It’s no secret that I love Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry. There are many poets I admire. Dickinson makes me smile and cry in turn. Frost makes me pause and think, ponder whether there’s a deeper meaning behind the straightforward rhymes even my poetry-hating father enjoys. And Donne . . . Well, I’m pretty sure I was once in love with Donne. By in love, I don’t just mean his poetry, I mean the man himself (but it was all because of his poetry, of course).
Those are just a few of the poets I love. There’s Hopkins and his pied beauty. There’s Eliot and his etherised patient. There’s Shakespeare, the bard himself. These are all wonderful poets, many of whom were movers and shakers of their time, blazing new paths for verse. No one, though, can match the emotional connection I share with Millay.
Perhaps it’s geographic. She was a Mainer. I’m a Mainer. We both understand the hold that such a magical place can have on your soul. Perhaps it’s personality. Not everyone can write or want to write poetry about the beauty of frogs as she does in “Assault.”She wrote the poetry I long to write, the poetry I would write had I her gift.
Recently, I was walking into town to pick up some groceries. I was soaking up the way the light glanced off the city balconies and the poem of hers below came to mind.
My heart, being hungry, feeds on food
The fat of heart despise.
Beauty where beauty never stood,
And sweet where no sweet lies
I gather to my querulous need,
Having a growing heart to feed.
It may be, when my heart is dull,
Having attained its girth,
I shall not find so beautiful
The meagre shapes of earth,
Nor linger in the rain to mark
The smell of tansy through the dark.
The buildings I was admiring were hard, angular city buildings far away from my beloved country houses framed by evergreens, yet here I was seeing beauty where “beauty never stood” or at least where I never would have seen it in the past.
Sometimes I fancy fear in Millay’s last stanza, a fear of being so full of beauty that she no longer values the “meagre shapes of earth.” Maybe I’m sensing my own fear. I don’t ever want to be so full of the big things that I pass by “the smell of tansy through the dark” or the slant of light on a city building. Because of this fear, I sometimes wonder, “Should I cultivate a hungry heart?”
I’d like to think that a satiated heart can enjoy these simple moments, that Millay and I don’t see “beauty where beauty never stood” but that we are instead attuned to the beauty in the nondescript and that anyone, no matter how full they are on beauty, can learn to appreciate the nondescript.
Maybe, though, that’s not even an issue. Our hearts are continually drained by the busyness of our lives. They’re always hungry. We tend to get so caught up in that busyness, though, that we don’t realize our hunger. It’s sitting there, waiting to be filled.
I suppose that’s the way it is with God, too. We become spiritually drained through everyday life. But we let that everyday life so overwhelm us that we never stop to feel our hunger. We forget the joy and restoration of a quiet talk with God or a moment gazing at the shifting light.
I often like to satiate both hungers at the same time. C.S. Lewis talks about something similar in Surprised By Joy. He recounts spending his whole life searching for joy and then realizing, at the end of his search, that those moments of joy on earth weren’t the end goal but “signposts” pointing him on to the true joy in Christ.
This world, I’ve come to learn, at the ripe old age of 27 (yes, I realize that I’m really quite young), is full of beauty and magic. It’s our own Narnia given to us by a loving God for our enjoyment. That beauty, though, shouldn’t stop at our eyes. It should seep into our hearts and lead us to true beauty, redemption and peace in Christ.
The sad thing is, we don’t enjoy his gift. We’re full of looking for the next exciting experience, forgetting that the moment here and now is beautiful. Because we ignore our hunger, we keep missing those signposts pointing us on to the most exciting, beautiful, joyful “experience” of all.
For the beauty of the earth,
for the glory of the skies,
for the love which from our birth
over and around us lies;
Lord of all, to thee we raise
this our hymn of grateful praise.
this our hymn of grateful praise.
-Folliott S. Pierpont (1835-1917)