Now That Your Eyes Are Shut: Three Neglected American Women Poets From The Early Twentieth Century

By Richard Jackson

Elizabeth Bishop once wrote in a letter that “undoubtedly gender does play an important part in the making of any art, but art is art and to separate writings, paintings, musical compositions, etc., into two sexes is to emphasize values in them that are not art.” Poet Ellen Bryant Voigt in The Subverted Lyric echoes this today in severely criticizing the notion propagated by some feminist critics that “sexism has inhered within the very definitions of art.” In fact, Voigt takes to task Alicia Ostriker and her influential Stealing the Language, which proposes precisely such a notion and which in turn leads to Ostriker’s favoring poets who write “about distinctly female, rather than universal human, experience.”

For Voigt this approach is bankrupt because it leads to the separate but equal approach Ostriker later proposes, and which Voigt sees as about as valid as its use in race relations, for it fosters a two-tier system where one sort of poetry deals with universals and intellectual things (male poetry), and a lesser kind deals with emotional issues (female poetry). Voigt also cleverly demonstrates that Ostriker’s theory is based upon gross over generalizations in the first place. She writes of Ostriker’s Poetics:

“the identification of women with the Natural Life Force, with beauty and Song, with a personal rather than cultural focus, and away from the central ideas of the century is self-evident….Even were her generalizations accurate, Ostriker has supported a reductive — and limiting– equation between gender and form; if in fact she was right– if women’s natural literary gift is this narrow — then literary mastery can be achieved only by exception to the gender characteristics she has cited, since great poetry from Donne to Dickinson has always encompassed both emotional intensity and intellectual rigor…. Ostriker has buried the literary question in political rhetoric”.

Against Ostriker’s favoring of a number of lesser, often sentimental female poets because they were women, Voigt replies:

“One’s answers that is was not only Modernism that happened but modern life; that sentimentality is reductive and dangerous in its oversimplifications, whatever its source; that its source seems as easily male as female — are of course inadequate against the most persuasive tactic of all: discredit the victims’ ability to recognize the extent to which they have been, to use the euphemism, had”.

Poets like the three I will focus on, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sarah Teasdale and Elinor Wylie, were often criticized for promoting a precious and idealized beauty, emotional rather than intellectual visions, familiar forms and simplistic language, but this appraisal itself was a reductive evaluation of what these poets were doing. Consider, for example, W.B. Yeats’s 1914 comments to Harriet Monroe of Poetry Magazine — a good poem, he says, should have “a style of speech as simple as the simplest prose, like the cry of the heart….It is …the business of the poet to … express himself, whatever that might be…giving you his emotions before the world…[for} instantaneous effect.” Of course none of the critics who then or now railed against the sentimental nature of women’s poetry ever came forth to criticize Yeats for offering just such a theory in the first place. Nor did they pay attention to Teasdale’s appraisal of the imagists as expressing “self conscious satisfaction on very frail and isolated beauties.”

One female poet from the early part of the century who still enjoys a good reputation is Louise Bogan. Roethke (he was her lover at one time) described her poems as “seeking a moment when things are caught, fixed, frozen, for an instant, under the eye of eternity.” It is this relationship between the momentary and the eternal, expressed in a poem like “Medusa” that lies behind a terse, epigrammatic style that descends from Jonson and Campion: in this poem, one of Medusa’s victims speaks, now stone, yet now also half a part of time’s outward movement:

          And I shall stand here like a shadow
          Under the great balanced day,
          My eyes on the yellow dust, that was lifting in the wind,
          And does not drift away.

Bogan’s range is quite impressive, and she is easily on of the major poets of the century, but it may be that it was her style that suggested something akin to what the critics of the day would have recognized as a forceful male voice. Of course, other female poets of the first half of century have achieved the attention they deserve, though probably not as much as they should have, notably Elizabeth Bishop, Muriel Rukeyser, Marianne Moore, and H.D. But my aim here is to take a brief introductory look at three poets who have received little or none of the attention they very much deserve, not in terms of their gender, or gender issues, but in terms of their artistry and enduring power, a criterion based upon Voigt’s idea of intense intellectual rigor and intense emotional engagement within –or creatively breaking– the conventions and long standing tradition of the art– a criterion all three poets fought for themselves.

Marguerite Wilkinson, a reviewer for the New York Times, reported that Elinor Wylie, the most uneven of the poets I am focusing on, “has started a sort of poet’s club, and means, I think to be the king-pin in the whole game, controlling, as she seems to do, a good many of the avenues to fame”. This sort of cult building had adverse affects on her poems, for her friends were afraid to criticize them for fear of some reprisal: many clichés (heavy as lead, smooth as cream, teeth white as milk, jaws of death, slough of despond, etc.) went uncommented on by members of her poetry cult and her friends. Devoted to Shelley– she wrote several poems probably addressed to him and was reportedly taken with the idea of being his reincarnation–she often closely echoed his lines and images. Had she had a more honest set of close readers she may have realized that her poetics that once described poems as “jewelled bindings,” and her focus on miniatures, could easily lead to a number of insignificant poems.

