2008-07-21

Millay: Make Bright the Arrows

Peace was my earliest love, and I presume

Will be my latest; but today, adult,

Arguing not to prove but for result

Opposing concepts in this thoughtful room,

I wonder at whose prompting, schooled by whom

I urged that Peace the Slogan, Peace the Cult,

Could turn the edge of sledge and catapult

And leave us calm to cull the grafted bloom.

In all my life I never knew a thing

So highly prized to be so cheaply had:

Longing to wed with Peace, what did we do?—

Sketched her a fortress on a paper pad;

Under her casement twanged a lovesick string;

Left wide the gate that let her foemen through.

If these lines from Edna St. Vincent Millay don't ring a bell with you, you're not alone. They're from one of her last published collections, Make Bright the Arrows. The mature Millay's work did not go over well with the WWII-era literati and intellectuals. I'll let Answers.com explain:
Carelessly expressed outrage at fascism detracted from Make Bright the Arrows (1940); The Murder of Lidice (1942) was a sincere but somewhat strident response to the Nazis' obliteration of a Czechoslovakian town. She was losing her audience; Collected Sonnets (1941) and Collected Lyrics (1943) did not win it back.

(The same article pronounces Millay's 1921 play Aria da Capo "a delicate but effective satire on war.")

A bit more to-the-point was this 1940 review in Time, which vividly likened the poet to "a lady octopus caught in a whirlpool."

But it was Edna St. Vincent Millay who understood, in 1940, that There Are No Islands Anymore:
And oh, how sweet a thing to be
Safe on an island, not at sea!
(Though someone said, some months ago—
I heard him, and he seemed to know;
Was it the German Chancellor?
"There are no islands any more.")

She also understood the Intelligence Test that confronted her generation:
Q: What, if anything, would you do
To keep your country free?... A: Lay
Down my life! Q: You? You mean you'd die?
A: Certainly. (Chorus: That's a lie.)
Q: For your country's defense, how much would you give,—
If it weren't taxed out of you, I mean. A: All that I have. ...

If, like me, you read and loved "Renascence", you might resonate with the burden of understanding that comes to the "probing sense" of the older poet in these passages.

I'll leave it to you to make your own judgments about Edna St. Vincent Millay's late works. Here's one last selection, a sonnet from Huntsman, What Quarry?
His stalk the dark delphinium

Unthorned into the tending hand

Releases . . . yet that hour will come . . .

And must, in such a spiny land.

The silky powdery mignonette

Before these gathering dews are gone

May pierce me — does the rose regret

The day she did her armor on?

In that the foul supplants the fair,

The coarse defeats the twice-refined,

Is food for thought, but not despair:

All will be easier when the mind

To meet the brutal age has grown

An iron cortex of its own.