This is a short week at the end of a challenging month, so I decided to treat myself to some sonnets by Edna St. Vincent Millay. As I used to tell my literature students, Millay offers great break-up poetry–she gives a great kissoff, as in “I being born a woman and distressed,” but she also conveys the sadness and loneliness of being beautiful and popular and having many lovers. So relatable! But in any event, sonnets are fun to read aloud in general, and these are delicious in particular.
Millay’s sonnets are all over the internet, so I’ll just post a couple here in entirety and with little comment. Enjoy!
This one has been my favorite for many years. It’s a little bit of a tongue twister to speak aloud–that’s a long clause!–but when you do so, you can really feel the long, langorous, meditative lull of the first eight lines compared to the swift candle-snuff of the last six.
Only until this cigarette is ended,
A little moment at the end of all,
While on the floor the quiet ashes fall,
And in the firelight to a lance extended,
Bizarrely with the jazzing music blended,
The broken shadow dances on the wall,
I will permit my memory to recall
The vision of you, by all my dreams attended.
And then adieu,–farewell!–the dream is done.
Yours is a face of which I can forget
The colour and the features, every one,
The words not ever, and the smiles not yet;
But in your day this moment is the sun
Upon a hill, after the sun has set.
This sonnet appeared in the anthology I used to teach my last Intro to Literature class, so I borrowed it to make a playful point about skirting the line between comedy and tragedy. It’s a sad poem, sure. But it thwarts our expectations so wildly–even in the 21st century, my students were a little surprised to read a female poet writing about how many conquests she’s had, and comparing male lovers to birds. I like to think that the sonnet doesn’t take itself too seriously.
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,I have forgotten, and what arms have lainUnder my head till morning; but the rainIs full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sighUpon the glass and listen for reply,And in my heart there stirs a quiet painFor unremembered lads that not againWill turn to me at midnight with a cry.Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:I cannot say what loves have come and gone,I only know that summer sang in meA little while, that in me sings no more.