Her poetics emphasized making accessible an austere, exquisite and finely wrought sense of the world, a sensibility that emphasized elegance and refinement as values, as questions of vision, not simply as poetic and rhetorical devices. There is in her best poems a struggle against the gross physical nature of the world, especially as a form of materialism, as in her vision of Nebuchadnezzar who, despite the way he has been brought low, realizes he must try to see “clover [as] honey and sun and the smell of sleep.” The austerity she prizes is a countermeasure to this materialistic world: even her early brief sonnet sequence, “Wild Peaches,” suggests a tension where the lush world of Maryland’s eastern shore is seen as too wild and she opts for a more austere vision: “There’s something in this richness that I hate,” she exclaims.

This tension in her own vision creates, in her best poems, an irony that was never really noticed by critics of her day (and our own, I might add) who expected a sentimental poem of beauty from women poets like Wylie. So, for example, in her poem “Velvet Shoes” there is a progression towards ever lighter images so that a “soundless space” with “footsteps quiet and slow” becomes by the end a “Silence” that “will fall like dews / On white silence below.” The other in the poem, dressed in rougher “wool” as opposed to the speaker’s “silk,” seems gradually and subtly absorbed into the pronouns as the initial we, then the I and you are replaced by the “we” of the lovers now one that enter that increasingly sublimated world. However, just as Wylie’s use of pastoral images reflect her attempt to build an ideal world, her use of the future tense throughout allows her to simultaneously assert the ironic failure of such a world.

This sort of irony is fully operative in a poem like “Pity Me.” The first two stanzas describe savage animals doing unnatural things: the wolf guards the pasture, the leopard weeps, the panthers put on silken gloves, and the fire that lions breathe is the passion of their love. On the one hand, these images all suggest a kind of double nature in the speaker herself, the idea that her “Velvet Shoes” may hide sharp talons, for example. But they also suggest that we should pity such false visions and attempt to see the world for what it is. And then in the final stanza she turns the central irony ironically upon itself:

          Pity the prickly star that frightens
              The Christ Child with its shattered spear;
          Pity the midnight when it lightens;
              Pity me, my dear.

We are asked now to enter the consciousness of the animals in the first two stanzas — to see the world as it naturally is– in order to be able to see that the surface beauty of the star can be interpreted as a threat, as a thorn or as a spear, as images, that is, of the Christ Child’s death, of the savagery that lies beneath our supposed– and the poet’s attempted– pastoral world. Now, then, the dawn is not simply a return to light from the dangers of darkness, but a lifting of a veil, a forthcoming vision of the world as it is, so that the pity in the end is for anyone who can see this. The poem, for all its simple language is remarkably complex and recalls, but in her own original way, the kind of quick turns of perspective encountered in one of Wylie’s favorite poets, Blake.

An early poem, “Atavism,” provides a kind of model for this double vision of Wylie’s. The sonnet begins by distinguishing two ponds in its octave, the first “little pond,” with its “willow stands” and playful boys, provides a pastoral counterpoint to the “one beyond,” where “frost makes all the birches burn / Yellow as cow-lilies” and where some “strange thing tracks us.” The sestet takes the distinction a step further, counterpointing the present fear as opposed to history (the early settler’s fear of Indians) and dream as opposed to reality, in the first couple of lines. But then the history and the dream become the reality “where the lily-stems are showing red / A silent paddle moves below the water.” Again a simple statement reveals a complex vision: the “where” is not simply that physical second pond but beneath the surface of it, and if the paddle is that of an ancient Indian then we are talking about a “where” that is also dreamt and historical, so that the “where” becomes then a psychological place, the mind.

Wylie’s aim here is to show the complex process of moving from the strangeness of physical shapes to the underlying deep emotional fear that makes the shapes fearful in the first place, and that movement into the depths of our being allows her in the end to associate this fear ultimately with our fear of death. The fact that the last image is a “painted mask of death” suggests that she also wants us to keep simultaneously in mind the fact that what scares the mind is created by the mind, imagined, “painted.” That it is a “mask” recalls the difference between physical and psychological that the poem is basically built upon, and also suggest that the image of death is too fearful to be actually seen, like the mysterious ghost of the Indian that plies the waters of the imagination.

One way that Wylie found to protect herself from her fears– whether of failed relationships, death or a crass uncaring world– was to take on the persona of a detached, almost inhuman persona, a speaker with, as she says in “Self-portrait,”– “A hollow scooped to blackness in the breast.” In “Now that Your Eyes Are ” she spends three stanzas asserting her power and leveling threats at her lover: “My flickering knife has cut / Life from sonorous lion throats to hush them,” for instance. But while he is asleep, while he is vulnerable, and she has this power,

          My casual ghost may slip,
          Issuing tiptoe, from the pure inhuman;
          The tissues of my lip
          Will bruise your eyelids, while I am a woman.

