Renascence, Edna St. Vincent Millay
Renascence Edna St. Vincent Millay
The following entry presents criticism of Millay's poem Renascence (1912).
The publication, in 1912, of Edna St. Vincent Millay's Renascence was one of the great literary sensations of the early twentieth century. Critics, who immediately recognized the piece as the work of a highly accomplished poet, were surprised when they discovered that it had been written by a young poet, a woman of twenty. Millay, at her mother's urging, had submitted her poem, originally entitled Renaissance, in a national poetry contest designed to select pieces for an anthology called The Lyric Year. Ferdinand Earle, one of the judges, was delighted with the entry from E. Vince Millay (as she then called herself), persuaded her to change the title to Renascence, and fully expected the poem to win first prize. However, other judges disagreed, and the poem ranked only fourth in the final tally. Nevertheless, when the The Lyric Year was published in November 1912, Renascence received such overwhelming critical acclaim that even the winners felt embarrassed, immediately conceding that the judges had made a mistake. Two of the earliest to write their congratulations, poets Witter Bynner and Arthur Davison Ficke, eventually became Millay's close friends. Impressed by Millay, and realizing that the young poet had never gone to college, Caroline Dow, director of the YWCA National Training School in New York, provided the financial support which enabled Millay to attend Vassar College. Already an accomplished poet, and older than her classmates, Millay started a new phase of her life at Vassar, effectively embarking on a career which would later earn her the reputation of one the most interesting literary figures of the early twentieth century.
Written in traditional tetrameter couplets, Renascence describes the poet's dramatic spiritual awakening. The enclosed, childlike perspective of the opening section, “All I could see from where I stood / Was three long mountains and a wood. / Over these things I could not see: / These were the things that bounded me,” soon gives way to a heroic effort to attain new horizons: “And reaching up my hand to try, / I screamed to feel it touch the sky / I screamed, and—lo!—Infinity / Came down and settled over me.” The young narrator subsequently experiences the sheer pressure of existence—“For my omniscience paid I toll, / In infinite remorse of soul. / All sin was of my sinning, all / Atoning mine, and mine the gall / Of all regret”—and finds refuge in death, underground: “Into the earth I sank till I / Full six feet under ground did lie / … so gladly dead.” A youthful will to live and the reviving power of nature in the form of “pitying rain,” however, recall the transformed poet, who can now cry, “God, I can push the grass apart / And lay my finger on thy heart!” The heightened spiritual awareness gained by the imaginative experience is shown in the final stanza, which is starkly contrasting in perspective to the first: “The soul can split the sky in two, / And let the face of God shine through.”
In Renascence Millay not only found her poetic voice, but also established the philosophical, intellectual, and spiritual foundations of her entire oeuvre. As critics have pointed out, the principal theme of Millay's poem, death and resurrection, defines every poet's destiny, as he or she struggles to find immortality in the written word. “In Renascence” James Gray has written, “Edna Millay announced the theme to which four more decades of her life were to be spent in the most intense kind of concentration.” Furthermore, critics have also remarked that in the poem Millay describes death and rebirth as a lived, felt experience, not as a philosophical or theological problem. Indeed, as commentators have observed, Millay conveys profound poetic, even mystical, experiences to the reader through her masterful use of suggestive yet simple language and compelling imagery.
While the poet ultimately embraces life passionately, concluding her poem on a resoundingly affirmative and hopeful note, it is also true, as Gray has observed, that Renascence leads the reader into the labyrinth of the poet's inner life, in which the dominant spiritual forces that shape a person's life are never at peace. According to Gray, “Edna Millay presented the inner life of the spirit as always a conflict of powerful forces. The will to live and the will to die are elementally at war in Renascence.”
The earliest critical reactions to Renascence were unreservedly favorable, even enthusiastic. Established writers, including Louis Untermeyer, immediately recognized the poem as an extraordinary accomplishment, a work in which, as Untermeyer put it, the reader finds “descriptive rapture” followed by a “greater revelation.” Early critics also praised Millay's consummate craftsmanship and extraordinary poetic insight. In addition, Carl Van Doren admired the poem's exquisite beauty. In general, commentators recognized Millay's poetic diction as naturally powerful, proceeding from an outstanding intuitive grasp, as Elizabeth Atkins emphasized, of “natural English speech.” However, some writers viewed Millay's diction, which sometimes demonstrates a predilection for archaic turns, as somewhat contrived and artificial.
Several critics have admired Millay's metaphysical courage, remarking that the poet unflinchingly faced the deepest mysteries of the universe and successfully translated her experience into a compelling poetic narrative. Thus, according to Norman A. Brittin, Renascence eloquently conveys “a sense of the immense mystery of the universe.” However, as critics were quick note, Millay's poem is also a deeply personal, introspective work, in which the poet, in her cosmic quest, never loses sight of the inner mysteries of the soul. As critics have shifted their focus from universal human concerns to the particular world views and theories expressed in the poem, commentators have started regarding Renascence as a reflection of the social and psychological pressures that affected the poet's life. Thus, for example, feminist critics have defined the poem as an attempt to break free from a male-dominated poetic discourse and symbolic system. In Suzanne Clark's opinion, Renascence opens, in its impressive flow of rich poetic discourse, as a free, original poetic statement, only to fall into the pre-determined strictures of a male symbolic code. Also writing from a feminist perspective, Cheryl Walker has discussed Millay's acute awareness of her body in Renascence. Despite the poem's vibrant, life-oriented tone, Millay, according to Walker, also experiences her body as fragile and particularly vulnerable in a youth-oriented male-dominated world.
Renascence [published in the anthology The Lyric Year] 1912
Renascence and Other Poems 1917
A Few Figs from Thistles 1920; expanded edition, 1922
Second April 1921
The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver 1922
The Harp-Weaver, and Other Poems 1923
The Buck in the Snow, and Other Poems 1928
Fatal Interview 1931
Wine from These Grapes 1934
Conversation at Midnight 1937
Huntsman, What Quarry? 1939
Make Bright the Arrows: 1940 Notebook 1940
Collected Sonnets 1941; expanded edition, 1988
Collected Lyrics 1943
Mine the Harvest [edited by Norma Millay] 1954
Collected Poems [edited by Norma Millay] 1956
Edna St. Vincent Millay: Selected Poems [edited by Colin Falck] 1991
Aria da Capo (play) 1921
The Lamp and the Bell (play) 1921
Two Slatterns and a King (play) 1921
Distressing Dialogues [as Nancy Boyd] (essays) 1924
The King's Henchman (opera libretto) 1927
Flowers of Evil, from the French of Charles Baudelaire...
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SOURCE: Untermeyer, Louis. “Why a Poet Should Never Be Educated.” In Critical Essays on Edna St. Vincent Millay, edited by William B. Thesing, pp. 29-32. New York: G. K. Hall, 1993.
[In the following review, originally published in the Dial magazine on 14 Februrary, 1918, Untermeyer praises the collection Renascence and Other Poems as an extraordinary work in which the reader finds “a direct and often dramatic power.”]
These three first volumes [First Offering by Samuel Roth; Renascence and Other Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay; and First Poems by Edwin Curran], with their curious kinship and even more curious contrasts, furnish a variety of themes. They offer material for several essays: on “What Constitutes Rapture”; on “The Desire of the Moth for the Star”; on “The Growing Tendency among Certain Publishers to Ask One Dollar and Fifty Cents for Seventy Pages of Verse”; on “A Bill for the Conservation of Conservative Poetry”; on “Life, Literature, and the Last Analysis”; on “Why a Poet Should Never be Educated.” One cannot deal with all these fascinating considerations, but I hope to suggest the crippling effect the college usually has on the embryonic poet; how imagination is slurred over and form is magnified; how rhapsody is tuned down to rhetoric and regularity; how poetry, in short, emerges not as an experiment, a record of varied...
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SOURCE: Van Doren, Carl. “Youth and Wings: Edna St. Vincent Millay.” In Many Minds, pp. 105-19. New York: Knopf, 1924.
[In the following excerpt, Van Doren defines Renascence as “one of the loveliest of American poems.”]
