Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Renascence” is a poem about limits. In the course of the poem, the visionary persona, who may or may not have been Millay herself, moves from experiencing limits as stifling and constricting to experiencing them as liberating and as the measure of one’s spiritual being. Despite the extraordinary nature of her experiences, the visionary narrator goes through tribulations common to many: People often grow dissatisfied with their circumstances, wish for more, then become distressed if they receive what they wanted. The visionary in “Renascence” feels constricted by the small scope of her immediate world. She is then given an unlimited viewpoint that distresses her until she begs for relief. She finds this relief in death and burial, a situation that soon makes her yearn for life again. Only then does she realize the value of what she started with: the physical world and its natural limits. Her “renascence,” or rebirth, is mental, not physical. She returns to a world identical to the one she initially abandoned but sees it through new eyes.

“Renascence,” one of Millay’s youthful works, asks the perennial questions of youth: What is the meaning of existence? What does it mean to be an individual? Is there anything special about being “me” as opposed to being anyone else? Millay approaches these questions by imagining an ideal soul who looks around and sees only “normal” reality, which seems confining and unsatisfactory. She then imagines that soul dwarfed through contact with the greatness of a universal soul. In learning insignificance, the individual soul gains the perspective necessary to appreciate significance. The soul then values the world as it is given, even if it is no more than a constricted spot surrounded by mountains, woods, a bay, and islands.

The world is worth living in, Millay seems to say to her readers. However, it is worth living in most for those who understand what the visionary in the poem has come to see: that the limitations that appear to be outside are actually inside. “The heart can push the sea and land/ Farther away on either hand,” she says, “The soul can split the sky in two,/ And let the face of God shine through.” Moving beyond limitations, especially those imposed from within, constitutes genuine rebirth.