Poetry Friday: Conscientious Objector by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Poetry Friday is hosted by Carol Varsalona at Beyond Literacy Link

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Jeannine, at the entrance to Steepletop.

Last Friday was a special day – I traveled to Austerlitz, New York for the purposes of meeting a writer friend whose work I so admire, Jeannine Atkins, at the home of a poet whose work had been the source of inspiration and example in my youth, Edna St. Vincent Millay.

I discovered Millay sometime before high school, and although I’ve lost that original volume of poetry long ago, I can still see its pages with all of my notes and exclamations of adoration in the margins.  Millay hit all the right notes for girls like me, and all through high school and college I knew I had found a friend when that person shared my love for her poetry: poetry that was lyrical and yet spoke of powerful feelings and with a bent towards social justice.

Steepletop, Millay’s home from 1920 until her death in 1950, felt very much like a time capsule as we toured through it.  There was an intimacy and and immediacy of experience to the house, I felt Millay’s presence in every room, as though she still lived there and had just stepped out.  Photographs from her time were often pinned to the doorways of rooms, the rooms as they looked in Millay’s time – books stacked everywhere.  I loved that.

We were not allowed to take photographs in the house, although I managed to circumvent those rules by taking these two of her writing hut, which were moving in their sparseness, their focus on the purpose of such a space – the solitary pursuit of writing:

I am not generally interested in the kitchens of writers, but Millay’s came with an interesting story.  The Ladies Home Journal had proposed photographing her in this room, and this story (which you can read about, with photographs, here) made me love Millay all the more.

My favorite room was Millay’s library, book lined, with spaces to read and to write. I could have spent hours here, poring over the amazing variety of her reading appetites, and marveling at the fact that each book was still exactly where Millay had placed it.  Our guide was watching me very closely, and so I behaved myself and followed the rules for once, but here are some images I found online:

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Millay was a passionate advocate for social justice in her time, the case of Sacco and Vanzetti being the most famous, but here in her library I could see the sources for the depth of her knowledge and commitment for these causes.

So, this Poetry Friday, I share the very first of Millay’s poems that I read, the one that formed an abiding love for this particular poet:

Conscientious Objector – Poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I shall die, but
that is all that I shall do for Death.
I hear him leading his horse out of the stall;
I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba,
business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle
while he clinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself:
I will not give him a leg up.

Though he flick my shoulders with his whip,
I will not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where
the black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death;
I am not on his pay-roll.

I will not tell him the whereabout of my friends
nor of my enemies either.
Though he promise me much,
I will not map him the route to any man’s door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living,
that I should deliver men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city
are safe with me; never through me Shall you be overcome.

And here is the poem set to music and sung by the peerless Mary Travers:

7 thoughts on “Poetry Friday: Conscientious Objector by Edna St. Vincent Millay

  1. It must have been a magical day for you and Jeannine to visit your favorite poet, Tara. The poem speaks much to us today, as well. Would that many would read and take action from it. I love “I am not on his pay-roll.” I liked the idea that Ladies Home Journal had the idea of visiting poets, but isn’t it interesting that they wrote, wanted to see the kitchens? Thanks for sharing!

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  2. I had such a great day, and love how you layered the experience with your history, weaving your history with hers and now mine. I feel lucky to have read Millay as a teenager, too — and think I was just at the cusp of looking for other women to follow into writing.

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    1. Isn’t it remarkable how times have changed – our daughters had so many more women writing when they were coming through school, I feel that our generation had fewer voices, fewer serious role models to be inspired by. And then…so many of them came to such sad ends: Woolf, Plath, Mansfield.

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  3. Love this post!! Swooning over here. I confess I haven’t read enough of Millay’s work, but am now inspired to remedy that. Love that you and Jeannine toured the house. And thanks for sharing “Conscientious Objector”!

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  4. I’m sorely lacking in Millay knowledge, but I did attend a session about her at last year’s MA Poetry Festival. Her story certainly piqued my interest and one of these days I may delve deeper. Thanks for sharing “Conscientious Objector.”

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