Poetry – First Fig & Second Fig, Edna St.Vincent Millay

I will be the first to admit that I often just read poetry for its own sake; I rarely read up on the poet and their life. Mostly this is because I believe that poetry speaks to each person differently, and it really doesn’t matter what the poet intended the reader to feel, or what the poet’s viewpoint was. Poetry is like paintings, you can enjoy them for themselves, you don’t need to study the artist to have an opinion or enjoy it. So I had never read up on Edna St. Vincent Millay, even though I like several of her poems. What I will say about the two poems I picked out to include on this blog is that once you know that Millay wrote and published them at the beginning of the roaring ’20s (that is, the 1920s), you can easily see why they were popular as soon as they were published!

The reason I like both First Fig and Second Fig is that I would probably never be this kind of person, but I can see the appeal. There is something about those who throw caution to the wind and just live that is interesting, and if nothing else entertaining, to those of us who are more realistic in our lives. I like that feeling the poems give of acknowledging the problems, but still enjoying the ride. It’s not exactly the same, but there is a similarity to someone like Alex Honnold, the Free Solo climber who climbed El Capitan without ropes. (I highly recommend the documentary, it is quite good. And for anyone who doesn’t like heights and thinks it might be a problem- I can say that it didn’t bother me at all, and I have a lot of problems with high places.)

For those who do like reading biographies, and wonder about Millay, a quick bio of her can be found on Literary Ladies Guide.

First Fig
My candle burns at both ends;
    It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends - 
    It gives a lovely light!


Second Fig
Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!
                                 Edna St. Vincent Millay,
                                 A Few Figs from Thistles, 1921

Poetry-A man said to the universe

There are some poets that I like best, and Stephen Crane is one of them. For most people, they have more likely come across Crane when they had to read his most famous novel in high school, The Red Badge of Courage. For me, I like his poetry better than his books and short stories. He wrote a lot, especially when you consider that he died at the age of 28 in 1900 (wikipedia.com). What I like about his poetry is similar to why I like Emily Dickinson so much; they both pack a lot of meaning into a few words. I can read their poems over and over, and each time I enjoy how the words go together with the emotion and meaning. To me, the joy of reading poetry is like the idea behind the phrase ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. Poetry that is written well can put more than a book’s worth of meaning into a very short space. I like rhyme and pattern, and a lot of people think poetry has to have those two elements. Stephen Crane doesn’t have rhyme, and many would not consider it to have a pattern either. For me, the ideas expressed are the pattern, and they are excellent. I’ll have some more posts that include other poems by Crane that I like, but this one is probably my favorite. If you are interested in reading more about and by Stephen Crane, this link is for a wikisource on his poetry and books, and this is his Wikipedia page.

A man said to the universe:
"Sir, I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation."

Stephen Crane
War Is Kind & Other Lines, 1905

Using Poetry to Understand Grief

I am often drawn to poems that discuss both personal and collective emotions and understanding (which I suppose is most poetry, really) and at this time of pandemic, I wanted to share a couple of poems that I think show grief from both angles. Grief can be personal and collective at the same time—funerals are a way for society to collectively support the personal loss of family and friends. When a society looses so many members at once, that group support seems to be missing, and the mourning has taken place only in the personal realm. It has become easier to get numb to the huge numbers that have died in the pandemic, rather than acknowledge how many are gone. When I read poetry, I can bring that understanding back to a personal level, instead of being overwhelmed by the big numbers that are listed each day. The PBS NewsHour has done this by sharing individual stories each night of people who have died from Covid.

So here, I will share two different poems, one by Elizabeth Barret Browning titled Grief, and one by Edna St. Vincent Millay called Dirge Without Music. The first one was published in 1844, and Browning describes a ‘hopeless grief’ that is passionless. She gives a good description of how grief can turn inward when it seems there is no relief, and how that can become something that is never expressed publicly. In the second poem, Dirge Without Music, Edna St. Vincent Millay gives us the other side, the personal grief that isn’t hopeless. She talks about loosing large numbers of people, but she gives them personal traits to remind us of the individuals that are lost. She ends the poem with “And I am not resigned.” This is the other side of grief, and is the opposite of the ‘hopeless grief’ described by Ms. Browning.

I don’t do in-depth analysis of the poems I share here, but I do want to give my reasons for including them, and why I like to read poetry. These two poems have many depths of meaning that will depend on the reader to discover, and I hope they appeal to others like they do to me. (I had asked for permission to show the whole poem by Ms. Millay here, but since I have not heard back from my request, I will just give the first line to encourage you to read the whole poem using the link I am providing below the first line of the poem.)

Grief

I tell you hopeless grief is passionless
That only men incredulous of despair, 
Half-taught in anguish, through them midnight air
Beat upward to God's throne in loud access
Of shrieking and reproach. Full desertness
In souls, as countries, lieth silent - bare
Under the blanching, vertical eye-glare
Of the absolute heavens. Deep-hearted man, express
Grief for they dead in silence like to death--
Most like a monumental statue set
In everlasting watch and moveless woe
Till itself crumble to the dust beneath.
Touch it; the marble eyelids are not wet;
If it could weep, it could arise and go.
                          Elizabeth Barret Browning
Dirge Without Music (first line only)
         Edna St. Vincent Millay

I am not resigned to the shutting away 
               of loving hearts in the hard ground.
(Click here to visit poetry.org for the rest of the verse)