Her kiss will nevertheless be a “bruise” compared to what he has known, for any relationship, for Wylie, carries pain– if nothing else the pain of en ending. And yet there is a tenderness here, a way of making the ordinary kiss something unique. That double vision here in enforced by the alternating trimeter lines with their rising cadences and their pentameter lines with their falling cadences, as well as alternating harsher and softer rhyme sounds. The whole effect is of a speaker who issues a warning as much to defend her own heart as to distance her lover, whose kiss is both warning of her distance and sign of her dangerously overwhelming love.

These sorts of feelings receive perhaps their most sophisticated treatment in her sequence, “One Person,” nineteen poems (a prologue and 18 poems, 17 regular sonnets and a sixteen line sonnet) written after a fall where she dislocated and injured a vertebra and fractured another– probably as the result of a stroke and Bright’s disease. The sequence begins with a counterpoint between fact and fiction, reality and romance, and it places the woman speaker sometimes in a subservient, sometimes in dominant role in the relationship: the poems follow an affair from attraction to separation to renewal, relating the affair to myth, history, to problems of time and eternity, and often finding startling conceits to describe its complex feelings. For example, number XII opens with four and a half lines that quietly and gradually portray the beloved as the Christ Child in “swaddling clothes” who is adored by the lover-speaker.

The sestet is even more startling and original– the lover is ironically the virgin, and the son-beloved-christ is seen to have “deserved a manger for a crib” in the first two lines, and then in the next two lines the lover-speaker is seen as Eve, the temptress “Torn” from the body of the beloved now seen as Adam, so that now also the familial relationship is reversed: “I am the daughter of your skeleton,” she says, emphasizing not even the whole body but the skeletal image of death.

The final two lines bring a number of associations: the speaker as Eve is born of the pain of man, but the pain also relates to the pain of the Christ child later on historically, and the words “bitter” and “excessive” sound like projections of the speaker’s own feeling towards the relationship and the earlier “infant’s claim” as much as they do descriptions of the beloved’s condition. In this light the assertion of the last line, “I shall not dream you are my child again” becomes sacrilegious: it distances her from the pain and the love, the bitterness and the grace of the relationship so that she can maintain her own identity which has been subsumed under various roles here. Indeed, the poem can also be read as a critique of various pseudo religious descriptions of love in sequences dating back to Dante’s La Vita Nuova.

Wylie’s double vision leads in this sequence to the final poem, XVIII, where she imagines an afterlife that is closed off in a small room “oblivious of any doom” and yet that very doom fills the poem with its images, and the afterlife itself is described not in spiritual but physical terms, as if she could finally take that crass world she fought so long against and transformed it. Not surprisingly her double vision also allows her to compose several dramatic monologues, most notably “The Lie,” where the speaker lovingly warns the beloved of her evil ways but in such a melodic manner that it begins to sound almost like a virtue. Most of Wylie’s poems are addressed to someone, usually a lover, though she kept most of her emotions private (though he leaving her abusive husband and her child to run off to England with a married man who she learned later cheated on her, and other such affairs up to her 3rd marriage, with William Rose Benet, were widely known), and so for her at least, the final double vision had to do with the more universal subjects of the poems played off against what she knew as actual situations, a dimension to the poems that itself can be appreciated in the abstract, without knowing to whom a particular poem was addressed.

In a book, New Voices in 1919 Sarah Teasdale writes: “My theory is that poems are written because of a state of emotional irritation. It may be present for some time before the poet is conscious of what is tormenting him….Coming together like electrical currents in a thunderstorm they produce a poem…from actual experience, or, almost as forcibly…imaginary experience. In either case, the poem is written to free the poet from an emotional burden. Any poem not so written is only a piece of craftsmanship”. This cathartic theory is important for its distinction between craft and emotional depth, emphasizing both equally, and so also redefining the “struck by lightning” notion of “inspiration” in much the same way as Frost later would. She also discussed her own method: the emotional restlessness leads to an intellectual idea, and once an idea is hit upon, the poet “walks round and round it, so to speak, looking at it from all sides, trying to see what aspect of it is most vivid. When he has hit upon what he believes is his peculiar angle of vision, the poem is fairly begun”.

The poem, then, is an enactment of discovery, and for Teasdale this generally means moving from a description of an outer world towards the inner world implied by it. “Water Lilies,” for example, a poem much admired by Frost, makes this movement in two brief stanzas:

          If you have forgotten water lilies floating
              On a dark lake among mountains in the afternoon shade,
          If you have forgotten their wet, sleepy fragrance,
              Then you can return and not be afraid.
          But if you remember, then turn away forever
              To the plains and the prairies where pools are far apart,
          There you will not come at dusk on closing water lilies,
              And the shadow of mountains will not fall on your heart.

