It’s Friday, but there’s little in the way of worthy book news to report, bringing me to sit down in the heat of the afternoon to peruse my grandmother’s yellowing copy of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Collected Sonnets.
I acquired it when my grandfather’s second wife, now widowed, asked me to remove a box of my grandmother’s books that were in storage–it being one of the only things she has agreed to part with since my grandfather’s death. What I didn’t expect to find, since my grandmother was very reverent about her books, were several dogeared sonnets–perhaps it being a paperback gave her some freedom.
There are two that stand out to me as an interesting way to reflect on her inner yearnings and her own longstanding struggle with depression, sexism and even the loss of her first love in the war. You can read more about this in a previous post.
The first is XXV, and though I very much like “love’s bitter crust” the last two lines evoke her own multifaceted struggle and her fierce independence, which I certainly inherited:
That Love at length should find me out and bring
This fierce and trivial brow unto the dust,
Is, after all, I must confess, but just;
There is a subtle beauty in this thing,
A wry perfection; wherefore now let sing
All voices how into my throat is thrust;
Unwelcome as Death’s own, Love’s bitter crust,
All criers proclaim it, and all steeples ring.
This being done, there let the matter rest.
What more remains is neither here nor there.
That you requite me not is plain to see;
Myself your slave herein have I confessed;
Thus far, indeed, the world may mock at me;
But if I suffer, it is my own affair.
The second, XXX recalls my grandmother’s fierce feminism but also perhaps reveals a secret longing she never showed to us:
Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for the lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.
These have made today one of curious and intriguing literary and personal discovery.
From the Perennial Classic edition, 1970.