The little renaissance of poetry which there have been a hundred historians to scent and chronicle in the United States during the last decade flushed to a dawn in 1912. In that year was founded a magazine for the sole purpose of helping poems into the world; in that year was published an anthology which meant to become an annual, though, as it happened, another annual by another editor took its place the year following. The real poetical event of 1912, however, was the appearance in The Lyric Year, tentative anthology, of the first outstanding poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Who that then had any taste of which he can now be proud but remembers the discovery, among the numerous failures and very innumerous successes which made up the volume, of Renascence, by a girl of twenty whose name none but her friends and a lucky critic or two had heard? After wading through tens and dozens of rhetorical strophes and moral stanzas, it was like suddenly finding wings to come upon these lines:
All I could see from where I stood Was three long mountains and a wood; I turned and looked another way, And saw three islands in a bay. So with my eyes I traced...
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SOURCE: Kreymborg, Alfred. “Women as Humans, as Lovers, as Artists.” In Our Singing Strength: An Outline of American Poetry (1620-1930), pp. 438-65. New York: Coward-McCann, 1929.
[In the following excerpt, Kreymborg praises Millay's exquisite craftsmanship, describing Renascence as a mystical work of prophetic power.]
O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Edna St. Vincent Millay
In turning to the group of women, one again endeavors to avoid too arbitrary an alignment and too narrow a range of hypotheses and conclusions. But, in a land where confession and autobiography, especially among women, is of comparatively recent origin, a separate study of a varied group has a definite interest in supplying data concerning a sex about which most American males are heartily ignorant. The average male poet can see but one side and just a little of the other side of the greatest human relation. We have to consult women for the other side—for the most part equally egocentric. Some women have other interests besides love and sex—notably Elinor Wylie, and in her we discern how deeply independent the feminine is. Each of the poets under discussion is an artist. Though practically all have gone to tradition for their poetic models, models once created by men, and none are as original as Emily Dickinson, the best members of the group have infused the old forms with...
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SOURCE: Atkins, Elizabeth. “Renascence: Poetry of a Child's Certainties.” In Edna St. Vincent Millay and Her Times, pp. 1-25. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1936.
[In the following essay, Atkins comments on Millay's mastery of poetic diction in Renascence, remarking that the poet never “repudiated her heritage of natural English speech.”]
Last spring the newspapers reported that the manuscripts of all Edna St. Vincent Millay's unpublished poems had just been destroyed in a hotel fire. The report of the catastrophe underscores a fact that is likely to be obscured in a study like my present one, namely, that it is too soon to shut Miss Millay within the covers of any book. What the quality and nature of her future writing will be, no one knows. Even she herself can have no more than an inkling of her future inspirations, and I shall not commit the absurdity of a prophecy.
Edna St. Vincent Millay is now in her early forties—an age at which a minor poet is usually dead, whether he realizes it or not, and an age at which a major poet is usually discovering how complexly alive he is. At that age Chaucer was probably beginning the formal plan for his Canterbury Tales; Spenser was in the midst of his Faerie Queene; Milton was hoping for leisure to compose Paradise Lost; Goethe was perhaps seeing, far in the future, the completion of the first...
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SOURCE: Cargill, Oscar. “The New Freedom: Millay.” In Intellectual America: Ideas on the March, pp. 638-39. New York: Macmillan, 1941.
[In the following excerpt, Cargill defines Renascence as an inspired description of a spiritual struggle.]
Fame, which even in America may not necessarily mean rich rewards, had come with Renascence, again kindly greeted by the critics in Miss Millay's first volume, Renascence and Other Poems (1917). Louis Untermeyer pronounced this “possibly the most astonishing performance of this generation.” It is a poem of soaring imagination which instructs us that reality is fixed only by the individual heart; if it quails or wilts, the bounds of life contract accordingly—even the sky threatens to fall on him whose soul is flat. Despite its “counting-out rime” beginning, it has the quality of high seriousness which we associate only with the best poetry, and nowhere else with the work of a woman poet. The sheer power of expansion of the most meaningless setting, described in the prosiest language “three long mountains and a wood,” into all the experiences which the dreaming mind may seek is one of the most adroitly managed things in modern verse. Only one who had imagined great events and had fought against the bitter monotony of village surroundings could so graphically describe the sky descending or the horizon closing in like a rubber band....