The poem is based basically on alternating 5 and 6 beat lines ranging from 10 to 14 syllables suggesting an instability to its opening serene picture. The negative construction of the first stanza throws the speaker off for the pastoral calm can only be given in terms of forgetfulness, of negation. The rhetoric seems at odds with the meaning. Even the opening of the second stanza seems puzzling as it immediately shifts the reader away from the opening scene to the prairies. It is only in the second last line that the reader understands that what is disturbing about the scene is the closing of the water lilies, an image either of death or a Frostian rejection by nature, sand more, for in the last line where the mountains reflect on the lake it is clear that the lake is not the external thing but the inner heart. The reader then must return to the beginning and read the external scene as an emblem of the internal. But the poem does not simply move towards the inner world, for it also asserts that there is something about the massive mountains that tower over the self and which tend to negate the self, an idea she will return to often as in “Sea Longing” where she sees herself as “less than the smallest shell along the shoal, / Less than the sea-gulls calling to the sea.”

This counterpointing of inner and outer worlds receives a more psychological treatment in the sonnet “Lights” where a couple returns home to a room that is at once “shadowy” but also allows them to be “Glad of wall and chair,” a room that seems to place them in an ironic situation, “safe in our own love and the gentle doom.” The second quatrain draws a contrast with the bright city that is “below” them that leads to a “wordless pity.” This looking outward leads to a sense of how mankind has tried to artificially and failingly light the darkness around it, something the speaker realizes can’t be done because of the “stark / sense of the lives behind each yellow light, / And not one wholly joyous, proud, or free.” That emphasis in the last line, so personal and exacting, suggests how much the speaker is projecting her own inner life onto the external scene, and more, their “shadowy room” is both an attempt not to live behind those false lights and so escape the “dark,” but also a direct immersion in the dark itself. In the end, then, the poem undercuts the dim (okay, a bad pun) hope for safety of the opening lines.

Another sonnet, “In A Restaurant,” draws a similar distinction– the lovers enter a world of heat, light, of wine and good cheer, but then must return to the burdens of the outside world where “The somber street received us from the glare, / And once more on your shoulders fell the snow.” The ballad, “The Inn of the Earth” is a more directly psychological treatment: the speaker enters and asks for wine, then bread, but is ignored by the host

          While always from the outer night
              The waiting souls came in
          With stiffled cries of sharp surprise
              At all the lights and din.

When she asks for a place to sleep she is also rejected, but when she tries to leave “the host went by with averted eye / And barred the outer door.” Here earth becomes associated with the id, with basic desires, and the Host with the superego, setting up a contrast so typical in Teasdale’s work between inner desire and external approbation. Yet another version of this sort of conflict occurs in her poem, “Dreams,” written about her marriage to a St Louis shoe manufacturer though she in many ways loved the poet John Wheelock (she was afraid of ending up a “spinster” and also courted and then was horrified at the intensity of Vachel Lindsay): “I gave my life to another lover,” she exclaims, but the real past hovers over this dreamt love, and then the real lover appears, but as a dream, yet a dream that leaves a kiss as real as that of the present lover: dream and reality, inner and outer worlds become psychologically confused.

The relationship between reality and imagination, or art and reality is taken up again in a late poem, “Autumn.” Here the speaker confronts a statue of Venus in a leave strewn park and on the surface contrasts the transitory quality of nature against the enduring stone. But the marble Venus is not as permanent as might seem if there is no one to see it– as with Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”–

              And the marble Venus there--
          Is she pointing to her breasts or trying to hide them?
              There is no god to care.

The reflection of the colonnade around the statue is similarly “Lost in the mass of leaves an unavailing / As a dream lost among dreams,” and the repetition of that second line and the dropping of the simile marker “as” in “A dream lost among dreams,” enforces a deeper movement into the dream world, and also the correspondence between inner and outer worlds. Here, though, the more we move deeper into the imagined world of the second stanza the more the outer world of the statue, itself needing imagination to sustain its life, is also lost. Both the natural world and the world of art, life and imagination, are negated and the question of whether the statue is truing to protect herself or reveal herself is lost in the general negating movement of the whole poem. Still, in some sense the statue does remain, a kind of enigma, a sign that something lives beyond us, even if an unanswered question, like the stars that will remain “forever, while we sleep” in another poem.

