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White Sheep, Black Sheep: The Literary Kinship of Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay

Brad Fruhauff

Brad Fruhauff considers the ways unlikely things can come together in the works of two American poets.

It's possible to look too closely at a poem. As Billy Collins exhorts his students, one should "waterski / across the surface of a poem" rather than tie it down and "torture a confession out of it." When I teach a new poet I'm just as likely as my students to become consumed with understanding "what's going on" in a poem; it takes some cultivating to give yourself the freedom to hear and feel a poem at the same time as you're deciphering its explicit content.

The atrophy of our culture's ability to range freely within a poem is perhaps a topic for another blog (you might read Dana Gioia's essay, "Can Poetry Matter?"). My thoughts turned to this while seeking a subject for this blog. I started paging through my Norton Anthology of American Literature, from which I've been teaching this semester, and read over the selections on Edna St. Vincent Millay. These poems had caught my attention already for their ability to combine a modern candor and explicitness (e.g., female sexuality) withing the traditional form of the sonnet. But reading them again I found myself improbably comparing them to none other than Emily Dickinson.

This is an unlikely matching in terms of personality. Millay was a bohemian of the early-20th century while Dickinson was a proper Puritan of the mid-18th century. Millay apparently had a sexually "open" marriage while Dickinson lived a hermitic, single life and hardly had any male friends outside her father and brother. Millay was a kind of "bad girl" of American poetry even as Dickinson was being blessed as one of its most important early voices.

But I think there is a more than intuitive connection between the two. Consider these lines from Millay:

I, that had been to you, had you remained, But one more waking from a recurrent dream, Cherish no less the certain stakes I gained, And walk your memory's halls, austere, supreme, A ghost in marble of a girl you knew Who would have loved you in a day or two.

("I Think I Should Have Love You Presently")

There's a powerful, assertive "I" speaking, and yet that self is not so stable or concrete that she can't inhabit another's consciousness or see herself as if from a distance. Then there's the surprise ending that has a tinge of sadness to it; one could almost see one of Dickinson's characteristic dashes setting it up, as in "I heard a fly buzz - when I died." Like Millay's, Dickinson's spirit roams at whim between worlds (the physical and metaphysical, in this case) yet remains a powerful "I," capable of dying and resurrecting, communing with nature and with other souls. And just as Millay plays with the sonnet, Dickinson plays with the sing-song meters of hymns:

I died for beauty, but was scarce Adjusted in the tomb, When one who died for truth was lain In an adjoining room.

("I died for beauty")

Both poets find it unremarkable that they should be ephemeralized, that their minds and bodies might be divided - in fact, they own it and find agency in it: Millay "cherish[es] . . . the stakes I gained" and Dickinson goes on to speak with the other body and to find common cause. Body and mind join up again at poem's end in an image as melancholy as Millay's:

And so, as kinsmen met a night, We talked between the rooms, Until the moss had reached our lips, And covered up our names.

The moss silences the bodies and erases their names, removing them from the human world, just as Millay's woman who would have loved the man "in a day or two" only lives in a possible world other than this real one.

Millay also shares a certain allegorical imagination with Dickinson, exploring the imaginative potential of a metaphorical comparison or personification. In "I Too beneath Your Moon, Almighty Sex," Millay apostrophizes "almighty Sex" itself, something often associated with odes. She admits that she "go[es] forth at nightfall crying like a cat" and abandoning "the lofty tower" that she labored to make of her life. Desire and character conflict in this odd juxtaposition of medieval architecture with an urban alley at night, and that tension motivated an explanation or defense:

Such as I am, however, I have brought To what it is, this tower; it is my own; Though it was reared To Beauty, it was 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.

Whatever we might think of Millay's personal life, we can appreciate her candor even as it is restrained by her choice of form and allegory. Indeed, Millay's honest admission of the power of sex and lust is just the kind of thing that makes us Reliefers feel at home. Literature, after all, as C.S. Lewis said, reminds us we are not alone (though maybe not in Millay's sense).

Dickinson treats something similar when she writes, "The Soul selects her own Society - / Then - shuts the Door - ." We seek intimacy in many forms. And again Dickinson's poem ends with a surprise heaviness that hits with a similar emotional power as Millay's as she explores this personification of the soul ("her," below):

I've known her - from an ample nation - Choose One - Then - close the Valves of her attention - Like Stone -

Millay's tower "To Beauty" is made of less than beautiful things, and the soul's intimacy in Dickinson becomes a kind of stone tomb. The differences between the two woman are still marked - Millay's voice is far more personal, more desperate, more borne down upon by a chaotic world without a center, while Dickinson begins her adventures with some sense of having a safe home to return to - but both wrestle with the tensions between different worlds they belong to and compellingly represent this through putting pressure on inherited forms.

The result in reading both is a sense of something both familiar and wonderfully strange, something ordered and yet brimming with an anarchical energy that thrills us even as we are glad it is contained.