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.)