While a number of Teasdale’s poems contain the sort of negative casts we have seen so far, she finds another kind of counterweight in the idea of potential, often suggested by images of seeds and sowing: in one poem (“Primavera Mia”), the lover’s words are like seeds, and in another the field of her Soul, grown fallow, will be sown again “with better grain”(“The broken Field”). Even the past can regenerate in the present as in the sonnet,“To an Aeolian Harp,” where the “voiceless dead of long forgotten lands” can being the melancholy strains that suggest at once both a continuance and a loss. A longer poem, “From the Sea,” while marred with several cliches, and built upon a contrast between the speaker’s quiet surface and her inner turmoil (autobiographically true by the way), ends with a memory of walking by a shore with her never-to-be lover, but she redefines the past in terms of potential, ending on an image of possibility:

          And in our path we left a trail of light
          Soft as the phosphorescence of the sea
          When night submerges in the vessel’s wake
          A heaven of unborn evanescent stars.

On the other hand, for Teasdale any loss of potential is a loss of selfhood. In “Shadows,” the speaker at first sees the self as a shadow “etched” on “hard sand,” a kind of desperate attempt to suggest something more permanent than the shadow side of one’s existence. However, the language soon emphasizes the transitoriness of the image as the “last thin edge of the waves” tends to cover the shadows despite the attempts of the autumnal sunshine to assert itself. Then the shadows are described as “chained” to the lovers’ “bodies” until the shadows– and so in the logic of the images, the bodies– the selves, also disappear into darkness. This explains the assertive self-identity in her long worked on poem, “Sappho,” and her fear of being simply a mirror for others in “I Is Not I.” One of her late and best sonnets, “So This Was All,” suggests in its octave that her life has been a play script and she a faintly appreciated actress who inadvertently lingers on when the curtain fails to completely come down after a “short last act.” But the poem actually backtracks in its sestet to revise this bleak view. Indeed, a closer reading reveals that the basis for the plot of the imagined scene in the octave is given by the subjunctive “the final curtain that might (italics mine) catch half-way,” and a hypothetical example, “as final curtains do.” The rest of the octave goes on as if this projected scene were true:

                                     and leave the grey
          Lorn end of things too long exposed. The hall
          Clapped faintly, and she took her curtain call,
          Knowing how little she had left to say.

Of course, the poem has plenty left to say as it returns to the point before the last act and reconsiders what she has said previously as opposed to the passion she has brought to the performance. On the one had it expresses her doubts about the validity of her own lines, her poems, and a guilt at the attention she has received for them, but on the other hand it focuses on the script, the roles, she has been given, and indeed the poem finally focuses on the interrelationships between these. The roses themselves are “torn,” and the word “shattered” seems to apply to her life or her art more than roses, as does the deathly “dripping red.” Yet in the midst of all this is the knowledge that that she is defined not by these but by her “High-hearted / Ardor.” This affirmation countered by doubts is underscored by the regularity of the rhythm and the caesuras but broken here and there by lines whose major pauses occur towards the end, as if a whole knew thought were suddenly to appear and counter what was said, the most dramatic of these turns occurring with the “bright, torn” juxtaposition at the end of line 13.

In a short and rare prose essay Teasdale once wrote (“The Unknown Poet and the Magazines,” 1911) that “Every human being has something to say of himself which could not be said by another. Never in all the ages past nor in those to come will the same combination of emotions possess a human being as those which posses him.” In her last sonnet “Ashes” she seems resigned in the octave to an insignificance after death that is “no more…/ Than the lone bat could carry in his flight / Over the meadows when the moon is furled.” Here “Only the many fingered rain” will find her. But in the sestet the poem suddenly awakens to the potential of its own images — the unfurling of the banner of the moon, associated with the fingers in the rain image, leads to her suddenly looking at the hands, unfurling as it were, while she is writing the poem itself. Her question then is as much a plea for her poems to continue on, for their ultimate potentiality to unfold like the wings of the bat even if that flight is an erratic one. The poem, like all of her best poems, finds a way to suggest triumph out of the very language of despair.

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s prize winning early poem “Renascence” similarly creates a language of hope from despair. A sort of Shelleyan and Keatsian poems about the relationship between sight and vision, it opens with a speaker looking out over some hills at night: “Over these things I could not see: / These were things that bounded me.” The speaker’s quest for knowledge, echoing lines from Coleridge and, leads to a consciousness of infinity that is also a consciousness of cosmic guilt: “Mine was the weight / Of every brooded wrong.” She soon does, only to have the rain bring her a Blakean “glad awakening” until finally, in lines echoing Dickinson she achieves a oneness with the world: “The world stands out on either side / No wider than the heart is wide.” Obviously absorbing these sources, Millay nonetheless establishes the major concerns and poetics that will define her career: a concern with the cosmic order of things, the responsibility of the self within that order, the self’s quest to define its role, and a sense of the dramatics of a poem’s movement, of the addressee in the poem, the Other.

Millay’s movement from the dreamy vocabulary of this and other early poems is rather sudden, a rebirth in itself, as her second book Second April implies. The opening poem in that book, “Spring,” immediately undercuts the earlier language and sensibility and looks forward to the everyday speech that will mark most of her poems from now on. Though death doesn’t seem “apparent” as she interrogates Spring, or our conventional symbols of Spring, and does so in a startling, for the time, free verse arrangement, she savagely satirizes even the appearance of deathlessness:

          But what does that signify?
          Not only underground are the brains of men
          Eaten by maggots.

