Friday, 15 July 2011

Poems I Like #1: Dirge Without Music

By Edna St. Vincent Millay
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains, --- but the best is lost.
The answers quick & keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,
They are gone. They have gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

It’s only suitable that the first poem I talk about on this site should be the one I went to for my title – Indiscriminate Dust.  Dirge Without Music has been a long favourite of mine, as much for the evident skill that went into crafting it as for the raw emotion within.  The subject matter is nothing less than Death; a weighty topic for any poet to pick up.  Millay manages to come up with a perspective that’s both interesting and fresh.  

I know that good people – the best people – die, she writes.  I know that it’s never going to change.  Nevertheless, despite the total irrelevance of my opinion, I will give it:  I do not approve.

Take a look at the first line.  It seems unnaturally long for a poem, weighing in at nineteen syllables.  There’s no  consistent meter to give it balance; it lurches from dactyl to iamb to two anapaests to two more iambs, finising with a pyrrhic foot and a spondee.  By all accounts it shouldn’t work, and yet it does.  Why is that?  For one, it’s a clear statement of the idea of the poem in plain, easy-to-understand language.  It also contains three simple ideas: ‘shutting away’, ‘loving hearts’ and ‘hard ground’ that combine to form a powerful image.  

What makes this line really work, however, is the interaction of the sound of the language with its meaning.  ‘Shutting away’ is bounded by two strong syllables, as is ‘loving hearts’. Finally, the two short beats – ‘in the’ – warm up for the incredibly strong ‘hard ground’.  The strength comes partially from the two open vowels after each other, ‘a’ and ‘o’.  Try saying ‘hard ground’ fast; it’s difficult because the mouth has to open and close around each vowel.  ‘In the’, by comparison, trips off the tongue.  Moreover, the ‘a’ and ‘o’ of the last two words are prefigured by the ‘o’ and the ‘a’ of ‘loving hearts’, creating an unconscious symmetry when read aloud.

I could do this with every line: point out the wonderful rhyme of ‘crowned’/ground’, the assonance of ‘the best is lost’, the symmetry of beginning and ending the poem with ‘I am not resigned’ – but I’d rather talk about the anguish that hangs on each word.  Each repetition of  “I know”, of “I do not approve” builds the emotional tension until it’s eventually released.  “More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world” is the cry of a broken voice.  In a lesser poem it would come off as melodramatic; here it rings true.

Throughout the last verse each repetition adds to the tension, stating the bleak truth of mortality.  Millay’s final sentence gathers together the threads of the poem to weave them into a comment – “I know.  But I do not approve.” – and a final judgement that carries within it all the emotional strength of the poem.  “I am not resigned,” she writes, and in her hopeless defiance we see the heroic: a soldier, facing a battle he knows she has no chance of winning, determined nonetheless to fight because that is the kind of person she is.


  1. wonderful poem. Thank you

  2. I found myself deeply moved by that poem..deeply similar it is to Dylan Thomas's "Do not go gently into that night" but as for the syllables and meter and all that..I guess I never cared about that aspect of poetry..odd...