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SOURCE: Gurko, Miriam. “Renascence.” In Restless Spirit: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, pp. 33-42. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1962.
[In the following essay, Gurko discusses the biographical and psychological context of Millay's poem.]
All I could see from where I stood Was three long mountains and a wood; I turned and looked another way, And saw three islands in a bay. So with my eyes I traced the line Of the horizon, thin and fine, Straight around till I was come Back to where I'd started from; And all I saw from where I stood Was three long mountains and a wood.
With the ten dollars that Vincent had won for her graduation poem, she took a trip to Massachusetts in the summer of 1909 to visit her mother's family. Mr. Millay contributed an additional two dollars. In a long letter to Norma and Kathleen, she mentions seeing two musical comedies and describes a visit to an amusement park where she took her first ride on a roller coaster. This letter and others of the same period show that she has already developed an eye for concrete details, an alert ear for sounds, and a sense of quick imagery. “The phosphorus was dazzling: there were spots of it as big as saltines.”
When she returned to Camden, there was little for her to do, now that she had graduated from high school. It probably never occurred to...
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SOURCE: Brittin, Norman A. ‘“‘All That Once Was I!’” In Edna St. Vincent Millay, pp. 70-92. New York: Twayne, 1967.
[In the following excerpt, Brittin praises Renascence as an inspired poem which eloquently conveys “a sense of the immense mystery of the universe.”]
Renascence, the most salient poem in Millay's first volume, conveys with extraordinary freshness and with generally fine technique a sense of the immense mystery of the universe. Like much of her poetry, it is in the tradition of American transcendentalism. “Interim” and “The Suicide” are ambitious pieces of apprentice work that reflect the encounter of late adolescence with problems of death, duty, and world-design. Aspects of the poet's genius later to be much more fully demonstrated are revealed in other poems of the book: the intense, observant worshiper of beauty, and the girl who, in sonnets and brief lyrics, catches the nuances of feminine loves and sorrows.
Renascence, ([Collected Poems], 3-13) a substantial work (214 lines) in tetrameter couplets, falls into four sections. The introductory section (lines 1-28) emphasizes the limitations of the environment and the desire to reach out to freedom. But for the as yet undeveloped soul, the sky itself is “not so grand,” only an arm-length above: “And reaching up my hand to try, / I screamed to feel it touch the...
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SOURCE: Clark, Suzanne. “Jouissance and the Sentimental Daughter: Edna St. Vincent Millay.” North Dakota Quarterly 54, no. 2 (spring 1986): 85-108.
[In the following essay, Clark relies on a variety of feminist and psychoanalytical ideas to define Renascence as a valiant, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to forge an authentic feminine poetic statement which would transcend the symbolism of male literary tradition.]
The effect was, at first, to embarrass me: it was a little as if a Shakespearean actor were suddenly, off the stage, to begin expressing private emotions with the intonations of the play.
—Edmund Wilson, I Thought of Daisy1
The poems have an intimacy which makes the reader recoil, even if he is susceptible to this flirtation. What is worse, it is the intimacy of the actress and (off-stage) the femme fatale. All this has been said before, and it is said best in the poems. The center of her experience is love, but it is the most desperately middleclass love poetry one can imagine, with neither rough-and-tumble nor courtliness nor high sacrifice. But it rings so true—that makes it worse—and it is so well said, with all its horrid mannerisms; it is such a parody of the great love poets that one is dissolved in tears.
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SOURCE: Walker, Cheryl. “Women on the Market: Edna St. Vincent Millay's Body Language.” In Masks Outrageous and Austere: Culture, Psyche, and Persona in Modern Women Poets, pp. 135-64. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.
[In the following excerpt, Walker interprets Renascence as emblematic of the poet's awareness of the power and fragility her own body.]