Poetry-Fire and Ice

I haven’t posted for a bit, partly because, like many, I have been anxiously watching events in Georgia and Washington, D.C. I am not going to comment about politics on this blog, because that really isn’t why I began this effort. I am not really interested in blogging about current political events (I was never interested in becoming a journalist). The quotes that I post are usually as close as I will come to commenting, and they are really more of an historian’s view on the events. I do try to pick quotes that I think point out the continuity with the past that are reflected in the present. This month’s first quote is one from Plautus, a playwright from the Roman Republic. While I think we can always learn from history, Plautus’s comment of ‘Done is done, it cannot be made undone’ is also very on point for this week. For the second quote, I picked a phrase from Virgil’s Aeneid, ‘The gates of Hell are open night and day; Smooth the descent, and easy is the way; But, to return, and view the cheerful skies; In this, the task and mighty labor lies.’ I think both are ways to look at the events of today with different eyes. One thing I like about both history and poetry is that we can look at events through a different window than a news feed, and that different viewpoint can help us to gain perspective on events. For me, good poetry condenses complex ideas into a form that gives both pinpoint focus and a wider angle view at the same time. As with any art, each person will view a poem from their own experience, so if anyone likes some of the poetry I put on this blog, I hope it inspires them to look at other poems and authors. I think poetry can be comforting to read when times are full of conflict, even if the poem itself is full of conflict. The knowledge that people went through events like this in the past, and we are all still here to read about it can be a source of reassurance.

Now that I have said that, I will give you a poem about the world ending! (Sorry! We’ll just interpret that as a conceptual ‘world’ instead of a physical world; though I will admit that is not as comforting as it could be!) Robert Frost is pretty well known, and if you read poetry at all, you have probably read ‘Fire and Ice.’ Like a lot of the poems I like best, this one is short, but I think puts a lot of meaning into just a few words. ‘Fire and Ice’ talks about love and hate as the motivations for destruction. Robert Frost separates them out as two distinct causes, but I think we might look at recent events and decide that there is no reason to limit our choice to just one. This poem also reminds me of the saying about water, that the right amount will quench your thirst, but too much will drown you. As an historian, I like that we can learn from history, but I also know that we only learn if we take the time to study. As a future librarian, I urge everyone to study the mistakes of the past, and also to learn from poetry, music, and art about other viewpoints.

Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice

Robert Frost

Poetry – Miniver Cheevy

When I read poetry, I look for something that speaks to me. As someone who has studied history for so long, and made a career in educating the public by wearing the clothing and doing some of the work of the 18th century, this poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson certainly spoke to me. I usually don’t get this sarcastic or ironic about the subject, but I have often been told by people ‘It must have been so much better back then,’ or ‘It was simpler back then.’ As a history professional, I would need to gently tell people that really, it wasn’t that different ‘back then’ than it is today. Each person lives in the time they do, which sounds too simple, but actually means quite a lot. We live in the time we are best adapted to live in, which is when we are born. We wouldn’t do well shifting to a different time, and if we were born in that time period, then we wouldn’t know about this one to compare! The past really wasn’t less complicated to anyone living then than our lives are to us now. And this poem, in a way that I think makes us laugh a little at the character, is telling us just that.

Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
     Grew lean while he assailed the seasons
He wept that he was ever born,
     And he had reasons.

Miniver loved the days of old
     When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
     Would set him dancing.

Miniver sighed for what was not
     And dreamed, and rested from his labours,
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
     And Priam's neighbors.

Miniver mourned the ripe renown
     That made so many a name so fragrant,
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
     And Art, a vagrant.

Miniver loved the Medici,
     Albeit he had never seen one;
He would have sinned incessantly
     Could he have been one.

Miniver cursed the commonplace
     And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;
He missed the medieval grace
     Of iron clothing.

Miniver scorned the gold he sought, 
     But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
      And thought about it.

Miniver Cheevy, born too late
     Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
     And kept on drinking.

Edwin Arlington Robinson
1910, The Town down the River

Poetry-Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson is my favorite poet to read. In general, I like to read individual poems from poetry collections; while I often like a number of poems by the same author, I usually don’t read a book of one poet. Emily Dickinson is different for me. I have several books of her poems and I enjoy reading through them, though I do have my favorites! In my opinion, if you want a poet who knew how to take a few words to convey a lot of emotion and context it’s hard to beat Dickinson. If you read some of her poetry in school and liked it, I would suggest looking through several publications. The first publishers of her work in the late 19th century edited her original manuscripts after her death, changing some words to ‘fit’ better, taking out odd punctuation, etc. There are more modern publications that have removed those changes, and adhere better to the original format Dickinson used in her writing (if you are interested in different versions, check out this link to Harvard University Press that covers all of them) . Personally, I like the later published versions, though if you are used to the smoothed out publication, it might seem a little choppy to read the manuscript format. There is a lot more punctuation in the form of dashes to separate words, and seemingly random capitalization. While it looks a little strange at first, if you read through it, you begin to get a different rhythm to the verse with these changes, and it can make a big difference to the meaning. There is a website that shows a number of the original manuscripts of Dickinson’s writings if you are interested, called the Emily Dickinson Archive. An example of this change can be seen in poem number 441 (Dickinson never put titles on her poems). The original published version is first, and my transcription from the original written version (at the Emily Dickinson Archive, manuscript owned by Harvard University Press) is below. You can easily see some of the changes made, and even why a publisher would decide to smooth out the form. However, I like reading the second version, because it takes on a different cadence and I feel I understand the meaning better.

This is my letter to the world
   That never wrote to me, -
The simple news that Nature told,
   With tender majesty.

Her message is committed
   To hands I cannot see;
For love of her, sweet countrymen,
   Judge tenderly of me!
This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me -
The simple News that Nature told -
With tender Majesty -

Her Message is Committed
To Hands I Cannot see -
For love of Her - Sweet - Countrymen -
Judge tenderly - of Me

Emily Dickinson Archives
Houghton Library, Harvard University

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