Contemplating the Season With Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Spring”

I’d been browsing earlier in the week for poems about spring, with the intention of sharing one or two on this blog’s or my personal Facebook page. Find a lovely photo of a flower or mustard field to accompany it, rejoice in all the rebirthing metaphors and imagery, have a feel-good post in time for the feel-good day of Easter Sunday, when the very heavens (or at least all our cultural icons) seem to sing in lush harmonies about the joys of the season.

And so here popped “Spring” by Edna St. Vincent Millay onto my computer screen—and there went the easy breezy mood of spring along with it.

Darn these dead-serious poets and their recalibrations of all we cling to as balm for our aching souls!

***

“Spring” appeared in the volume “Second April” in 1921, when Millay was 29 years old and accomplished enough that a mere two years later she would become the third woman ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. An early feminist, avowed bisexual (“My candle burns at both ends”) and nobody’s fool ever, Millay begins “Spring” with a blunt question directed like a smack to the nose to perhaps the one season that gets a free pass from just about every human being who has ever beheld its dazzling beauty and rich metaphorical undertone.

To what purpose, April, do you return again?

In other words: “Justify yourself!” Millay almost demands. “I’ve seen your schtick before, and frankly, it’s getting a little old…”

Then, as if addressing some dashing Lothario who talks a smooth line with but one self-evident intention, she lets spring know she sees right through its wiles:

Beauty is not enough.

To which spring might meekly respond, “OK, but what about rebirth, resurrection, the eternal return, hope and new life springing anew?”

Millay spends the rest of the poem demolishing those pretensions as well, making “Spring” a profound though obviously anguished meditation on the poet’s unwillingness to easily countenance the reality of death. Let’s see the whole of its 18 lines below, then return to a brief discussion before steering ourselves toward the summer and the promises that it, too, will make—and likely break—for our happiness, as all seasons are wont to do.

***

SPRING

To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
April
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers. 

***

Those leaves meant to dazzle? They open “stickily,” no one’s favorite adverb or experience in this life.

And then, the dead-stop declarative: “I know what I know.”  Which is another way of saying, “You don’t fool me, Buster; I see right through you and your beautiful facade.”

Because despite the “smell of the earth” being “good,” and despite spring’s surface message being “there is no death,” Millay shrugs off the contradiction by stating that “Not only under ground are the brains of men/Eaten by maggots.”

These devastating lines almost foretell T.S. Eliot’s depiction of the faceless “hollow men” of his poem by that name, which appeared four years after “Spring.” People may be upright and breathing, Millay suggests, but that doesn’t mean they’re making anything at all of the life they’ve been given, which in itself “Is nothing,/An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.”

There’s an implicit challenge in those two lines: that no matter the beauty of spring or any other season or site in this world, life has no inherent meaning, nothing beyond itself for humans to cling to. It’s yours to build and create—or not—as you will.

Sans that effort, the cup is empty, the stairs uncarpeted, and worse yet, here’s this gaudiest of the earth’s seasons, puffed up with its own self-importance and purported giftedness to the world, though in reality, it is more drunk than beautiful, more unconscious than freely gifting, coming on “like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.”

Is Millay being fair to spring in this much anthologized poem? Perhaps the question isn’t even relevant, though I suspect many readers would engage her in strenuous argument and a defense of what they know of their own truth of spring, of how it fills their hearts and inflames their passions for life and yet more life, long may it be renewed, amen.

For my own part, I too have shaken my fist at the cold reality of death, mourned those whom it has robbed me of, learned to be more than a little suspicious of all tales of eternal return and life everlasting, even as I throw my arms up to the heavens in every season, spring very much included, urging it to give me everything it’s got, straight to my eyes and ears and nose and tongue and brain, coming to rest, however temporarily, in the wild questing haven of my heart.

