Edna St. Vincent Millay: “Renascence”
A person stands and looks at mountains, turns to look at a bay, lies down and screams, and gets up. This is nearly all that “happens” in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s "Renascence,” the poem that made her famous at just 20 years of age. But, over 20 stanzas, many more and much stranger events transpire. The person is wrapped in “Infinity” and enters a state of clairvoyance, seeing people in distant countries and taking on their pain, experiencing the world unbounded when “The Universe, cleft to the core, / Lay open to my probing sense,” and the outcome isn’t pleasant but vampiric: “But needs must suck / At the great wound, and could not pluck / My lips away till I had drawn / All venom out.” This kind of experience, in which the boundary between self and world seems to have dissolved, will be the focus of Millay’s poem. It’s at once incredibly painful—as these first stanzas attest—and potentially transformative. We might call it something like immediacy, the sense that nothing stands between you and the events or objects of the world. “Renascence” will go on to explore just how possible such immediacy is and how poetry can intervene to create a necessary perspective between persons and their experiences.
The person haunts the world and is haunted by it and then finds relief by encountering God. In anguish, the person sinks into the ground in a kind of death trance. Somehow, this death is both metaphoric and literal: listening to the rain (not so dead?), they longingly note, “For rain it hath a friendly sound / To one who’s six feet underground” (decidedly dead). The person begins to imagine the world going on without them, and they pray to join it again. Then, in a sudden thunderstorm, the wish is granted: “And the big rain in one black wave / Fell from the sky and struck my grave.” The speaker springs up and thanks God, promising to see God’s presence behind everything: “no dark disguise / Can e’er hereafter hide from me / Thy radiant identity!” This is the “Renascence,” the renewal, or resurrection, of the poem’s title.
Over roughly six sections, Millay provides a grid for ecstatic experience—that sense of immediacy previously discussed. The person is first enmeshed in horizontal logic, bounded by the earthly panorama, and then caught up in vertical drama; both floating above and dwelling below states of consciousness prove painful. They return to the starting place armed with the insight that knowledge for knowing’s sake isn’t sustainable: “For my omniscience paid I toll / In infinite remorse of soul.” Witnessing God finally grants the kind of immediate experience this person craves: “God, I can push the grass apart / And lay my finger on Thy heart!” It seems that God can unite person and world in a kind of healing whole. However, the poem ends curiously, with an admonition:
The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky,—
No higher than the soul is high.
The heart can push the sea and land
Farther away on either hand;
The soul can split the sky in two,
And let the face of God shine through.
But East and West will pinch the heart
That can not keep them pushed apart;
And he whose soul is flat—the sky
Will cave in on him by and by.
Millay’s final stanza muses explicitly on mediation by brooding over boundaries. Mediation is a notoriously tricky concept to define. It is important to bear in mind that mediation operates in part as a process in which boundaries break down and are rearranged. Though “Renascence” seeks out oneness, immediacy, or wholeness, it also ends with a stanza about the importance of maintaining distance between “East and West”—as well as one’s soul and the conditions that formed it. Why?
In her poem, Millay explores the limits of individual perception while gesturing toward poetry’s ability to permeate the consciousness of others, to infiltrate, possess, or alter how any one person perceives the world, even if only momentarily. Even the poem’s ordinary opening forces readers to identify with the speaker: “All I could see from where I stood” becomes all readers can see from where they stand—literally inside another’s point of view. Readers’ familiarity with the poem’s thudding tetrameters also helps seal them into the poem’s world; Millay’s biographer Nancy Milford likens the poem to a child’s counting-out rhyme, and it seems true that the poem’s prosody lulls readers into accepting its premises. Poetry’s ability to occupy other perceptions dissolves the speaker’s sense of identity; it also intrudes on its readers’. When we read “Renascence” we become its “I,” which is poetry’s oldest trick. Millay wants to draw attention to that process, in which poetry creates or collapses distances between speakers, readers, and experiences. Poetry, Millay suggests, is a powerful mediator between persons and worlds.
