated household of women (her mother and two sisters). She came to notice as a poet at 20 when she entered a poetry contest and wrote what was generally considered the best poem, even though it only received 4th place. The poem, Renascance, has in its closing lines these beautiful lines:

I know the path that tells Thy way
Through the cool eve of every day;

God, I can push the grass apart
And lay my finger on Thy heart!

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.

Vincent, as she liked to be called, was considered a free spirit. In her 20s she left rural Maine and went to live in Greenwich Village, New York City. You couldn't get farther away in lifestyle than these two places! Her independence, and her openness about relationships, made her a favorite for many years. Her skill as a writer brought her both popular and critical recognition, including the Pulitzer Prize and the Frost Award for her lifetime contribution to American poetry. Her best known poem is probably First Fig:
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!
Perhaps my favorite of her poems is The Philosopher:

And what are you that, wanting you,
I should be kept awake
As many nights as there are days
With weeping for your sake?

And what are you that, missing you,
As many days as crawl
I should be listening to the wind
And looking at the wall?

I know a man that's a braver man
And twenty men as kind,
And what are you, that you should be
The one man in my mind?

Yet women's ways are witless ways,
As any sage will tell,—
And what am I, that I should love
So wisely and so well?

My favorite sonnet is a little cynical at first, but comes 'round in the end:

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;

Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink

And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;

Yet many a man is making friends with death

Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.

It well may be that in a difficult hour,

Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.

1 comment:

inlandempiregirl said...

These are new ones I haven't seen of hers. Thanks for sharing.