Edna St. Vincent Millay

A Dirge Without Music by Edna St. Vincent Millay

‘A Dirge Without Music’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay is a beautiful dirge. The poet uses clear and lyrical language to describe how lovers and thinkers alike go into the darkness of death with a little remaining.

Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote this poem in her classic lyrical style. It’s incredibly relatable due to the fact that she did write it about a specific person or group of people. No matter their background, any reader can pick up this poem and feel a connection to it. It shares characteristics with Dylan Thomas’s Do not go gentle into that good night,’ although Millay’s ‘A Dirge Without Music’ is less personal than Thomas’s. 

A Dirge Without Music 
Edna St. Vincent Millay 

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.  Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone.  They are gone to feed the roses.  Elegant and curled
Is the blossom.  Fragrant is the blossom.  I know.  But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know.  But I do not approve.  And I am not resigned.
A Dirge Without Music by Edna St. Vincent Millay


Summary

‘A Dirge Without Music’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay is a powerful poem about death and loss. The speaker emphasizes that she is not resigned to death even if she knows it will happen to everyone.

In the first lines of this poem, the speaker begins by telling readers that she has not resigned herself to the fact that all people, thinkers, and lovers included, eventually end up in the darkness of the earth. 

All of these people go into the dark with only a little remaining to be remembered. The witty, the intelligent, kind, and all those who have ever done well on earth will end up in the dark, with their body, memories, and spirits, feeding the roses. The poet’s speaker continues to resist this fact. She is “not resigned,” meaning she is not giving up when it comes to the idea of death.

Structure and Form 

‘A Dirge Without Music’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay is a four-stanza poem that is separated into quatrains or sets of four lines. These lines follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GHGH. The poem does not follow a specific metrical pattern. But, within the stands themselves, the lines are always around the same length.

Literary Devices 

Throughout this piece, Millay makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to: 

  • Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines three and four of the first stanza as well as lines two and three of the third stanza. 
  • Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. These should trigger the reader’s senses. For example, “Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.”
  • Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “hearts” and “hard” in the first line and “lilies” and “laurel” in line four. 
  • Caesura: can be seen when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line. For example, “They are gone.  They are gone to feed the roses.  Elegant and curled.” This can change the rhythm of the lines as well as their overal impact.


Detailed Analysis 

Stanza One 

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.

So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:

Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.  Crowned

With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

In the first lines of this poem, the speaker states that she has not resigned herself to the nature of death. She knows that “loving hearts” have always gone into the “hard ground.” She uses the phrase “so it is, and so it will be” to convey this. She is not attempting to suggest that there is a way around it. But, at the same time, she is not “resigned” to the idea of it.

Despite the darkness of the subject matter at hand, the poet uses beautiful images that may bring to mind elaborate funerals, spring, and the various ways that different cultures on Earth honor their dead. 

The last line is a great example of caesura. It contains a pause, seen through the use of a semi-colon, before the repetition of the refrain “I am not resigned.”

Stanza Two 

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.

Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.

A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,

A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The lines in the second stanza are shorter. She directs these to the “lovers and thinkers.” It’s these people that Millay and other poets throughout the ages have mourned most deeply as they move from life to death. She tells them, “into the earth with you.” They should “be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.” This effective use of alliteration at the end of the second line helps convey Millay’s speaker’s passion.

She tells these people to die, as all men and women have died before them, and know that the “fragment of what you felt, I thought you knew” remains. But, the “best of lost.”

Stanza Three

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—

They are gone.  They are gone to feed the roses.  Elegant and curled

Is the blossom.  Fragrant is the blossom.  I know.  But I do not approve.

More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

There are numerous examples of caesurae in the lines of the third stanza. This creates a choppy rhythm that requires the reader to pause multiple times within the lines. They do not flow as freely as other examples of Millay’s poetry do.

In this third stanza, she describes what it is that does not remain. This includes “quick and keen” answers and the honest look, “laughter,” and the love these “thinkers and lovers” experienced. These things have disappeared from the earth. They, along with the person’s physical body, have “gone to feed the roses.” This is a beautiful line that helps to soften the blow of an untimely, or even unexpected, death. 

The blossom that results from the death of these people is a beautiful one. The speaker knows this, but she does not approve of it. It may be the way the world works, but it is hard to accept.

The “light in your eyes” was more precious than “all the roses in the world,” she says. It’s at this point, for the first time, but it appears the speaker is directing her words to a specific person. This also presents readers with an example of an apostrophe. This speaker is talking to someone who has died; they cannot hear her, nor can they respond. It’s unclear who this person is or if the speaker is, in fact, thinking of one person. She could be speaking generally to everyone who has ever passed away.

Stanza Four 

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave

Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;

Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.

I know.  But I do not approve.  And I am not resigned.

There are more examples of imagery and alliteration in the short fourth stanza. The poet repeats the word “down” three times at the beginning of the first line. This conveys the sense of loss as someone descends into the darkness of the grave. There is no discrimination between who goes into the darkness. All the beautiful, tender, the kind” are all condemned. The “intelligent, the witty, the brave” –they to go into the darkness.

Rather than spend this poem attempting to speak against death, Millay has spent the lines speaking as though she has accepted death but, reminding herself and the reader, and perhaps a specific listener, that she is “not resigned.” She is still resisting to an extent. Death may be natural and even in some instances beautiful (in the way that a body returns to the earth), but the speaker does not approve.

FAQs 

What are the themes in ‘A Dirge Without Music?’ 

The themes at work in this poem are death and loss. While the speaker does not mention a specific loss in this poem, it’s possible that she’s thinking about one. At the same time, the speaker, the poet, has crafted is also alluding to the vast swaths of lovers and thinkers, men and women, who go to their deaths.

What is the purpose of ‘A Dirge Without Music?’ 

The purpose is to speak about death in a meaningful way. While the poem does not present any solutions to the inevitability of death, it does describe death with a certain beauty. It also conveys the speaker’s resistance to death. Although she knows there’s no way around it, she is not willing to accept it fully. 

Who is the speaker in ‘A Dirge Without Music?’ 

The speaker may be Millay herself, but it’s unclear. It could be anyone who has any experience with death. Or anyone who is interested in sharing their beliefs and feelings about it. She takes a universal approach to the poem, ensuring that all readers can relate to it. 

What is the tone of ‘A Dirge Without Music?’ 

The tone is passionate and sorrowful. The speaker is direct in her language as she speaks on different elements of death. She says quite clearly that everyone is going into the darkness of the earth and that much of who an individual is will be lost in the process. Some will remain, but not the most important parts. The rest goes to feed the roses.


Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed ‘A Dirge Without Music’ should also consider reading some other Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poems. For example: 

  • Elegy Before Death’ – is about the physical and spiritual impact of a loss and how it can and cannot change one’s world.
  • First Fig’ – a well-loved and often discussed poem. In it, readers can explore a symbolic depiction of sexuality and freedom.
  • Ashes of Life’ – is told from the perspective of a speaker who has lost all touch with her own ambitions and is stuck within the monotonous rut of everyday life.

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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