By the fourth stanza, Millay’s speaker confronts a quasi-Dickinsonian moment of lyric immensity or “Infinity”, “pressing of the Undefined / The definition on my mind.” The movement is forced, uncomfortable, and ultimately fatal, as “Infinity”
Held up before my eyes a glass
Through which my shrinking sight did pass
Until it seemed I must behold
Immensity made manifold
Through this “glass” the world is “unmuffled,” horrifyingly so; friendly spheres “gossip” unkindly, tented skies “creak” precariously, and Eternity “ticks” like a bomb. The terror of “Renascence’s” middle stanzas suggests that this kind of over identification with the world is both impossible and not to be pursued at all. It isn’t just hurtful but also arrogant: “All suffering mine, and mine its rod; / Mine, pity like the pity of God.” Millay’s haunted and haunting stanzas conjure the scary promises that poetry might offer access to, or come from, other worlds. But accessing such worlds comes with the price of internment, entombment, and death. Once in the grave, and without anything to sense, see, or hear, Millay’s speaker falls into imagination, conjuring the world “multi-colored, multiform.” From those extremes of indirect and direct experience, a truce is arranged. God enters as the moderator, keeping boundaries at bay and souls together.
God might be one word for this intermediate agent, poetry another. After all, that final stanza seems as much a scene of writing as theological landscaping: the repeated allusion to hands—both in “on either hand” and in sensory verbs such as push and pinch—suggests that the act of writing may be the activity on the forefront of Millay’s mind. That desire—to touch the source of beauty, truth, nature, and the infinite—lurks behind many of Millay’s lyrics, and it’s the motor powering the poem that rocketed her to renown; it’s also the reason “Renascence” could seem in the end to be a religious poem. If religion offers the hope that God, as a healing agent, might do away with the sense of distance from our own experiences, making us feel whole by offering us the right kind of element through which to feel, Millay’s poem suggests that poetry can do something similar. This isn’t so much un-mediated experience—the uncomfortable immediacy of the first sections—but properly mediated experience. Poetry might help us find the right kinds of distance or illuminate how boundaries between our selves and our worlds might not be so bad after all.
It seems fitting, then, that “Renascence,” a poem about immediacy and mediation, has its own fascinating, and fascinatingly apt, media history. The communication theorist Marshall McLuhan made famous the idea that “the medium is the message”—the notion that the content of a message, or its meaning, is bound up with how it is expressed. This seems to be the case with the poem that made Millay famous. The poem’s history offers a window onto the ways the mediums of print and performance affect people differently. “Renascence” was first published in 1912 because of a new type of poetry prize: Millay sent the poem and a few others to New York publisher Mitchell Kennerley’s anthology The Lyric Year, which advertised $1,000 in cash prizes to the three best poems of the year and publication to 100 others. Critics responded warmly to the idea of the anthology, though not to the prize results. “Renascence” failed to earn anything but an honorable mention. In an outcry difficult to imagine happening now, major poetry critics responded to Millay’s slighting in print. In a New York Times review, a founder and officer of the Poetry Society of America named Jessie Rittenhouse devoted a whole paragraph to Millay’s poem, arguing for its “freshness of first view.” Witter Bynner, Arthur Davison Ficke, and Louis Untermeyer also weighed in, making Millay one of the most talked-about young poets of her day.
Echoing its own themes of poetic language conjuring powerful results, “Renascence” profoundly affected many who first read it. “For her loss of the prize,” Milford notes, “there was the balm of the publicly stated, clear injustice of the judges’ inept decision.” “By the winter of 1912, at twenty, Edna Millay understood just what it meant to become a cause célèbre.” The poem altered Millay’s life in other ways. Hearing Millay recite it at a restaurant staff ball in Camden, Maine, a woman named Caroline B. Dow was so impressed that she offered to help fund Millay’s education at Vassar. Here is Norma Millay, Edna’s sister, recalling the event: “She turned around on the piano stool and said this poem. Then it was absolutely still in that room.”
