Reading: Conscientious Objector by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Today I read Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950). She was an important American poet was an eccentric, humorous and politically outspoken figure. She was called the ‘Herald of the New Woman’ by her biographer. She was a skillful writer of sonnets, and, like her contemporary Robert Frost, combined modernist attitude with traditional forms. We read an interesting poem that, like so many others, personifies death:

Conscientious Objector
I shall die, but
that is all that I shall do for Death.
I hear him leading his horse out of the stall;
I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba,
business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle
while he clinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself:
I will not give him a leg up.

Though he flick my shoulders with his whip,
I will not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where
the black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death;
I am not on his pay-roll.

I will not tell him the whereabout of my friends
nor of my enemies either.
Though he promise me much,
I will not map him the route to any man’s door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living,
that I should deliver men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city
are safe with me; never through me Shall you be overcome.

The opening puts familiar ideas in a slightly strange perspective. Not giving away our fellow humans, not telling where the boy hides, is portrayed as conscientious objection. Death is war, a black master on a high horse hoofs clattering on the barn-floor. I am reminded of the horses in Lord of the Rings, the riders of the Apocalyps, etc. We take pride in not helping Death, not in the direst of circumstances, his hoof planted on our breast.

The poet refuses Death’s bargain. It becomes a matter of principle and pride that she doesn’t betray her friends, nor even her enemies. It is like the famous example of Immanuel Kant, who fanatically aspired to the ideological purety of another principle: Would you lie to a soldier when he asks you if someone is hiding in your house? Would you give him up to death?

We can all be conscientious objectors of Death, despite the fact that we are, in the end, inevitably only his foot soldiers.

So, here is a small motto-poem of hers that I want to share with you, because it reminded me of my own tunnel poem ‘Underground Blues’:

First Figs
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light.

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