Man’s lot is such that any notions of Spring as rebirth are themselves bankrupt, and so she ends the poem by carrying this image further:

          It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
          Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

By personifying the month the enforces the link with the rotten brains of men who live above ground: not only is mankind inept, but the larger seasonal forces that might provide a more saving vision are as inept as mankind. The images are crucial here, for the harshness of their language, the earthiness of this anti pastoral poem, are counterpointed against generalities like “Life in itself / Is nothing” in order to eschew and undercut the simplicity that statements make. Millay understands that an easy rejection of Spring and beauty is as simplistic as a naive acceptance of them. Indeed, her sonnet, “Still will I harvest beauty where it grows” suggests that she has an entirely different sense of beauty than what the critics described for she will find it

          In coloured fungus and the spotted fog
          Surprised on foods forgotten; in ditch and bog
          Filmed brilliant with irregular rainbows
          Of rust and oil, where half a city throws
          Its empty tins.

In fact, the poem can be taken as a critique of some of the weaker, more “jewelled” poems of both Wylie and Teasdale. If beauty exists, as she says in another sonnet, it is austere and ideal, and must be redefined: “Euclid alone has looked on beauty bare.”

This sort of double edge is common to her best poems, especially those addressed to others, for she was a master of the direct and dramatic address. “To The Wife of a Sick friend” is ironically about a former lover now married and dying; besides that dual address, the poem expresses a fear of being alone as much for the speaker as the dying lover, “Lest we stand, / each in a sudden, separate dark.” The images of the poem suggest that the life we live is lived inside Plato’s cave, which, when lighted, is its own world that “Blossoms with mineral rose and lotus, / Sparkles with crystal moon and star.”

In that confined cave, also conscious of the images of the expansive world beyond, our only light is a candle, our greatest enemy the outside wind, and the fear of isolation ultimately a fear of living in the “utter dark without a face,” with no self identity. I another related poem she writes, “At least, my dear, / You did not have to live to see me die.” The poem then goes on to enumerate private memories, things she finds in her pockets, all images of him, as the poem slides into a guilt so great that her only escape in the end is to reiterate: “The most I ever did for you was to outlive you. / But that is much.” Her gift is her guilt, a life that will now be lived as an apology.

In “When It is Over,” addressed to another lover — Millay was prolific in this department– she tempers her assertion “When it is over — for it will be over” with a pastoral vision of the buds in an apple orchard “already fragrant, intent upon blossoming.” But she undercuts that by saying “They will blossom for what, not whom, / I think” and they will be “all but visible.” Millay ends the poem with a telescoping vision, an innovation, really, with her, in which one side of the dualism starts to take over the poem almost as if a new poem were grafted to the original. The effect is an acute sense of the speaker thinking aloud, of our following the process of that thought as it expands outward. In this case the image of the apple blossom which first served as a symbol, and is then undercut, now becomes in the last paragraph the basis for a short story: a man walks through that orchard to study the possibility for lumber or for food, more practical and less romantic, as the original love poem now seems fully subsumed under a “developing” present world, a changed world. Finally, the effect is also to remind the addressee that there are other men out there in the world or orchards.

Another kind of dramatic doubling occurs in poems where there seems to be a sort of double consciousness at work. For example, “Armenonville” begins with a carefully detailed scene, astutely observed, given enormous attention, and this sort of careful set up is continued in the second stanza where the intimate and intricately involved state of the two lovers is described. The first hint of any undercutting occurs when the speaker looks about near the end of that second stanza, and then in the third this attentive speaker focuses on another scene that begins to take over the poem before returning dumbfounded to the lover:

          There swam across the lake, as I looked aside, avoiding
          Your eyes for a moment, there swam from under the pink and red begonias
          A small creature; I thought it was a water-rat; it swam very well,
          In complete silence, and making no ripples at all
          Hardly; and when suddenly I turned again to you,
          Aware that you were speaking, and perhaps had been speaking for some time,
          I was aghast at my absence, for truly I did not know
          Whether you had been asking or telling.

That she avoids his eyes, that she looks aside breaking their intimate bond while he is speaking, and that the creature is a water-rat, and that his silence is more compelling than the lovers speech, are all enough warning for anyone. In addition, the moment turns to “some time” and the loss of concentration is a real “absence.” As usual, her line breaks are masterful: the placement of “hardly” gives emphasis to the “ripples” which are obviously also ripples in the relationship in which they probably to not swim as well as she notices the rat does.