Millay’s performances would soon become an integral component of her poetry practice, the history of which scholars are just now beginning to recover. But contemporaries frequently remarked on Millay’s powerful voice, often as part and parcel of her poetic gifts. Hearing her recite early in her career, Untermeyer said, “I had no sense of the fame she was going to achieve. I thought she was a poet for the elect. There was no other voice like hers in America. It was the sound of the ax on fresh wood.” Millay’s penchant for performance also drew ire from critics. Horace Gregory described the “noisy heroine” of “Renascence” who “expressed an ideal of conduct”; he and his coauthor, Marya Zaturenska, also repeatedly indicted Millay’s use of “theatrics” in their chapter on her in A History of American Poetry 1900–1940. What is striking here is how the history of “Renascence” speaks to the very dramas unfolding in its lines. Variously mediated by the different mediums of page and voice, the poem alters readers’ and listeners’ perceptions in fateful ways.
In fact, there’s reason to believe the difference between not winning the prize and winning the scholarship rested on Millay’s performance of her first, possibly most famous, poem. If The Lyric Year judges made their decisions based on poets’ performances, the judges may have been as enthralled and stunned by “Renascence” as their contemporaries. In Voicing American Poetry (2008), scholar Lesley Wheeler describes how Millay’s success as a performer was partly due to her early training with elocutionists; she spoke in a cultured, “transatlantic accent” and the sound of her voice—and her ability to use it as an instrument—attracted attention, including Dow’s. After Vassar, Millay moved to New York City and acted with the Provincetown Players: “She soon became truly famous and successful as a performer of her own poetry,” Wheeler writes. “Starting in the teens, she recited her poems in a variety of venues, including bohemian parties, clubs, colleges, and large lecture halls. By 1933 she was not only a best-selling poet and a celebrity, but also a veteran of protracted reading tours, which she claimed to dislike but which offered a significant source of income … these readings were a vital part of Millay’s art and an avenue for poetic innovations.” Though the only instance of Millay’s reading “Renascence” I could track down was from 1941, well past her ingénue days, the recording was amazing for how Millay re-inflected, yet again, this poem about the longing for immediate contact and the gradual acceptance that the world will always be necessarily “pushed apart,” distinct from us, and “multiform.”
In Millay’s 1941 recording, “Renascence” takes nearly 14 minutes to read. I noted the poem’s tetrameters earlier, but Millay reads it musically rather than metrically. The opening line is a whoosh of two vaguely anapestic expressions (accented as “All-I could see | from-where I stood… ”) as Millay elides the spaces between syllables and words, yoking and nearly slurring phrases to generate speed. Musical terms make sense when talking about Millay’s performances: she greatly varied her tempos, stretched utterances long past their sound envelopes, and created phrases that crescendoed, and decrescendoed. All these effects imbue this recording of “Renascence” with complex associations. “A man was starving in Capri,” for example, becomes a jaunty ditty. The stanza of rebirth—“And all at once the heavy night / Fell from my eyes and I could see”—is voiced mournfully, seemingly at odds with the lines’ contents. Caesuras and stanza breaks or pauses are added, restructuring what I had previously read as a tidy narrative of ascent, descent, and resurrection. Millay performed and likely broadcast “Renascence” many times, altering each rendition in untold ways. The poem’s history as a powerful agent in the life of Millay is matched by her interest in exploring the poem’s effects through various mediums. But built into the poem itself is a canny investigation into the uncanny powers of poetry as medium and mediation.
Hannah Brooks-Motl was born in Wisconsin and earned an MFA at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of the poetry collections The New Years (2014) and M (2015). Her criticism has appeared in the Kenyon Review Online and The New Republic/The Book, among other places. With Stephen Burt...