Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Renascence"
Edna St. Vincent Millay
Reading of Millay's "Renascence"
Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Renascence" dramatizes a mystical experience that results in the speaker's new birth, realizing the depth of love and the power of the soul.
The poem consists of 214 lines of rimed couplets. "Renascence" is pronounced [ri-nas-uhns], not [ren-uh-sahns] like that great period of the revival of art and literature called the Renaissance.
(Please note: The incorrect spelling, "rhyme," was erroneously introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson. For my explanation for using only the correct form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")
First Stanza: "All I could see from where I stood"
The first stanza, which consists of ninety lines, describes an experience that the speaker begins quite casually saying, "All I could see from where I stood / Was three long mountains and a wood; / I turned and looked the other way, / And saw three islands in a bay."
The experience of simply observing nature turns mystical as the speaker continues to describe events that occur during her observation. She says that the sky is so big but that it must end somewhere, and then she exclaims, "And sure enough! I see the top!"
She decides that she can touch the sky with her hand, and then she tries: "And reaching up my hand to try, / I screamed to feel it touch the sky. / I screamed, and lo! Infinity / Came down and settled over me". And then she claims, "Ah, awful weight! Infinity / Pressed down upon the finite Me!"
With this unusual event came the ability to see people and events happening in other parts of the world. She seemed to have a supernatural ability to know what other people are experiencing. She is startled by this experience and closes the stanza saying, "And so beneath the weight lay I / And suffered death, but could not die."
Second and Third Stanzas: "Long had I lain thus, craving death"
In the second stanza, the speaker descends into the earth, yet not as one deceased but as one very much alive, feeling her soul leave her body: "From off my breast I felt it roll, / And as it went my tortured soul / Burst forth and fled in such a gust / That all about me swirled the dust."
In the third stanza, the speaker feels weightless as she lies still listening to the rain, which she describes as friendly since there is no other friendly voice or face for her to encounter: "A grave is such a quiet place."
Fourth Stanza: "O God, I cried, give me new birth"
In the fourth stanza, the title of the poem is realized, as "renascence" means "new birth"; the speaker realizes that if she remains six-feet under in a grave, she will not be able to experience the beauty of the sun coming out after the rain. She wants to be able, "To catch the freshened, fragrant breeze / From drenched and dripping apple-trees." She despairs at the loss of "Beloved beauty over me, / That I shall never, never see / Again! Spring-silver, autumn-gold."
And so she cries out desperately: "O God, I cried, give me new birth, / And put me back upon the earth!" She implores God to wash away her grave.
Fifth Stanza: "Into my face a miracle"
The speaker's prayer is answered. She has great difficulty explaining such a miracle as she asserts, "I know not how such things can be; / I only know there came to me / A fragrance such as never clings / To aught save happy living things."
She is once more capable of seeing the beauty of the rain subsiding, and she repeats that fascinating image of the drenched and dripping apple tree: "And all at once the heavy night / Fell from my eyes and I could see, / A drenched and dripping apple-tree."
The speaker's exuberance over her new birth causes her to hug the trees, to hug the ground as she laughs and cries tears of joy and gratitude. Her new birth has brought her an awareness that she had not known before: "O God, I cried, no dark disguise / Can e'er hereafter hide from me / Thy radiant identity!" The speaker feels now that she realizes the Divine who pervades all of nature.
Sixth Stanza: "And let the face of God shine through"
The sixth stanza dramatizes the spiritual understanding gained by the speaker through her new birth; she has been born again, and now she understands the width of the heart:
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.
Millay's Precocious Insight
Millay's mother encouraged Edna to submit her poem, "Renaissance," the original title of the work, to a poetry contest. The purpose of the contest was to gather poems for publication in The Lyric Year, an annual poetry anthology.
The poem took only fourth place; however, the brilliance of the work caused embarrassment to those whose pieces were judged above Millay's. It was obvious to those entrants that Millay's piece was a far more first-place worthy poem.
But the poem brought Millay's talent to the attention of Caroline Dow, who directed the New York YWCA National Training School; Dow then paid for Millay to attend Vassar. Millay was only twenty-years-old when she wrote "Renascence." Such insight is rare in one so young. One can only wonder at such precocity. Her poetic talent is also a marvel.
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes