Poetry Survey Series Post 2: Sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.
Let all who prate of Beauty hold their peace,
And lay them prone upon the earth and cease
To ponder on themselves, the while they stare
At nothing, intricately drawn nowhere
In shapes of shifting lineage; let geese
Gabble and hiss, but heroes seek release
From dusty bondage into luminous air.
O blinding hour, O holy, terrible day,
When first the shaft into his vision shone
Of light anatomized! Euclid alone
Has looked on Beauty bare. Fortunate they
Who, though once only and then but far away,
Have heard her massive sandal set on stone.
Here is a poem that has had superior lodgings in my mind since my teenaged years. The first time I read it, I’m certain I really did hear the echo of the massive sandal. What a very fortunate expression!
Has anyone studied Euclidian geometry? I did a little of it. In my youth, enamored of everything that could be said to transcend the particular, I was pleased by the geometrical abstractions; that they were abstractions of shape and line, rather than quantities, brought it a little close to art. I felt I knew exactly what Millay was saying. I did NOT feel I knew what my algebra textbooks were saying!
I don’t think the line about geese and the two lines after it are very strong, but the rest is so very strong – especially the opening, the ending, and the beautifully re-timed repetition of the initial line – that one forgives.
This poem influenced my poem, ‘Natura’ in which I also used the image of the powerful feminine figure to indicated a personified force whose femininity transcends mere femaleness.
If I had understood a thing
of what my nature told to me
I might have had the gall to fling
the resignation sold to me
into the furnace smoldering
in glint of quartz, in dint of violet
in whim of peacock’s tail and glim of rock when it is wet.
If I had risen at first light
of Beethoven’s final symphony
or, when I burned at Vashti’s plight,
confessed what Long’s art did for me,
what cut the trail of my delight
from beat to sentiment, from face to fire
by now might well have built a road of furious desire.
What burns in Nature’s viviance
How well I know, how well I know!
When inarticulate I dance
the breathy sailing of the snow
Or tilt to breast the flown expanse
of Nature’s mirror with my nature’s own:
To falseness it has made me false, to truth made true alone.
Conviction only have I lacked –
worn Nature’s habit in the dark –
I will hunt this-ness where it’s packed
between the body and its spark;
with hounds of gladness I will track
its scent from syllogism to the soul
and seize her mantle when she flees, and view the muscled whole –