Though born only six years after H. D. (1892 versus 1886), Edna St. Vincent Millay seems to belong to a different era. H. D.'s persona, often an elegant form of Artemis, surely has little in common with the flapper image of early Millay. One gives the impression of timelessness; the other strikes us as dated. This may be due to the fact that whereas H. D. toys with the endless displacements necessary to representations of Desire, Millay wishes above all to present herself as Desire incarnate. Her most recognizable mode is demonstrative rather than restrained.
For examples of the demonstrative mode we need only turn to Millay's early letters, in which she sounds at moments eerily like the voice of Emily Dickinson. Writing to Edith Wynne Matthison in 1917, Millay exhibits her manifest hunger for attachment. Having showered Matthison with professions of devotion (“love me, please; I love you”), she insists: “I am not a tentative person. Whatever I do, I give my whole self up to it.” One wonders what Matthison...
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SOURCE: Benfey, Christopher. “Flawed Perfection.” The New Republic 225, no. 19 (5 November 2001): 39-42.
[In the following excerpt, Benfey describes Renascence as a “claustrophobic” masterpiece.]
Millay's childhood is a story of precocious virtuosity. She excelled at everything, and was always the leading lady in the school play, the class poet (except once, when her classmates, tired of her queenly ways, voted for the class dullard), the star. Music and poetry were her refuge from the daily grind of keeping house in ever more modest rented rooms along the rocky Maine coast. Nancy Milford, in the moving opening section of her painstaking and sympathetic biography [Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay], cites a poignant memory of Millay searching for a chord on the organ, and asking her exhausted mother for help.
We did not have the notes of it, it was something she knew by heart. I called her to help me with the chord, and she came in. She had been doing washing, and her hands, as she placed them upon the keys[,] were very pink, and steam rose from them. Her plain gold wedding ring shone very clean and bright, and there were little bubbles on it which the soap suds had left, pink, and yellow, and pale green. When she had gone and I was sure that she would not hear me, I laid my cheek softly down upon the cool keys and wept. For it...
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SOURCE: Epstein, Daniel Mark. “Renascence.” In What Lips My Lips Have Kissed: The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay, pp. 49-67. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001.
[In the following excerpt, Epstein describes the emotional and erotic context of Millay's poem.]
In September of 1911 she had written, “There is no time, no distance in my love. It is the supreme element. But it is too great to bear alone and the weight of it is crushing me. … I need your hand to cling to. … Oh, Sweetheart! How long will you leave me alone?”
By January 1912, in the icy grip of winter, she was terrified: “I am frightened. I do not know of what I am afraid. The thought of the universe makes me sick. It is dread that I feel, an intangible, fatalistic feeling. There is so little left of my winnowing on which to build a faith. … I love you. At least I think it's love. But it seems to me I'm drowning.”1 If she had been reading Kierkegaard, which of course she had not, she could not have composed a passage more sympathetic to the angst of the Danish existentialist, whose influence would not be felt in America for another thirty years.
On February 3, her “anniversary” night, she entered in her journal only three sentences: “I have a lot of things to say but this is another death—this night. I've lighted my candle and I'm going to wear my...
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Cheney, Anne. “A Sense of Glad Awakening: Millay's Childhood and Youth.” In Millay in Greenwich Village, pp. 7-28. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1975.
Discusses Renascence as a literary expression of Millay's intellectual and spiritual struggles.
Dash, Joan. “Edna St. Vincent Millay.” In A Life of One's Own: Three Gifted Women and the Men They Married, pp. 127-32. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.
Describes the publication of Renascence as a pivotal event in Millay's career.
DuBois, Arthur E. “Edna St. Vincent Millay.” The Sewanee Review 43, no. 1 (January-March 1935): 80-104.
Discusses Millay's poetry as a manifestation of her creative personas: “precocious child, authentic poet, woman, and mystic.”
Gray, James. Edna St. Vincent Millay, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1967, 48 p.
Includes a discussion of Renascence, in which Gray observes that in this poem “Millay announced the theme to which four more decades of her life were to be spent in the most intense kind of concentration.”
Lombardi, Marilyn May. “Vampirism and Translation: Millay, Baudelaire, and the Erotics of Poetic Transfusion.” In Millay at 100: A Critical Reappraisal, edited by...
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