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Sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay

Make Bright the Arrows

I

Peace was my earliest love, and I presume

Will be my latest; but today, adult,

Arguing not to prove but for result

Opposing concepts in this thoughtful room,

I wonder at whose prompting, schooled by whom

I urged that Peace the Slogan, Peace the Cult,

Could turn the edge of sledge and catapult

And leave us calm to cull the grafted bloom.

 

In all my life I never knew a thing

So highly prized to be so cheaply had:

Longing to wed with Peace, what did we do? —

Sketched her a fortress on a paper pad;

Under her casement twanged a lovesick string;

Left wide the gate that let her foemen through.

 

II

                   "GENTLEMEN CRY, PEACE!"


There was no Peace; had we again the choice

Whether to build our sinews to such force

None dare affront us, or to seek divorce

From the blunt, factual time, and with soft voice

Blandish the past to give us back our toys

Faded but still so dear, — we should of course

Forego tranquility without remorse,

Gird us for battle . . . and in peace rejoice.

 

But now . . . what power to bargain have the poor?

And, in those iron values which alone

Pass in our time for legal currency,

Minted by savage chieftains to insure

Shut mouth, shut mind, hushed sobbing, swallowed groan

And punished laughter — who so poor as we?

 

III

While London, while Berlin — two cities dear

To those who live in them — burn to the ground,

Our statesmen fiddle on, a twiddling sound

Most unmelodious to a well-tuned ear:

Of two corrupt machines which shall appear,

Grinning, on balconies with bunting bound,

Victorious in November? — theme profound!

So turns toward death the sad ignoble year.

 

To what vulgarities, to what abyss

Of cheap dishonor clownish and obscene,

Have you not sunk, O my beloved land?

What sacrifice Herculean out of this

Can you lift up? — and sweep these stables clean?

Ask it, America! Demand! Demand!

 

IV

Only the ruthless, now, so it would seem,

Have courage and risk all; reluctant, slow,

Afraid of what's to come and where's to go,

Defense crawls feebly, like a half-dried stream

Past boulders, towards a town who's drought's extreme —

So it would seem, I say; it is not so:

We are so sound asleep, how can we know

What thirst and want surround our sunny dreams?

 

Men wide-awake, men well-equipped, well-fed

On certainty, attack the slumbering towns;

Blood was their breakfast, conquest is their goal:

But men asleep can stumble out of bed

And pull their trousers on, and find their guns,

And fight, to save from rape the human soul.

 

V

You find "outrageous" this? — these outraged hearts? —

Homes, griefs invaded? — customs, pious praise

Denied? — these hungry peasants forced to raise

Loved roots for hated conquerors? Counterparts

Of all such evil deeds, red on the charts

Of earlier wars, though done in earlier ways,

Track us like drops of blood down all our days;

One difference note: Noblesse Oblige departs.

 

It is the fashion now for kings to flee,

Captains betray; who stands behind his guns?

Some simple man, with no great gifts endowed.

Oh, rich and terrible times! — when we may see,

Between the moon's mild rising and the sun's,

Kings sprint for cover, and their slaves too proud.

 

VI

I must not die of pity; I must live;

Grow strong, not sicken; eat, digest my food,

That it may build me, and in doing good

To blood and bone, broaden the sensitive

Fastidious pale perception: we contrive

Lean comfort for the starving, who intrude

Upon them with our pots of pity: brewed

From stronger meat must be the broth we give.

 

Blue, bright September day, with here and there

On the green hills a maple turning red,

And white clouds racing in the windy air! —

If I would help the weak, I must be fed

In wit and purpose, pour away despair

And rinse the cup, happiness like bread.

 

VII

                   OLD MEN OF VICHY


Chafe with your maiden breasts, O Shunammite,

The chilly feet anointed and unclean

Of David, lest cold Death should come between,

And an old man lie quiet in the night;

Peer once again, Alcestis, down the flight

Of steps that drop to Hades; let him screen

His eyes, your ransomed spouse; who yet has seen

His aged parents buy him life and light?

 

Only the young, who had so much to give,

Gave France their all; the old, whose valorous past

(In anecdote not only: in bronze cast)

Might teach a frightened courage how to live,

Wheedled by knaves, from action fugitive,

Sold their son's hopes, to make their porridge last.

 

VIII

Where does he walk, or sit or stir his tea,

Or rise to speak, this moment, who will give

When the day comes (that the Conservative

Party retain its prominence, and he

And a few friends their ancient property,

Trout-stream and shooting-box, and chance to live

A few more gouty winters) who will give,

When the day comes, England to Germany?

 

Somewhere he breathes; and would his breath might stop

Before he does the deed he has in mind;

Old men grow feeble, but do traitors drop

Ever, before the ugly note is signed?

I know of no such instance: greed would prop

The pen, though the dead arm relaxed behind.

 

IX

How innocent of me and my dark pain

In the clear east, unclouded save for one

Flamingo-coloured feather, combed and spun

Into fine spirals, with ephemeral stain

To dye the morning rose after the rain,

Rises the simple and majestic sun,

His azure course, well-known and often-run

With patient brightness to pursue again.

 

The gods are patient: they are slaves of Time

No less than we, and longer, at whose call

Must Phoebus rise and mount his dewy car,

And lift the reins and start the dewy climb;

Could we learn patience, though day-creatures all,

Our day should see us godlier than we are.

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