Thursday, October 8, 2015

Stay the Marching Year: The Autumnal Beauty of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Poetry

When the leaves crisp, when the garden hoses freeze, when the pumpkin-spice lattes make their way to the lips of Starbucks patrons, then it is time to acknowledge the year in its decline. Autumn is, bar none, my favorite season of the year. I think it has something to do with the slant of light, the brief color of lingering leaves, the nostalgia for my school years and late-afternoon football games on the field behind the Jackson Hole Junior High (Go, Broncs!). Or maybe I just like pumpkin-spice lattes.

This Fall, I’ve been out walking in the world a lot (this is where I captured the above photo, up Dyce Creek in southwestern Montana) and it’s in nature where the full force of year’s-end strikes a hard, golden blow.  That’s why, when I came across this poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay this morning, I knew I’d have to share it here on the blog.

This sonnet was written in 1946, when Millay was emerging from a dark period of her life: depression, a morphine addiction, a dry spell in her writing, a nervous breakdown (all of which is documented, in distressing detail, in Nancy Milford’s biography Savage Beauty).

No matter the external circumstances, this is a beauty of a poem. I especially love the lines “autumn stays/The marching year one moment; stills the drums.” For some, this time of year can be one of melancholy; but for me, I like to think of it as a time when I can “catalogue, question, contemplate, and see.” Thank you, ESVM for these words which reach across the decades...
Tranquility at length when autumn comes,
Will lie upon the spirit like that haze
Touching far islands on fine autumn days
With tenderest blue, like bloom on purple plums;
Harvest will ring, but not as summer hums,
With noisy enterprise — to broaden, raise,
Proceed, proclaim, establish: autumn stays
The marching year one moment; stills the drums.
Then sits the insistent cricket in the grass;
But on the gravel crawls the chilly bee;
And all is over that could come to pass
Last year; excepting this: the mind is free
One moment, to compute, refute, amass,
Catalogue, question, contemplate, and see.


  1. Such a beautiful poem and so apt. Almost nothing better than an autumnal ramble.

    I wish that I could have heard Millay read her poems. I wonder what her voice was like? "Savage Beauty" has stuck with me perhaps more than any other biography . . . but then Milford had great material.

    1. Ask and ye shall receive. Here's Millay reading "Love Is Not All."

      I believe this was recorded late in her life and, if I recall correctly from Milford's biography, Millay wasn't too happy with the way the recordings turned out. Still, it's possible to hear the breathtaking majesty in her voice. In her younger days, she reportedly held rooms spellbound.

  2. Hmmmm . . .that was a very strange experience. I expected her to sound different; more girlish, perhaps? She definitely had elocution lessons! (She sounded a bit like the Good Witch Glinda in The Wizard of Oz.) Thanks for finding that link, though. I "know" that you can find everything on YouTube, but I'm still surprised by its vast repositories.