The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Renascence” is a narrative poem of 214 metrical lines split into nine stanzas of varying length. Although it literally means “rebirth,” the poem’s Latinate title carries different connotations than does its English equivalent. The title “Rebirth” might have led readers to expect a poem with a strongly earthly or physical aspect. Edna St. Vincent Millay’s title, in contrast, suggests that the poet is about to speak of more elevated matters, possibly spiritual or cerebral. The poem does start on a purely physical level, although it soon leaves that plane behind. The persona of the poem, or narrator, tells of a moment when she looks around and becomes sharply conscious of the landscape around her: mountains, trees, a bay, and islands. “These were the things that bounded me,” she says of them. Seeing them as boundaries, however, sparks a mental crisis. The world suddenly feels disturbingly small. In her heightened and anxious state, even the sky seems near enough to touch. She reaches for it and finds herself swept into a visionary episode.

Initially, she enters a paradoxical state: She becomes all-seeing and all-feeling but does not lose her sense of individual being. She gains a godlike perspective that gives her such a wide view of human suffering that it threatens to overwhelm her merely human reactions: “For my omniscience I paid toll/ In infinite remorse of soul.” She experiences the deaths of a thousand people by fire and sympathetically finds herself perishing with each...

(The entire section is 618 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

To make this transcendent episode vivid, Millay uses a vocabulary consisting of common, concrete words. She expresses the onset of the vision in terms of touch and hearing: “Infinity// Held up before my eyes a glass/ Through which my shrinking sight did pass” and “Whispered to me a word whose sound/ Deafened the air for worlds around.” When her poetic persona then experiences omniscience, Millay describes the visionary’s subsequent remorse as a physical burden: “And so beneath the Weight lay I/ And suffered death, but could not die.” The weight pushes the visionary into the earth, which Millay describes in starkly contrasting but earthy terms: first as the dusty confines of a grave and then as the calming hands and bosom of a comforting mother. Paradoxes, in fact, help convey the visionary’s successive states of disorientation. Her omniscience battles with her individuality, her subsequent “death” becomes a seedbed for a renewed thirst for life, and her final, revivifying vision of the sun leads to her release from the grave by a torrent of rain. Millay’s sense of tone and phrasing gives such opposing images and motifs colorful life. Her most musical lines call to mind the lyricism of English poet John Keats (“To catch the freshened, fragrant breeze/ From drenched and dripping apple-trees”). In contrast, her sometimes morbid concerns, bold imagination, and deceptive simplicity suggest the influence of American author Edgar Allan Poe. Her...

(The entire section is 453 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Brittin, Norman A. Edna St. Vincent Millay. Rev. ed. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982.

Freedman, Diane P., ed. Millay at One Hundred: A Critical Reappraisal. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995.

Milford, Nancy. Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Random House, 2002.

Nierman, Judith. Edna St. Vincent Millay: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1977.

Thesing, William B., ed. Critical Essays on Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: G. K. Hall, 1993.