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.