Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Renascence"
Edna St. Vincent Millay
Introduction and Excerpt from "Renascence"
Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem, "Renascence," consists of 214 lines of rimed couplets. The poem dramatizes a unique mystical experience, made even more singular having been undergone by one so young. Millay composed this masterpiece when she was only twenty years old.
"Renascence" is pronounced [ri-nas-uhns], not [ren-uh-sahns], the label of that great period of the revival of art and literature called the Renaissance. Interestingly, the poet originally had title this poem, "Renaissance." To hear the distinction in pronunciation of these terms, please visit, Renaissance on youtube and renascence at Dictionary, click on the speaker icon.
(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")
Excerpt from "Renascence"
AlI 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.
So with my eyes I traced the line
Of the horizon, thin and fine,
Straight around till I was come
Back to where I’d started from;
And all I saw from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood.
Over these things I could not see:
These were the things that bounded me;
And I could touch them with my hand,
Almost, I thought, from where I stand.
And all at once things seemed so small
My breath came short, and scarce at all.
But, sure, the sky is big, I said;
Miles and miles above my head;
So here upon my back I’ll lie
And look my fill into the sky. . . .
To read the entire poem, please visit “Renascence” at the Poetry Foundation.
Reading of Millay's "Renascence"
This poem launched the career of Edna St. Vincent Millay and has since been widely anthologized.
First Stanza: Simply Observing Nature
The first stanza, which consists of ninety lines, describes an experience that the speaker begins quite casually by reporting that all she could see from her present vantage point were mountains and a wooded area as she looked one direction, and then as she turned her head to see what else the landscape offered, she saw a bay in which three islands stood. 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 that she can actually view the top of the sky!
The speaker decides that she can touch the sky with her hand, and then she tries and discovers that she could "touch the sky." The experience made her scream, being so unexpected and unusual. It then seemed to her that the entire universal infinite body descended and covered her own being. She then repeats exclaims that the "awful weight" of Infinity was pressing her down. She refers to herself a "finite Me," drawing the distinction between her little self and the Infinite Self. 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 claiming that she has endured death from the weight of Infinity covering her, yet she "could not die."
Second and Third Stanzas: A Unique Mystical Experience
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. She feels that infinite weight lift off and her "tortured soul" is able to burst from its confines, leaving in it wake swirling 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: Desire for Rebirth
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 experience the gentle breezes that waft through "drenched and dripping apple-trees."
The speaker also realizes that she will never again observe the beauty of spring as silver and fall as gold. And so she cries out desperately to her Beloved Creator for a new birth. She begs to be placed back on earth, as she implore God to wash away her grave.
Fifth Stanza: An Answered Prayer
The speaker's prayer is answered. She has great difficulty explaining such a miracle as she asserts that she cannot explain how such an event occurred, but she only knows that it happened to her, and she is quite convinced of its reality and importance.
The speaker 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. She cries out to God that henceforth she will never doubt the efficacy and power of her Divine Beloved, whom she describes as "radiant identity." The speaker feels now that she realizes the Divine who pervades all of nature.
Sixth Stanza: Spiritual Understanding
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.
Edna St. Vincent Millay's Precocious Insight
Edna's mother encouraged her 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 in poetic talent.
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes