Poetry Survey Series Post 2: Sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.
Let all who prate of Beauty hold their peace,
And lay them prone upon the earth and cease
To ponder on themselves, the while they stare
At nothing, intricately drawn nowhere
In shapes of shifting lineage; let geese
Gabble and hiss, but heroes seek release
From dusty bondage into luminous air.
O blinding hour, O holy, terrible day,
When first the shaft into his vision shone
Of light anatomized! Euclid alone
Has looked on Beauty bare. Fortunate they
Who, though once only and then but far away,
Have heard her massive sandal set on stone.

Here is a poem that has had superior lodgings in my mind since my teenaged years. The first time I read it, I’m certain I really did hear the echo of the massive sandal. What a very fortunate expression!

Has anyone studied Euclidian geometry? I did a little of it. In my youth, enamored of everything that could be said to transcend the particular, I was pleased by the geometrical abstractions; that they were abstractions of shape and line, rather than quantities, brought it a little close to art. I felt I knew exactly what Millay was saying. I did NOT feel I knew what my algebra textbooks were saying!

I don’t think the line about geese and the two lines after it are very strong, but the rest is so very strong – especially the opening, the ending, and the beautifully re-timed repetition of the initial line – that one forgives.

This poem influenced my poem, ‘Natura’ in which I also used the image of the powerful feminine figure to indicated a personified force whose femininity transcends mere femaleness.

Natura

If I had understood a thing
of what my nature told to me
I might have had the gall to fling
the resignation sold to me
into the furnace smoldering
in glint of quartz, in dint of violet
in whim of peacock’s tail and glim of rock when it is wet.

If I had risen at first light
of Beethoven’s final symphony
or, when I burned at Vashti’s plight,
confessed what Long’s art did for me,
what cut the trail of my delight
from beat to sentiment, from face to fire
by now might well have built a road of furious desire.

What burns in Nature’s viviance
How well I know, how well I know!
When inarticulate I dance
the breathy sailing of the snow
Or tilt to breast the flown expanse
of Nature’s mirror with my nature’s own:
To falseness it has made me false, to truth made true alone.

Conviction only have I lacked –
worn Nature’s habit in the dark –
I will hunt this-ness where it’s packed
between the body and its spark;
with hounds of gladness I will track
its scent from syllogism to the soul
and seize her mantle when she flees, and view the muscled whole –

17 thoughts on “Poetry Survey Series Post 2: Sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay

  1. Well, my mother told me that Edna St. Vincent Millay was a quite distant relative of ours, never understood the relationship though. I like your poem better. It has a strong beat to it that seems to carry it along to the end that is quite insistent without reading it out loud even. You are right, the geese lines in the Millay poem give it a squishy middle which dilutes the whole and detracts from its power.

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  2. Thanks, Michael. It’s my favorite among my own poems. I do still love the Millay poem, though.

    “Squishy middle” – well-said.

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  3. Still reading “Natura, ” over & over – which is how I read good poems. Will say what I mean and how it works for me later. You really made something special here.

    About Edna: I missed her all these years; too much taken with Whitman, then Cummings, and must not forget Stevens. But I do like her poem–the whole idea, sure, but especially certain parts, like shushing poets who “ponder on themselves.” Ouch. These guys were my heroes once. And Michael, I disagree about the geese. The phrase sounds squishy because she meant just that: too many (of us) who like poetry–all art probably–waste our time/lives making silly noises among ourselves instead of trying to get in touch with the essence.

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    • I don’t know if I’ve ever gone for the idea that art should become what it represents.

      I suppose if you adhere to the “universal voice” theory of composition, then perhaps the voice would change automatically with whatever it encounters because the act of composition is not totally voluntary then – almost like a low-grade spiritual possession.

      But since I believe that it is an actual person who composes, I think that if a strong person is talking, the voice should remain strong and give a strong person’s reaction to whatever is being depicted, whether weakness or strength. That’s why I see Millay’s geese line as a flaw. That, and twenty-odd years of experience writing formal poetry allows me to recognize a passage in which another poetry has struggled for a rhyme and has had to settle for something second-rate.

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  4. I started to comment on “Natura” and got sidetracked by curiosity about “natura” the title (why Latin–I came up with three possibilities–and if not Latin, which commercial meaning was intended, or maybe all five; they work by way of irony bordering on dark humor, as does “viviance” unless it is actually a play on another Latin word; or is there yet something else going on with the title that I missed). Then I accidentally lost what I had found and typed here – tablet tricked me again – probably better because

    Confession here, Alana : I was approaching the poem as if it were a word puzzle.

    Went back and reread all the way through, listening instead of just thinking, hearing better now, feeling and almost becoming “the muscled whole.” Almost. That’s the joy of art. You can’t use it up. It doesn’t lose its life once you think you’ve experienced it. A clever critic, or maybe he was also a poet, yes he was a poet but (listen up, Michael) also an insurance executive – my man Wallace – wrote once and forever: “The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully.” There’s a compliment for you.

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    • No, no, there’s no offence there! I’m glad for an attentive reader! The intuitive reading is the most essential one, but the critical or attentive or analytical reading can enrich it and is necessary.

