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Old 03-18-2003, 06:04 AM
Tim Murphy Tim Murphy is offline
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Millay's Child

Alkanet was the abortive Cora [her mother] was searching
for. Once she found it in flower in July, she was able to use
it to cause Vincent to miscarry.

--Savage Beauty, Nancy Milford

I speculate on why you poisoned him,
Or her (the it). You drank the alkanet
Your mother picked and brewed, not on a whim,
Or with lips forced apart by need, regret.
No, I suspect it had to do with beauty:
You feared--since Eros, your great muse, resigns
When Wednesday's play turns into Thursday's duty--
An interruption of your lovely lines;
You thought about that dressing table mirror
And saw your famous blush of hair defiled
With gray, a care-worn face, the wrinkles clearer--
Those mortal faults made glaring by a child.
You saw all ruined, the diminished stares,
And ended it, returned to your affairs.
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Old 03-18-2003, 12:34 PM
Rhina P. Espaillat Rhina P. Espaillat is offline
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Stunning poem, juicy with gossip, but elevated above gossip by a clear concern with moral issues larger than the life choices of one poet.

The speaker prepares us for the personal angle--the gossip--twice: "I speculate" and "I suspect." That permits the speaker to assign motives to Millay without presenting evidence in the poem. The speculations include these possibilities:

1) Millay thought mothers had less opportunity to write, and chose the "lovely lines" of her poems rather than motherhood;

2) Millay thought mothers grew uglier, and did so earlier in life, than other people, and chose to retain her own good looks and physical "lovely lines," rather than settle for the disasters to the ego outlined in lines 10-12.

The cleverness of this poem is how it uses "beauty" in an ambiguous sense, so that Millay's choice is either that of a committed artist or a vain woman. That ambiguity becomes pointed in the final word, "affairs."

Am I reading this wrong?

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Old 03-18-2003, 10:48 PM
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Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
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Quote:
Am I reading this wrong?
I hope not, or else I'm wrong, too. Then again, my readings are spectacularly wrong at times, so my endorsement doesn't necessarily mean yours is right!

I'd never heard of alkanet before, so I looked it up in Webster's and learned that this plant is grown commercially for a red dye made from its root. Perhaps this is significant, since in the poem Millay's use of it prevented "that famous blush of hair" from being "defiled/With gray".

Can anyone shed light on that Wednesday and Thursday business in L7? At first I thought this might be alluding to that old days-of-the-week rhyme, but the most common version doesn't seem appropriate here:

...Wednesday's child is full of woe,
Thursday's child has far to go,...


I seem to recall a variant along the lines of

...Wednesday's child is full of laughter,
Thursday's child [something] after,


but I couldn't find a trace of it with a Google search. I did run across this page--
http://www.english.com.br/teachers/t...et/superst.htm

--which lists other variants for Wednesday and Thursday, but none of these seems appropriate in the context of the poem. Then again, I've barked up the wrong tree before, and will do so again. If anyone else has a better explanation for the Wednesday/Thursday references, I'd enjoy hearing it.

Julie Stoner
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Old 03-19-2003, 09:10 AM
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Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
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By George, I think I've got it! (It came to me in the shower this morning):

Wednesday's child is full of laughter,
Thursday's child must clean up after


Howdy, "duty"! I don't know if this is what the sonneteer had in mind, but it certainly works for me! If the author is, indeed, alluding to "Wednesday's child" and "Thursday's child," that would subtly echo the title, and also put Millay herself, rather than the baby ("him/ Or her (the it)", in the realm of childhood (childishness?).

I also reread your comments, Rhina, and found another bit of ambiguity to support your reading: the bit about pregnancy disturbing Millay's "lovely lines," which could refer to either her poetry or her figure.

This sonnet is just full of good stuff, isn't it?

Julie Stoner

[This message has been edited by Julie Stoner (edited March 19, 2003).]
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Old 03-19-2003, 12:04 PM
Carol Taylor Carol Taylor is offline
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I saw Wednesday and Thursday simply as sequential days in time, in the same way the writer might have said today's play is tomorrow's duty. This is a wonderful poem.

Carol
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Old 03-19-2003, 04:48 PM
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Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
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What? You agree with Freud that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar? Oh, Carol, you're just no fun at all.

Julie "If There's a Harder Way, I'll Find It" Stoner
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Old 03-20-2003, 08:37 AM
Rhina P. Espaillat Rhina P. Espaillat is offline
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A poet friend has solved the "Wed/Thurs" mystery, by reminding me of a Millay poem I'd forgotten. Here it is from "A Few Figs from Thistles":

THURSDAY

And if I loved you Wednesday,
Well, what is that to you?
I do not love you Thursday--
So much is true.

And why you come complaining
Is more than I can see.
I loved you wednesday, --yes--but what
Is tht to me?
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Old 03-28-2003, 07:04 AM
RCrawford RCrawford is offline
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Julie, thanks for your speculations and attention to my poem. Rhina has it right: I took the Wednesday, Thursday progression from that Millay poem--but I also thought the nursery rhyme fit in an interesting and surprising way (I also chuckled that your inspiration came in the shower which is precisely where the inspiration for the actual line came to me--I wonder how many of our more interesting lines come to poets in the shower?)

I was preparing to teach a course on Frost and Millay--two contemporaneous New England poets who, as far as I can tell, never met--and I came across the description of how her mother helped Vincent miscarry. My reaction was visceral, having nothing to do with the politics of the abortion debate. I was just saddened by it. The realization that Cora, Vincent's mother, never did become a grandmother, deepened my sadness. What did we all lose? And I started to speculate on why beauty in body and in art comes at such a cost. Most of the men in Vincent's life, and maybe even Vincent herself, thought she was a "goddess" of sorts. She was blessed in many ways. But such a pedestal is always under atack by time and nature. Mortality for a poet and, especailly, a goddess is tough to take. Perhaps, it makes you jealous of a child, not just the hard work invloved in child rearing but the constant reminder of your own aging in comparison. Self-absorbtion and single mindedness, even in devotion to an art, take their toll; art can only excuse so much.

I hope the above doesn't ruin the poem for anybody. I wrote the poem as a warning to myself more than anything else.

-Robert Crawford
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Old 03-28-2003, 01:38 PM
Rhina P. Espaillat Rhina P. Espaillat is offline
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In the shower? If that's where such inspirations come, clearly we all need more showers.
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Old 03-28-2003, 02:10 PM
Susan McLean Susan McLean is offline
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I get a lot of my ideas for poems in the shower. Something about the hot water is very relaxing and seems to bring out the ideas. But that may just be because I spend a long time in the shower, since I have long hair that takes a while to wash.

Susan
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