Edna Saint Vincent Millay

Edna Saint Vincent Millay was a somewhat rebellious Episcopalian, but after all, she had made her reputation with audacious verse and an unconventional life-style. American readers of a certain age find her vivid lines as unforgettable as her contemporaries found her red-haired beauty. At 19, she launched herself as a writer to be reckoned with when she published “Renascence” — a mystical poem about the interrelation between the Creator and Nature, Eternity and human imagination. It outlined what would be a principle motif of her work — her gift for communing with God best amid the beauty of Creation:

O God, I cried, no dark disguise
Can e’er hereafter hide from me
Thy radiant identity!
Thou canst not move across the grass
But my quick eye will see thee pass…
God, I can push the grass apart
And lay my finger on Thy heart!

“Renascence” appeared in 1912, at a time when many poets had substituted mere love of nature for a lost faith in a deity. There is a vast difference between their weak hymns to lovely scenery and Millay’s fierce conviction that Nature is one of the God’s revelations, and designed to lead us to Him. Nowhere is this spelled out more clearly than in her poem, “The Blue-Flag in the Bog”, her parable of Armageddon which imagines a wild iris to be the last living thing on a burnt-out globe. The poem begins with a picture of the end of Time, and the resurrection of the dead:

God had called us, and we came:
Our loved Earth to ashes left
Heaven was a neighbor’s house,
Open flung to us, bereft.

Gay the lights of heaven showed,
And ’twas God who walked ahead;
Yet I wept along the road,
Wanting my own house instead.

What Millay is saying is that since many of us have encountered God’s grandeur through the work of His hands, we might not truly recognize Him in a different guise. After all, Mary Magdalene mistook Jesus for a gardener when she met Him at the tomb, while His disciples did not recognize Him on the road to Emmaus. Missing the familiar world, the narrator of “The Blue Flag in the Bog” sneaks back to her crumbling home, and finds one flower left. Through it, she is able to know God once more, and discovered that Heaven is a New Earth where all Creation is redeemed. Her perception has much in common with that of such English mystics Julian of Norwich and Thomas Traherne in his Centuries of Meditations.

Millay’s faith drove her increasingly to concern for issues of Justice:

“A man was starving in Capri;
He turned his eyes and looked at me;
I felt his gaze, I heard his moan,
And knew his hunger as my own.”

Later in life, she worked hard for Civil Rights and Ecology, feeling that Christ called us to do His work in the world. She died in 1950 at 58, her heart worn out by her efforts, but gallantly committed to the last.