The untitled poem beginning “I Woke in The Night” contains a similar movement, but here when the speaker wakes to a storm she half drowsily imagines it a “bad night for a sail/ Except far out at sea…” but then hears a strange noise that immediately puts her into that expanded scene conflating imagination and reality: “And somewhere something heavy bumped and rolled / And bumped, like a barrell of molasses loose in the hold.” In another poem which begins “When The Tree Sparrows…” the speaker suddenly wakes to the birds’ sound which is also her own voice talking from her sleep to an absent lover while sleeping with a present one: for a few moments she conflates the present and the distant scenes and realizes the other presence will never leave her. What began as a pastoral scene ends as a seascape, the change in exterior geography signaling the change in her inner geography.

Teasdale, Wylie and Millay all did extensive work in the sonnet form, and Millay distinguishes her self as one of the great sonneteers of all time. She wrote dozens of sonnets including three major sequences: “I will put Chaos into fourteen lines / And keep him there,” begins one poem. Chaos sounds much like an unruly lover, (“our duress, / His arrogance, our awful servitude”) and a stunning role reversal asserts the speaker’s control “in pious rape.” But he is also Proteus and the order she asserts is her own life for she will continue “Till he with Order mingles” and she will not force him to confess, “only make him good,” the pun on “make” asserting both the romantic and poetic sides of the equation. There is a great deal of metrical variation within the iambic pattern and varying caesuras and enjambments as she both “Keeps” and lets him momentarily “escape,” and a pattern of “o” sounds down the middle of the poem that help stitch things together, as the poem reflects both the confined order and the chaotic world beyond that we saw, for example, in “Renascence” and “To the Wife of a Sick Friend.”

Her sonnets demonstrate an incredible range: in “Bluebeard” she is like the prize the Pirate burglarizes to get, but he finds only “An empty room, cobwebbed and comfortless” which is all she leaves him but also in a sense what has become of her life. In another she uses an elaborate conceit– the lover’s face is like the chamber where a king dies alone, and then she goes on to describe the room and what the king’s last words were, suggesting an end to the affair: the king’s last words are like the “moment’s pause” of the speaker, and what lies beyond, what the lover’s face reveals he sees, is the end of the affair, “the Broad estates of Death.” several sonnets contain Shakespearean and Petrarchan paradoxes, as in the one ending “I am most faithless when I am most true.” And of course her ironic double vision and detachment can create delicious understatement, as in her magnificent sonnet “If I should Learn, in some quite casual way.” Here the poem’s syntax is relaxed, filled with qualifiers and subordinate constructions that suggest that casualness. The euphemisms, such as “That you were gone, not to return again” are revealed as subliminal death wishes for the other.

The fact that she would read of his death in a paper held by someone else further suggests her detachment not only from him, but the world. His hurrying is opposed to her ease, and her resignation opposed to his chance encounter as the man who “happened” to be him “happened” to be killed. her should– at first either a directive or simply an upper class locution for distancing, is revealed as something more sinister– an inability to cry for this unloved lover. In the end her only interest is in what passes swiftly in the train window, or another article in the paper having to do with “Where to store furs and how to treat the hair.” On the other hand, the movement from should not to could not might suggest a deeper emotional attachment so that the lack of feeling would reveal the overwhelming pain at facing the death, a sublimating and repressing technique she will use in her three major sonnet sequences.

In all these poems the other is treated in an almost clinical way: the Hegelian dialectic of self and other proceeds by first inventing a version of the other which reduces him from passionate lover (immediacy) to mild annoyance or insignificance (negation) so that the speaker can more easily step away and maintain her selfhood (overcoming).

The first of her sequences, “Sonnets From an Ungrafted Tree,” (each of the 17 sonnets has a last line comprised of six feet) takes up this theme of detachment with incredible power. the story is simple, an estranged wife comes back to care for her dying ex-husband not out of love but duty, and so reappraises her entire life and former love. The everyday details almost always reveal a metaphoric dimension: in III she picks kindling rather than longer burning wood; in IV she steps back from the coal before it bursts into an overwhelming flame, unlike what she had done years before; and when the husband dies in XV, the description is of a clock, a cheap “souvenir,” that stops like “the mainspring being broken in his mind,” suggesting something of the mechanical nature of his thought and of their former relationship.

The Opening poem of the sequence acts as a kind of overture. We begin in medias res with the opening word,– and its matter of fact tone, reinforced by the numerous asides directed to the reader, suggests the kind of detachment that the main character, as well as narrator, and hence reader, is expected to take. Images like the “winter rain” suggest the coldness inside her, of course, but the “rotted stalks” of her geraniums in the “painted butter tub” suggest both her attempts at one time to create some sense of beauty, and that this time was not so far in the past– the past Spring as it turns out. her “running” out for wood counterpoints against her movement back into the house, and her “bareheaded” dress suggests a break from the strict New England tradition at the time that a woman not go out without a hat. When she gets to the wood shed she finds the “ragged ends of twine” and the “dejected” vine, and immediately remembers the past Spring when she planted them under a makeshift roof. The poem thus ends with an image of planting, of a new beginning for her, “big aproned, blithe,” what the end of the sequence will finally bring.