      Yes, ‘Natura’ is very important to me in the meaning of this poem. Two of C. S. Lewis’ books go into detail about the goddess or Lady Natura as dreamed of by ancient and medieval poets. To the ancients she was a metaphor for “Everything” or, as in Aristotle, “Everything except what she is not” (i.e. everything but God.) Nature, to Aristotle, was a the growth of everything from within to perfection or maturity, unaltered in its course either by art or by corruption. The implications of this idea are manifold and definitely have a grip on our understanding to this day.

      By medieaval times (the period when allegory flourished) Natura was a recurring allegorical figure of importance. She was, says Lewis, “a personification of the general order of things.”

      Of the poet Alanus, Lewis says (in “The Allegory of Love”) that he “is equally serious in his theological passages and in his notes on deportment. He acknowledges no breach; (between the stern demands of religion and the gentle courtesy of the medieval court) for the naturalism of Chartres (a previous poet) has given him a “tertium quid” (an assumed but unknown mediator or joining or reconciling element) that can moderate both the rigors of theology and the wantoneness of the court. Goodness does not mean asceticism; knighthood does not mean adultery. Both are brought together under the law of Natura who is the vicar of God and essentially good. Is it not a question of grace redeeming Nature: it is a question of sin departing from nature.”

      Hardly any insight has been more important to me.

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    • Here is a passage from Spencer’s “The Fairy Queen,” which Lewis quotes in the same book.

      The Great-Grandmother of all creatures bred
      Great Nature, ever young yet full of eld
      Still mooving, yet unmoved from her sted
      Unseen of any, yet of all beheld…

      Since he wrote in English, he did not use ‘Natura’ but it is the same personification.

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    • Elsewhere, though I can’t find it now, Lewis says that using ‘Natura’ in an allegorical fashion is a way that poets have gotten over the difficulty of representing God in a non-literal poem. She becomes a sort of “mask” for the Creator to stand with among all these personifications, because as a literary device she has often been seen as a sort of creator after the Creator.

      Nature, in our observation, is generative.

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    • One more comment. It is almost impossible to find any information about “Lady Natura” online because Google search and other search engines auto-correct your search parameters from “natura” to “natural” and good luck getting anywhere with that!

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    • Viviance is a word I made up. I do that. It refers to the lively or animated, the dancing, glancing, the sheer, the shape-shifting, the burning planes of natural life – what is consuming yet always regenerating, fleeting yet endures.

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      • I figured as much. Word-people do that. You are in good company!
        And a careful reader will pick up all those notions that you mention here, so poetically I might, and will, add.

        Still, I am haunted by my old “New Criticism” teachers, according to whom any meaning or connotation found by the reader is there in the poem., whether intended by the poet or not (because it is now a universal expression and not simply a personal one–whether the author thinks so or not!) So if Viviance is a beauty product, it is there that way in the poem too, and fortunately so because it adds a level of irony which actually emphasizes your intended meaning.

        As you see, I am dogged bythe very old idea of poetic inspiration as a kind of magical, or Divine in many cases, thing. Not that any of us have that power ourselves,. It somehow just happens, but usually only to souls that make room for it and actually clean up their homes and create a welcoming atmosphere. Even so, you can’t exactly set out to be a poet the way you can, say, to be a nurse or a lawyer or any other important career. And that’s a good thing. Imagine if poetry were a highly paid job! What would we make of poems then, word products to be sold and used as adornments for empty lives?

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  5. It is such fun (and more than that) to talk poetry. But I fear that I clog your blog with my comments. Maybe from now on I’ll put them on my recent little attempt at blogging, along with quotations from your poems and others that I have found. I haven’t attended to mine for the same reason that I pretty much stopped writing poems years ago – no longer made sense to send out words into the air like messenger pigeons who never came back.

    * * *

    Here’s a last comment (if I manage to “put a sock in it,” as my dear honest wife sometimes says, helpfully). It says something I felt, or much later felt, while reading the poem “Natura.” I found it at http://onbehalfofall.org/the-beauty-of-logos-towards-an-orthodox-aesthetic/
    where Gabe Martini reflects on beauty in Orthodox liturgies by way of Dostoevsky, then Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose commentary on the curious line from The Idiot, “Beauty will save the world” follows:

    “It is vain to affirm that which the heart does not confirm . . . a work of art bears within itself its own confirmation: concepts which are manufactured out of whole cloth or overstrained will not stand up to being tested in images, will somehow fall apart and turn out to be sickly and pallid and convincing to no one. Works steeped in truth and presenting it to us vividly alive will take hold of us, will attract us to themselves with great power—and no one, ever, even in a later age, will presume to negate them. And so perhaps that old trinity of Truth and Good and Beauty is not just the formal outworn formula it used to seem to us during our heady, materialistic youth. If the crests of these three trees join together, as the investigators and explorers used to affirm, and if the too obvious, too straight branches of Truth and Good are crushed or amputated and cannot reach the light—yet perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable, unexpected branches of Beauty will make their way through and soar up to that very place and in this way perform the work of all three.

    “And in that case it was not a slip of the tongue for Dostoyevsky to say that “Beauty will save the world,” but a prophecy.”

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    • Albert, just think that you are giving a lonely housewife some intellectual and artistic sharpening, and let your fears be allayed. At the same time, I am glad to see the rebirth and blossoming of your own blog! I hope to see more of your poems.

      Now that you’ve more clearly articulated where your views come from, I would have to say, I disagree with New Criticism but have respect for the old ideas of the Muses and inspiration. Would I be right in saying that you have been trying to find a way to believe in both of these things?

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