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Sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay

Huntsman, What Quarry?


                    SONNET IN ANSWER TO A QUESTION

Oh, she was beautiful in every part! —

The auburn hair that bound the subtle brain;

The lovely mouth cut clear by wit and pain,

Uttering oaths and nonsense, uttering art

In casual speech and curving at the smart

On startled ears of excellence too plain

For early morning! —
Obit. Death from strain;

The soaring mind outstripped the tethered heart.


Yet here was one who had no need to die

To be remembered. Every word she said,

The lively malice of the hazel eye

Scanning the thumb-nail close — oh, dazzling dead,

How like a comet through the darkening sky

You raced! . . . would your return were heralded.



Nobody now throughout the pleasant day,

The flowers well tended and the friends not few,

Teases my mind as only you could do

To mortal combat erudite and gay . . .

"So Mr. S. was kind to Mr. K.!

Whilst Mr. K. — wait, I've a word or two!"

(I think that Keats and Shelley died with you —

They live on paper now, another way.)


You left in time, too soon; to leave too soon

Was tragic and in order — had the great

Not taught us how to die? — My simple blood,

Loving you early, lives to mourn you late . . .

As Mr. K., it may be, would have done;

As Mr. S. (
oh answer!) never would.



Now that the west is washed of clouds and clear,

The sun gone under his beams laid by,

You, that require a quarter of the sky

To shine alone in: prick the dusk, appear,

Beautiful Venus! The dense atmosphere

Cannot diffuse your rays, you blaze so high,

Lighting with loveliness a crisp and dry

Cold evening in the autumn of the year.


The pilot standing by his broken plane

In the unheard-of mountains, looks on you,

And warms his heart a moment at your light . . .

Benignant planet, sweet, familiar sight . . .

Thinking he may be found, he may again

Se home, breaks the stale, buttered crust in two.



Be sure my coming was a sharp offense

And trouble to my mother in her bed;

And harsh to me must be my going hence,

Though I were old and spent and better dead;

Between the awful spears of birth and death

I run a grassy gauntlet in the sun;

And curdled in me is my central pith,

Remembering there is dying to be done.


O life, my little day, at what cost

Have you been purchased! What a bargain's here!

(And yet, thou canny Lender, thou hast lost:

Thumb thy fat book until my debt appear:

So . . . art thou stuck? . . . thou canst not strike that through

For the small dying that a man can do!)



Enormous moon, that rise behind these hills

Heavy and yellow in a sky unstarred

And pale, your girth by purple fillets barred

Of drifting cloud, that as the cool sky fills

With planets and the brighter stars, distills

To thinnest vapor and floats valley-ward, —

You flood with radiance all this cluttered yard,

The sagging fence, the chipping window sills!


Grateful at heart as if for my delight

You rose, I watch you through a mist of tears,

Thinking how man, who gags upon despair,

Salting his hunger with the sweat of fright

Has fed on cold indifference all these years,

Praying God to make him worthy of such care.



Now let the mouth of wailing for a time

Be shut, ye happy mourners; and return

To the marked door, the ribbon and the fern,

Without a tear. The good man in his prime,

The pretty child, the Gone — from a fair clime

Above the ashes of the solemn urn

Behold you; wherefore, then, these hearts that burn

With hot remorse, these cheeks the tears begrime?


Grief that is grief and worthy of that word

Is ours alone for whom no hope can be

That the loved eyes look down and understand.

Ye true believers, trusters in the Lord,

Today bereft, tomorrow hand in hand,

Think ye not shame to show your tears to me?



I, too, beneath your moon, almighty Sex,

Go forth at nightfall crying like a cat,

Leaving the ivory tower I laboured at

For birds to foul and boys and girls to vex

With tittering chalk; and you, and the long necks

Of neighbors sitting where their mothers sat

Are well aware of shadowy this and that

In me, that's neither noble nor complex.


Such as I am, however, I have brought

To what it is, this tower; it is my own.

Though it is reared To Beauty, it is wrought

From what I had to build with: honest bone

Is there, and anguish; pride; and burning thought;

And lust is there, and nights not spent alone.



When did I ever deny, though this was fleeting,

That this was love? When did I ever, I say,

With iron thumb put out the eyes of day

In this cold world where charity lies bleating

Under a thorn, and none to give him greeting,

And all that lights endeavor on its way

Is the teased lamp of loving, the torn ray

Of the least kind, the most clandestine meeting?


As God's my judge, I do cry holy, holy,

Upon the name of love however brief,

For want of whose ill-trimmed, aspiring wick

More days than one I have gone forward slowly

In utter dark, scuffling the drifted leaf,

Tapping the road before me with a stick.



Thou famished grave, I will not fill thee yet,

Roar though thou dost, I am too happy here;

Gnaw thine own sides, fast on; I have no fear

Of thy dark project, but my heart is set

On living — I have heroes to beget

Before I die; I will not come anear

Thy dismal jaws for many a splendid year;

Till I be old, I aim not to be eat.


I cannot starve thee out: I am thy prey

And thou shalt have me; but I dare defend

That I can stave thee off; and I dare say,

What with the life I lead, the force I spend,

I'll be but bones and jewels on that day,

And leave thee hungry even in the end.



Upon this age, that never speaks its mind,

This furtive age, this age endowed with power

To wake the moon with footsteps, fit an oar

Into the rowlocks of the wind, and find

What swims before his prow, what swirls behind —

Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,

Falls from the sky a meteoric shower

Of facts . . . they lie unquestioned, uncombined.


Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill

Is daily spun; but there exists no loom

To weave it into fabric; undefiled

Proceeds pure Science, and has her say; but still

Upon this world from the collective womb

Is spewed all day the red triumphant child.



Count them unclean, these tears that turn no mill,

This salty flux of sorrow from the heart;

Count them unclean, and give me one day still

To weep, in an avoided room apart.

I shall come forth at length with reddened lid

Transparent, and thick mouth, and take the plough . . .

That other men may hope, as I once did;

That other men may weep, as I do now.


I am beside you, I am at your back

Firing our bridges, I am in your van;

I share your march, your hunger; all I lack

Is the strong song I cannot sing, you can.

You think we build a world; I think we leave

Only these tools, wherewith to strain and grieve.



My earnestness, which might at first offend,

Forgive me, for the duty it implies:

I am the convoy to the cloudy end

Of a most bright and regal enterprise;

Which under angry constellations, ill-

Mounted and under-rationed and unspurred,

Set forth to find if any country still

Might do obeisance to an honest word.


Duped and delivered up to rascals; bound

And bleeding, and his mouth stuffed; on his knees;

Robbed and imprisoned; and adjudged unsound;

I have beheld my master, if you please.

Forgive my earnestness, who at his side

Received his swift instructions, till he died.


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