Another sequence, “Fatal Interview,” is much longer, 52 poems, suggesting the weeks of a year, and deriving its title from one of Donne’s elegies. The female narrator of the sequence tells a story– based on Millay’s relationship with the Chicago poet George Dillon– of gradual seduction of her lover, their consummation, a separation, and finally the necessary break (Millay was involved in an ‘open’ marriage and even wrote the penultimate sonnet in the sequence to her long suffering husband). In the sequence, which follows seasonal patterns and uses a number of natural images for love counterpointed against a more austere language of conscience, begins and ends with references to the myth of Endymion, at least through Keats version, where she is the intensely suffering goddess and George the handsome mortal. oddly, at the climactic moment she places herself in the role of victim (XII)– something she tended to do in her real life affairs– and then moves through a series of several poems filled with Petrarchan changes of mood, tone, of doubt and guilt. Throughout, this dramatized double vision of her own self leads to numerous warnings to the beloved that finally are heeded. At one point (XXVI), for example, she writes:

                          in me alone survive
          The Unregenerate passions of a day
          When treacherous queens, with death upon the tread,
          Heedless and wilful, took their knights to bed.

Such references to myth and history throughout the sequence tend to universalize the affair, on the one hand allowing Millay a personal detachment, but also allowing the speaker to raise issues that become more philosophical, ethical and theological as the poems work towards a conclusion where she realizes she is “unfit / For mortal love” and, at least, “might not die of it.”

Her most universal sequence is “epitaph for the race of Man” which traces the probably end of the race by showing how various species and kingdoms have failed, how man ignores man, how we seem born to kill each other as more and more sophisticated versions of Cain and Abel.One of the most interesting of these poems is XVII where we as a race are seen to be diamonds, but the image is ironic for while we can prevail over external assaults, mankind is “Being split along the vein by his own kind.” the source of our downfall is ourselves. Even more savage in its satire than “Spring” and certainly more sustained, the sequence is the culmination of the work of her last years which became increasingly political and socially conscious. While many of those poems are failures, this sequence and a handful of other poems from the last years, mostly sonnets, are powerful, complexly ironic testaments that bring to a climax her ultimate concern with the relationship between the tiny individual and the huge cosmos.

Millay, like Wylie and Teasdale, like all first rate poets, struggled to find visions of the world that, to paraphrase Teasdale, were uniquely their own, and yet all three are related in their quests. Wylie’s poetry is attempt to create a more refined world than the crass materialistic world she faced everyday, but a world that she realized had to exist within that other one, subject to its pressures; it is a poetry where she distances herself, assuming various roles in order to escape entrapment while defining her own self. rather than attempting to refine and cut herself off from the world, Teasdale moved from its exterior signs towards an inner reality based upon relationships to the external world.

Indeed, the external world is something that must be reentered in order to validate the psychology of the inner self which is also under constant definition; for Teasdale, like Keats, poetry is a vale of soul making. Millay’s sense of these dialectic relationships is between a small mortal self and a larger cosmos, and like Dickinson, she wants her poems not to reflect the world, as with Teasdale, or to be safe within it like Wylie, but to expand to the point of containing it. The favorite modern poet of James Wright, and a considerable influence upon him ( he was perhaps our major poet from the second half of the twentieth century) she is technically the most sophisticated of these poets and possesses the greatest range. Her most famous poem, “What Lips My Lips have Kissed,” might serve as a fitting conclusion, for while it deals with her relationship to a long sequence of lovers, some simultaneous with others, it laments not the loss of their love, but the loss of their memory, which is related finally to the loss of her own song. It is a great loss indeed, to have these poets relegated to a minor position in the tradition.


RICHARD JACKSON is the author of ten books of poems including Resonance (2010) (Eric Hocher Award), Half Lives: Petrarchan Poems (2004) and Unauthorized Autobiography: New and Selected Poems (2003). He has also published two books of translations, Last Voyage: The Poems of Giovanni Pascoli from Italian (2010) and Alexandar Persolja’s Journey of the Sun from Slovene (2008). He is also the author of two critical books, Acts of Mind: Conversations with American Poets (Choice Award) and Dismantling Time in Contemporary Poetry (Agee Award Winner), and has edited two anthologies of Slovene poetry, as well as the journal Poetry Miscellany. His work has been translated into fifteen languages and has appeared in The Best American Poetry, among other collections. He has been awarded the Order of Freedom Medal by the President of Slovenia for literary and humanitarian work in the Balkans, and has been named a Guggenheim Fellow, Fulbright Fellow, Witter-Bynner Fellow, NEA fellow, NEH Fellow, and has lectured and given readings at dozens of universities and conferences here and abroad. In 2009 he won the AWP George Garret National Award for Teaching and Arts Advocacy.