Perhaps the most reliable presence here at Poetry Friday (due to the era in which she writes, her prolific output, and my admiration for her best stuff) is Edna St. Vincent Millay, and 1939 won’t be an exception to that trend. My attention returns again to the poetry of the war, and in perusing a collection Millay published in 1939, I found a poem I feel merits some pondering. So, without further ado, from Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Huntsman, What Quarry?, this is the second sonnet in the series “From a Town in a State of Siege”:
“Well, we have lived so far; we are alive;
War is a way of living. If today
We die, we have to do that anyway
Sometime. It’s not so bad, once you contrive
To make a home of it; we do not thrive,
Yet here we are, at least,—no place to stay,
A place to stop in, though—and we can say
Hello to friends; and I have learned to drive.
The worst is being hated, and to hate;
Perhaps if it were hurricane or flood
That dragged us from our beds, we might await
The shock, the twisted wreckage and the mud
With lighter hearts, that being not man, but fate…
And only friendly dogs to lap our blood.”
There’s a casual tone to the poem that I liked immediately—Millay at her worst is over-wrought and uses 16th century exclamations (like “O thou wretch!” etc.) to excess, and so the opening lines caught my eye right away as an example of the plain-spoken style she finds when she’s at her best, generally. Millay is also usually at her best when considering the two great obsessions 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 specific world of 1939, and not the abstraction of war as defined by a dictionary.
The ambiguity in her phrases is one of the things I love about her—the number of senses I can make of the line “War is a way of living” is a good example. Whether Millay is talking about the city’s acceptance of war as the new reality, or about how the nations seem to have accepted war as the way to survive, or about how human beings can adopt a warlike attitude as a way of getting through their day…any and all of these add something to the poem for me. I am intrigued by what it means to “make a home of it”, “it” seeming to mean “death”—is this about accepting the imminence of death? Something like a stage in the grieving process for the person about to die? Or am I missing something there? I wonder. The temporary nature of this city—a place not to stay but to “stop in”—reminds me of images of Purgatory, or the banks of the river Styx. It ties in with some of the images I remember from Eliot’s poetry after World War I. There’s something ominous that is only barely hidden under the simple and almost banal words and phrases that Millay uses to describe their world.
Maybe the best example of this is the line about Millay learning to drive: when I first read it, I rolled my eyes and said “Oh, Edna, you’ll do anything for a rhyme, won’t you?” And certainly a lot of her lesser work suffers from sing-song sound patterns, and an over-reliance on bad rhymes. Here, in the context of the war and death, “I have learned to drive” seems almost comically bad, like a sudden transition from a family’s Christmas newsletter: “Bill had his right leg amputated after the accident. The twins are learning Tae Kwon Do.” But then it came to me: many women learned to drive at the start of World War II because of the anticipated need for ambulance drivers, and the need to free up young, able-bodied men for the front. “I have learned to drive” isn’t a humdrum, suburban rite of passage—it is Millay’s obligation as the citizen of a town under siege; it is her entry into a world of bone and blood. Her sitting behind that wheel is taking up her part in a cycle of violence—the man whose place she takes goes to the front, and soon he or one of his companions will ride, dying, behind her as she drives. In this compact phrase, “drive” is suddenly doing un-innocent work—it positions itself in contrast to its rhymes, “alive” and “thrive”, that precede it, taking the place of the word “death” that this poem will not speak aloud. That line won me over fast.
She executes the turn from the ominous reality of the city in the octave to the more personal concern with hatred in the sestet—Millay is so good at the structure of the sonnet, maybe America’s best—we start to see that the poem is not really about the city, not entirely at least. It’s interesting to think that the real problem with war is “hatred”—the poem thus far might suggest that “dying” is war’s greatest fault. But as Millay argues, the really pernicious and evil thing about war is not death—a hurricane can kill as many (or more), and yet war is more terrible than that. I know not everyone would agree with her—Thomas Hardy, for one, never found Fate’s hands any comfort—but I see something compelling about her argument that death in the face of the impersonal induces less fear or panic than the knowledge that your end is coming at another person’s hands. The idea that we will now hurt each other, and not help, shakes the foundations of human society. There is something terrifying about the idea that any people can overcome the taboos and laws against killing that civilization has erected against the chaos and the void. War may be necessary (though Millay would not say so), but it is always about us at our worst. We have eulogized this “good war”, World War II, to the point that I think we believe it escaped being tarred by that brush. But I’ve heard the fear and the anguish in the voices of veterans who came back—I’ve seen my grandfather’s tears. And I know what stories he always stopped short of telling. If Millay does nothing else for me today, she reminds me what war feels and looks like, without giving me the image of a single bullet or soldier’s grave, and she makes me confront what war really is.