Summary and Analysis
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1062
Edna St. Vincent Millay, born in 1892, was raised to be an independent thinker and lover of the literary arts. A prevalent poet and writer, she is most known for the poetry collection The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver (1922), which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923, the poem “Renascence” (1912), and the play The King’s Henchman (1927), which was considered one of America’s first great operas. Millay’s poem “Spring,” published in 1921, portrays her quick wit and her penchant for deviating from the norm. Instead of romanticizing the season of spring, Millay portrays it as an “idiot, babbling” and shows readers a new perspective on the clichéd aspects of the season.
Line by Line Summary and Analysis
Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Spring” rejects the typical, romantic depictions of the often-idealized season. Not only does Millay use cutting imagery and diction, she also wrote the poem in free verse, meaning that her poem has no fixed rhyme scheme or meter. Although the majority of Millay’s work uses traditional verse, this poem’s formal looseness underscores the argument that spring is silly, meaningless, or overrated.
Line one begins with the speaker asking a pertinent question: “To what purpose, April, do you return again?” This line introduces readers to the main argument of the poem—that spring lacks purpose—and to the speaker’s feelings of contempt for and confusion over spring. The speaker breaks further from the poetic norms of meter and rhyme with the next line.
Line two claims, “Beauty is not enough.” This relatively short line is in trimeter, consisting of three metrical feet. The trimeter deviates the poem’s first line, which uses a hexameter, a meter form typically seen in Latin or Greek epic poetry. The change of meter jolts readers into discomfort, and pushes readers to view spring from a new perspective. For the speaker, spring is lacking depth and meaning, no matter how beautiful it may be.
Lines three and four further show the speaker’s contempt and efforts to de-romanticize spring: “You can no longer quiet me with the redness / Of little leaves opening stickily.” The combination of “redness” and “stickily” perhaps invoke grotesque imagery instead of pleasant imagery for readers.
In line five, the speaker shows confidence in her opinion: “I know what I know.” This line may also denote the speaker’s focus on only her own knowledge and physical understanding of spring, which are outlined in lines six and seven.
Lines six and seven serve to show negative physical experiences mixed with typically positive descriptors of spring. The speaker first mentions the sun “hot on my neck,” which points to the warmth of spring and the discomfort of heat simultaneously. Next, the speaker mentions the “spikes,” or petals, of the crocus flower. The description highlights the speaker’s penchant for viewing the elements of spring as baleful instead of beautiful.
In line eight, the speaker does concede that “The smell of the earth is good,” showing a shift in tone from negativity to an admittance of potential goodness.
In line nine, the speaker claims that “It is apparent there is no death” after observing the liveliness of spring, such as the good-smelling earth, sunshine, and crocus flowers. However, the trope that spring is a season of renewal is subtly turned down here. The word “apparent” shows doubt, and highlights how the speaker questions the goodness, life, and renewal of spring. Spring appears to be full of life, but the speaker sees that it is merely a facade, barely covering up the ever-present fact of death.
In line ten, the speaker asks yet another potentially rhetorical question: “But what does that signify?” The speaker has already claimed that she is sure of her knowledge and perhaps is offering a dramatic leeway into her belief that there is always death, no matter the season. However, the question may also be asking how spring can so paradoxically represent renewal while death underlies all things. With this question, the speaker is looking deeper into spring and trying to assign it meaning and purpose.
Lines eleven and twelve invoke death: “Not only underground are the brains of men / Eaten by maggots.” The speaker suggests that death is present even in the perceived renewal of spring. The phrase “Not only” also points to the presence of death in the “brains of men” as well. There has been a death of intellect and critical reflection, especially in how spring has been so mindlessly portrayed. The speaker pushes for alternative conceptions of spring, and in doing so also highlights the narrow modes of thought that poetry based on spring appears to take.
Lines thirteen and fourteen offer dramatic line breaks that signify the nothingness the speaker feels is connected to spring: “life in itself / Is nothing.” The shortness of these lines also gives readers a blank space in which to experience the nothingness the speaker wishes to invoke.
Line fifteen cements the essence of meaninglessness by giving mundane imagery of a typical household: “An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.” The emptiness of the cup and the lack of carpeting show the generally uninteresting or banal parts of life: spring does not change the drudgery and emptiness of living.
Lines sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen turn away from the realistic images above and personify spring. The personification is a mockery. The speaker first claims that the yearly advent of spring cannot make up for the meaningless of life: “It is not enough that yearly, down this hill / April / Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.”
- The speaker’s line breaks and word choice in these last lines create a poignant, contemptuous, and mocking portrayal of spring. April stands alone in a line as a way to highlight its unimportance and lack of poetic meaning.
- The speaker also drives home the ridiculousness of admiring spring and its so-called renewal by using words such as “idiot,” “babbling,” and “strewing.” These words denote April’s, or spring’s, relative silliness and unworthiness in its so-called renewal of life.
Millay pushes readers to reconsider the meaning of spring and its often entitled and glorified place in traditional poetry. The poem “Spring” muses over the encompassing presence of death and points out the meaninglessness behind the change of the seasons. For the speaker, spring cannot fix the underlying problems and struggles of life and death.