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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 of them even as she simultaneously stands apart as an individual, mourning for all. She similarly experiences the death of another group of unfortunates caught in an accident at sea: “A thousand screams the heavens smote;/ And every scream tore through my throat.” The weight of her universal compassion soon grows so great that it presses her into the earth: “Into the earth I sank till I/ Full six feet under ground did lie.” In this state of spiritual extinction, she feels the weight leave her. She welcomes the soothing earth: “Deep in the earth I rested now;/ Cool is its hand upon the brow/ And soft its breast beneath the head/ Of one who is so gladly dead.” Above her, she then hears the sound of rain, which reminds her of life and its simple joys. She regrets missing not only the rain but also the sun that follows rain: “O God, I cried, give me new birth,/ And put me back upon the earth!” At this outburst, a torrential rain washes her from the grave and restores her: “I know not how such things can be!—/ I breathed my soul back into me.” She finds herself back within the world of physical limitations, a return filled with joy: “Ah! Up then from the ground sprang I/ And hailed the earth with such a cry/ As is not heard save from a man/ Who has been dead, and lives again.” She also possesses insight she had not been given before:

O God, I cried, no dark disguiseCan e’er hereafter hide from meThy radiant identityI know the path that tells Thy wayThrough the cool eve of every day;God, I can push the grass apartAnd lay my finger on Thy heart!

The poem concludes with a twelve-line coda in which the narrator affirms her new understanding, which relates the limitations of the outer world to inner dimensions. The world, she says, is as wide as the heart and as tall as the soul. She then issues a caution against weakness in either: “But East and West will pinch the heart/ That cannot keep them pushed apart;/ And he whose soul is flat—the sky/ Will cave in on him by and by.”

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...

(The entire section is 1,144 words.)