Why We Need Dismal Poems About Death and Maggots

ednastvincentmillayAll the beauty in the world is no compensation for the ending of love, Edna St. Vincent Millay argues in her brief and bitter poem, “Spring,” Yes, there are flowers and they are nice. Yes, there is the natural world in its cycles of rejuvenation and sprouting. But all of that, she says, is entirely worthless and even insulting when you are standing by the grave of the friend who is not there or anywhere, who is never to be found again. When you watch the first shovel of earth drop onto the casket, your heart within you will be filled with terror. You will turn instinctively to tell it to your dearest friend, to explain your disorientation and your loneliness. But they will not be there. And for this shudder of panicked isolation, there is no compensation. Millay is angry that anyone might think that anything could make this sorrow the least bit better. It is not enough, she says.

And I think God is not quarreling with Millay or angered by her hopeless poem. When I hear God responding to Millay, I hear him saying, “No, it’s not. It’s not enough. It’s an outrage.”

It’s not enough that here in the chaos and the misery of lives punctuated by deaths, little good things happen. Little flowers sometimes open. Little kind words are sometimes said. God knows that. After all, if there is a God, isn’t he a God of truth and of the real? Nothing that is real should be too much for the world’s maker to handle with complete understanding and goodness. So I think that every honest and skillful representation of the human experience should be of value to Christian people because it can tell us something about what is real. What is real in this poem is its unflinching stare at the dark bottom of the human experience of death. The poem tells us that humans are horrified and unmade by the thievery of death. This is a real thing to which God has a real response. And that response is, “I won’t stand for it.”

[Read the full piece in the Spring 2019 issue of the Cultivating Project.]

Pieces of Today, March 27th

#1. From the beautiful Starkindler album, this glad celebration of Psalm 23, in light of the good things that have come.

#2. The opening Spring. Like this: ChestertonExile

#3. Recuerdo, testifying to the way that love makes everything an adventure after all….

[by Edna St. Vincent Millay]

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable—
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

We were very tired, we were very merry,
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, “Good morrow, mother!” to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, “God bless you!” for the apples and pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.

On the Significance of Death Beating the Door In

anneMy little sister has been on an L.M. Montgomery kick and a couple of nights ago she came into my room in a suppliant posture, begging me to watch Anne of Green Gables with her. This we did end up doing, into the early hours of the morning.

It had been some time since I’d seen this old classic film, which I have always enjoyed very much, but which has always touched some raw spot of longing in me. There is a hurt and a fear that goes along with being young and having the world ahead of you, and knowing that every decision you make slams a hundred doors of possibility. This movie deepens the ache.

Anne Shirley, who is a foolish romantic as well as a hard-working and promising scholar, is in love with Gilbert Blythe from the beginning, although she girlishly scorns his attentions and convinces herself that she is holding a grudge against him.

When we are watching this movie, we know they are meant to be together. We know we will be content with nothing else. And as Anne is growing tall and lovely and chasing tenaciously after her (often misguided) dreams, we are half-afraid for her all the time. We are half-afraid she is going to do something irrevocably foolish and turn her back on this story’s only happy ending – on the boy who is her only perfect future.

It is a central theme of so many stories: that one satisfactory ending that dangles before us like the proverbial carrot, and it is, perhaps, an absolutely necessary tool of drama.

But doesn’t it sometimes carry with it a sad kind of fear for us on the outside? For it bears with it a gnawing suggestion that it is the chief end of man to uncover out of the seemingly impenetrable murk of the future that one perfect turn of events which is his only good end and his best happiness under the sun. Elizabeth Bennett must marry Mr. Darcy, and Elinor Dashwood’s future will be jeopardized if she does not spend it with Edward Ferrars. If the Prince does not come wandering through the woods just at the very time when the dwarves are setting Snow White to rest in her glass coffin, all is lost.

Yet, in the real world, all of that is not really true.

The chief end of life is no mystical, star-crossed state of existence. “Vanity,” says the Preacher, of everything. “Vanity,” of the hopes of youth – even when fulfilled,  and “vanity” of all dreams – even the ones that do come true. “Vanity,” of Mr. and Mrs. Blythe and their house of dreams and their beautiful children and all of the great gladness that wisdom and kindness and money can give. This is not the chief end.

It is true of them what was said of Ephraim, when a prophet gave warning: Gray hairs are sprinkled upon him, and he knows it not.”

We had a poet who was closely acquainted with the vanity of all things. Writes Edna St. Millay:

This I do, being mad:
Gather baubles about me,
Sit in a circle of toys, and all the time
Death beating the door in.

White jade and an orange pitcher,
Hindu idol, Chinese god, —
Maybe next year, when I’m richer—
Carved beads and a lotus pod. . . .

And all this time
Death beating the door in.

One day, he is bringing up his cows over the green fields of Green Gables and Matthew Cuthbert’s life-pump stops. Just quits. He lays in the grass with his head cradled in the lap of the one little girl he has loved and chokes some last words she will try to find comforting. Then he leaves her to her tears and the black cloth of mourning and the wakeful nights of aching.

One day her own dear Gilbert will leave like that too. One day he will just up and go, and there will be nothing that either of them can do about it. One day even the children they talked of and dreamed about and created and cared for will be aged and whitening and flown away. One day she will stand at her kitchen window and put her apron to her eyes and understand the somber significance of, “death do us part.” One day they will both be dust again, and no one will even remember the place.

But there is a chief end – only one. And the way to it is fraught with peril and with danger and all our fears that we might not stumble over it really are justified. There is an end which is the only perfect happiness for every little girl with wonderful, starry-eyed dreams, and every little boy with grand, world-toppling ambitions. There is a marriage which is the only really glad one, an engagement without which our futures really are bleak blanks and wastelands.

Have you heard the Great Lover with the music in his golden mouth and laughter in his eyes, singing:

…Lady, lady, will you come away with Me?
Was never man lived longer for the hoarding of his breath;
Here be dragons to be slain, here be rich rewards to gain…
If we perish in the seeking,…why, how small a thing is death!