Sunday, August 23, 2009

a thrust of breath upon a stubborn coal

Back in May we attended a wedding in and around Blue Hill, Maine. We were fortunate to find a very nice rental home at low pre-season cost. The place had a fireplace and evenings were just cool enough to give us pleasure in using it. As I read this poem those crackling fires came back to mind.
{The photo shows our homey fire.}

The white bark writhed and sputtered like a fish
Upon the coals, exuding odorous smoke.
She knelt and blew, in a surging desolate wish
For comfort; and the sleeping ashes woke
And scattered to the hearth, but no thin fire
Broke suddenly, the wood was wet with rain.
Then, softly stepping forth from her desire,
(Being mindful of like passion hurled in vain
Upon a similar task, in other days)
She thrust her breath against the stubborn coal,
Bringing to bear upon its hilt the whole
Of her still body . . . there sprang a little blaze . . .
A pack of hounds, the flame swept up the flue! —
And the blue night stood flattened against the window, staring through.
This is the fourth poem in Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree, a set of 17 that Edna St. Vincent Millay included in The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems (1923).* It's obvious, is it not, that the atmosphere Millay coveys is very unlike the warm and cozy one we enjoyed that pleasant vacation week?

The Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree tell the story of a woman who has escaped an unbearable life with a detested husband and who now has returned to their home to care for him in the illness of his final days. Her memories are not happy ones. She does not want to be where she is. She does not try to rekindle the love that they once shared. The first in the sequence tells us most of this. The rest elaborate upon the theme. They are wrought with anger and distaste and their images are harsh. They possess great emotional force and — not conventionally beautiful — are high works of art.

Born at the end of the 19th century, some 30 miles (in a straight line over water) from our much-loved rented home, she was unconventional, headstrong, and rebellious. Known to family and friends as Vincent, she was brought up by a single parent after her mother threw her father out of the house when she was seven. The mother, Cora, raised her and two sisters to stand up for themselves and make their own way in the world.

{Millay lived with her mother and sisters in this ramshackle house from age nine to sixteen; source:}

She had established a reputation as rising poet while still in high school and her talent earned a scholarship that put her in Vassar's class of 1917. As the Vassar Encyclopedia explains, she did not take well to the restrictions placed on college students at the time:
She gained a reputation for breaking many of the college rules and often found herself before the new president, Henry Noble MacCracken, for discipline. President MacCracken punished Millay with reprimands and limited privileges for her infractions, but he also respected the talent and intelligence he saw in the young woman. He once told her that no matter how she might flout college regulations, he wouldn’t expel her because he didn’t want another "banished Shelley" on his hands. To this Millay replied, "On those terms, I think I will continue to live in this hell-hole."
Throughout her adult life she was attracted to both men and women as sexual partners but, even in marriage, refused to commit herself to any lasting romantic bonds. The man she married (at age 30) was amenable to being a friend as much as husband. As Dorothy Thompson put it, he was a "husband, nurse, cook, business manager, and above all friend. . . ."**

{Millay and Boissevain; source:}

Although her poems could be bright and funny, most are somewhat bleak. They express
— the monotony of woman's life in her childhood:
I, being born a woman and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind...
— skepticism about romantic love:
This have I known always: love is no more
Than the wide blossom which the wind assails;
Than the great tide that treads the shifting shore,
Strewing fresh wreckage gathered in the gales.
— a wish to escape:
And some day when you knock and push the door,
Some sane day, not too bright and not too stormy,
I shall be gone, and you may whistle for me.
— a love of travel:
Yet there isn't a train I'd rather take,
No matter where it's going.
— a conviction that her own love is both true and transient:
After all, my erstwhile dear,
My no longer cherished,
Need we say it was not love,
Just because it perished?
— and an ever-present awareness of death:
But dump or dock, where the path I take
Brings up, it's little enough I care;
And it's little I'd mind the fuss they'll make,
Huddled dead in a ditch somewhere.***

{Edna St. Vincent Millay by William Zorach; Ink, charcoal, and colored pencil on paper, circa 1923; National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; source:}

Edna St. Vincent Millay


*Although the book was only her second, it earned her a Pulitzer Prize. The elipsis in the poem is Millay's. This text comes from: SONNETS FROM AN UNGRAFTED TREE; source:

**source: Vassar Encyclopedia

***Sources of these quotes, in order:

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