Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Pagan Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay

Yesterday, Star Foster wrote this post over at the Patheos Pagan blog. She speaks about one of her favorite poets, Peggy Pond Church, and how her poetry evokes Pagan ideas and images in a time when Paganism wasn't necessarily a thing.

This made me think of one of my favorite poets, a woman who lived and wrote poetry in the 20s and 30s and manages to evoke very specific Pagan themes in her writing.

I first learned about Edna St. Vincent Millay when I was very young. My mother had been an English teacher before I was born and she still had several volumes of poetry on our bookshelves. I specifically remember a time when I was attending Catholic catechism.  Because I went to public school, I took catechism classes as a kid. They were usually taught in the home of another parishioner. At one teacher's class, I remember that us kids rotated who would bring in and read an opening prayer for the class.  I think I might have been in the 6th grade, just on the cusp of teenager-hood.  I spent a lot of time agonizing over what prayer to read and couldn't think of anything.  My mom suggested looked for a poem in one of her poetry books.  And that was when I discovered Edna St. Vincent Millay.

The poem I read at catechism that night was "Afternoon on a Hill."

I will be the gladdest thing
   Under the sun!
I will touch a hundred flowers
   And not pick one.

I will look at cliffs and clouds
   With quiet eyes,
Watch the wind bow down the grass,
   And the grass rise.

And when lights begin to show
   Up from the town,
I will mark which must be mine,
   And then start down!

Of course, at the time, I was Catholic but the reverence of nature clearly resonated with me even at that age. No one new at that time how deep my relationship with the cycles of nature went, least of all me. Those those cycles of nature would eventually speak to me through the story of Persephone and would lead me to honor her throughout my life. 

Curiously enough, that brought me back full circle to the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay.  It was after became devoted to Persephone that I discovered some of Millay's other poetry. I don't think anyone can say that Millay herself was Pagan but her use of mythology in her writing was undeniable. 

She wrote about Daphne and Apollo in "Daphne".

  Why do you follow me?—
Any moment I can be
Nothing but a laurel-tree.

Any moment of the chase
I can leave you in my place
A pink bough for your embrace.

Yet if over hill and hollow
Still it is your will to follow,
I am off;—to heel, Apollo!

She wrote about Odysseus's wife in An Ancient Gesture:

I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:
Penelope did this too.
And more than once: you can't keep weaving all day
And undoing it all through the night;
Your arms get tired, and the back of your neck gets tight;
And along towards morning, when you think it will never be light,
And your husband has been gone, and you don't know where, for years.
Suddenly you burst into tears;
There is simply nothing else to do.

And I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:
This is an ancient gesture, authentic, antique,
In the very best tradition, classic, Greek;
Ulysses did this too.
But only as a gesture,—a gesture which implied
To the assembled throng that he was much too moved to speak.
He learned it from Penelope...
Penelope, who really cried.
 And this is an excerpt of her poem "Invocation to the Muses" which she read at a dedication at Carnegie Hall in 1941.

O Muses, O immortal Nine!—
Or do ye languish? Can ye die?
Must all go under?—
How shall we heal without your help a world
By these wild horses torn asunder?
How shall we build anew? — How start again?
How cure, how even moderate this pain
Without you, and you strong?
And if ye sleep, then waken!
And if ye sicken and do plan to die,
Do not that now!

 But none of these make me feel like one tiny little poem does. It is said that she wrote this poem when she was mourning the death of her lover, another woman - certainly scandalous in the 1920s!

  Be to her, Persephone,
All the things I might not be:
Take her head upon your knee.
She that was so proud and wild,
Flippant, arrogant and free,
She that had no need of me,
Is a little lonely child
Lost in Hell,—Persephone,
Take her head upon your knee:
Say to her, "My dear, my dear,
It is not so dreadful here."

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