***

April and its promises don’t quite make for a happily ending walk in the park here either…

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10 comments to Contemplating the Season With Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Spring”

  • Rev. Robert Gutleben  says:

    I am touched by Millay’s poem. It reminds me of a poem by Antonio Machado, “The Wind, One Brilliant Day.” They tell me how easy it is to miss the profound joy of life’s gifts. Sometimes while watching CNN, and beginning to wonder where life is going, as my old cat, Sassy, who is blind and nearing the end of her life, gingerly feels her way along the arm of my chair and cuddles in my lap like a kitten. She sleeps safe and secure in my lap as I stroke her behind the ears. She purrs contentedly, and seems oblivious to all her infirmities. She reminds me that in the end it’s love, relationship and love that make life worthwhile.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Robert, your comment is a poem unto itself, an elegy for a cat and the fleeting moments of contentment they manage, in their clever and resourceful ways, to make not all that fleeting in their lives! Thanks for painting this lovely word picture, and for the tip on the Machado poem. Haven’t read much of him, but the little that I have read made me a fan.

      • Rev. Robert Gutleben  says:

        Your reply is high praise indeed. Thank you for your labors in writing your blog. Hope we can get together one day soon.

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Thanks Drew for the poem and your musings (“…wild questing haven of my heart.” could spur an essay unto itself!!), and Robert for your profound remembering, courtesy of your old cat (having our 18 yr old cat, Jack, wake me up early each morning demanding his food or at least a few pets to buy another 30 min of sleep)… I am reminded of stories of Hindu and Buddhist monks meditating at grave sites to more explicitly connect with the temporary nature of our existence, as nature does with her ever-changing seasons – and each of us fortunate enough to move through the “seasons of our own lives”… sitting here on a rainy Sunday, dogs resting by the fire, I am filled with gratitude.

    PS like the bigger font & more space!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Kevin, your reference to visiting grave sites had me musing on my own long-term fascination and habitation of them, and I was about to delve into that a bit when I barely recalled, from the increasingly dim recesses of my memory, that I’d written a poem/blog post about that habit a few years ago. So here that is, if you care to give it a visit: http://andrewhidas.com/walking-the-graveyard-a-poem/.

      And thanks much for the image of your dogs by the fire—reminding me of another poem (“The Far Field”) by Theodore Roethke using those same words—”…an old man with his feet before the fire, in garments of adieu.” Worth hunting down; let me know if you can’t find it and I’ll send it along.

  • Loren Webster  says:

    I love “Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.” Thank goodness for idiots like Gimpel the Fool.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Wasn’t familiar with that tale, Loren, but anything by Isaac Bashevis Singer and translated by Saul Bellow is no doubt worth a read! If anyone else is interested, here it is: http://www.bolles.org/uploaded/2016-17_Summer_Reading/Upper_School/Sophomore_Summer_Reading/Gimpel_Singer_2016_HONORS.pdf

      • loweb3  says:

        I was actually trying to remember the name of a famous Japanese monk who was known as “a fool” because he acted a lot like Gimpel, but I still can’t remember his name and haven’t had time to search through my collection of Asian literature and find it.

  • Karen  says:

    This reminds me of the poem “Hope” by Emily Bronte in that the title draws you in with a certain expectation – but nope; it’s not what you’re thinking.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Had never come across that poem before, Karen, so thanks very much. Doesn’t surprise me that Bronte put the poetic kibosh on hope, though—that woman had a tough enough life to drive anyone to despair. Strikes me, too, the difference between coming of age in not-quite-mid-19th-century England—Bronte was born in 1818 and died in 1848—and Millay, born in 1892 in the U.S. and dying in 1950. Was no walk in the park for Millay, to be sure, but for Bronte, oppression upon loss upon oppression. But she left us “Wuthering Heights” and this, among other works:

      Hope was but a timid friend;
      She sat without the grated den,
      Watching how my fate would tend,
      Even as selfish-hearted men.

      She was cruel in her fear;
      Through the bars one dreary day,
      I looked out to see her there,
      And she turned her face away!

      Like a false guard, false watch keeping,
      Still, in strife, she whispered peace;
      She would sing while I was weeping;
      If I listened, she would cease.

      False she was, and unrelenting;
      When my last joys strewed the ground,
      Even Sorrow saw, repenting,
      Those sad relics scattered round;

      Hope, whose whisper would have given
      Balm to all my frenzied pain,
      Stretched her wings, and soared to heaven,
      Went, and ne’er returned again!

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