Poetry Friday: Pacifism

It’s been another long week—I hope that, once the quarter ends, my ability to focus on the blog will ratchet back up—but I can’t let Friday pass without a poem.  I can’t say why I thought of this poem this week…some phrase I read somewhere reminded me of something, and then I obsessed about it until I realized I was remembering part of a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay.  It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, even though I love it.  I’ll say a little about both sides of that after you’ve had a chance to read it. It’s titled “Conscientious Objector”:

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 whereabouts 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.

I love Millay’s refrain—the idea that fighting in a war is a kind of alliance with Death, a willingness to serve Death’s purposes is compelling. I want to say (since I know some of you will think it) that Millay oversimplifies an issue here, but I think she does so in order to explore it. Pacifism has a noble tradition in this country (and around the world), and I’m not convinced people should dismiss it as “unrealistic” as often as they do. Of course you’ll raise Hitler as your counter-example. I don’t know what Millay or I would say to that (I don’t know when this poem is written, but suspect it predates WWII). But if men like Gandhi and Dr. King believed that only non-violent action could bring change to the world….well, I think pacifism has some wise folks on its side, and I’d like to let myself think about it. And surely the simplest argument for it is that refrain—that I am content to die, myself, but that I will do no more than that for Death.

And Millay makes Death so fully personified that it gets to me quickly. The image of cinching a saddle on Death’s skeletal horse, because he has business in some dark corner of the world, is chilling. I don’t want to be complicit in that violence even if I will not see it. The second stanza’s rejection of cooperation even under duress grabs me too: the image of the horse about to crush the breath out of me, like some echo of Giles Corey, and yet refusing to give up a single life to Death beyond my own. But really it’s the third stanza that soars—the refusal to give Death the map even to my enemy’s door is nothing if not reminiscent of the Sermon on the Mount. Say what you will about “just war theory” (and I’ve read a bit about it), it’s hard for me to really reconcile being a soldier with the Gospel of Matthew. I’m not saying I doubt the sincerity of the faith and ethical quality of those who serve, since I truly don’t—this is an incredibly difficult question, and I’m not interested in judging anyone else’s moral judgments. I just can’t personally put much distance between what Millay is saying, and “if a man strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also”. There’s a reason that, as much as I admire the bravery and self-sacrificial dedication of those who fight, I am not sure I could join them, even in a “righteous cause”.

Maybe it all comes down for me to Millay’s question. Am I a spy in the land of the living, that I should deliver men to Death? Why am I here, after all, and what does it mean to share life–the state of being present here as I am–with every other human on the globe? Millay suggests that, among other things, it means not betraying that brotherhood under any circumstance. And again, I find this really powerful and compelling.

I’m being intentionally a little controversial here—sorry if it riles you up. I knew when I saw this poem this week that I’d talk about it today, and that plenty of people wouldn’t like what I had to say. But I decided I shouldn’t hide my honest reactions. This poem makes me think in certain ways. I went off and read a little about Gandhi’s last interview (well worth looking for, if you can find it!). I thought about the hard cases—about what I would do in a Nazi Germany scenario. Poems should make us think this way. They should ask us to challenge our assumptions and our beliefs, to test who we are and find whatever it is that we find. If the Gettysburg Address can inspire us by making our hearts soar with gratitude to the men who died there that others might be free (and it does inspire me, and that’s part of what I have to grapple with), then I think we need to let poems like this work on us also. There are great truths and trivial truths, as Niels Bohr once said….and I think the truth about war and peace, about bravery in battle and bravery in conscientious objection, is a great truth. One day I hope to arrive at it. Have a peaceful weekend.

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3 comments on “Poetry Friday: Pacifism

  1. […] tragedy that had been endured by the enslaved.  To the extent that any war can be called good (I hear you, Edna), a war that brings an end to slavery has to be seen as a good act—just as we praise the […]

  2. […] of her life—love and death—and a blunt look at war seems to me to suit them nicely.  Millay’s pacifism has already been explored briefly here at Following Pulitzer, but I wondered how it would sound when dealing with the […]

  3. […] surprise those of you who remember how sensitively and positively I’ve explored pacifism in a beautiful poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay.  To all of you, I’ll just say this: poetry addresses every aspect of our human condition. […]

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