Edna St. Vincent Millay’s ‘Renascence’ is a moving poem about suffering, time, rebirth, and spirituality.
Throughout ‘Renascence,’ readers will follow Millay’s speaker as she lives, dies, and then is reborn in a newly energized and faithful form. Millay uses powerful images and descriptions to convey this story.
‘Renascence’ was written when the poet was only nineteen years old. It was only after her mother encouraged her to do so that she shared it. The piece was submitted in a poetry contest in The Lyric of the Year. She wrote the poem while looking out from the summit of a mountain in Camden, Maine, a spot that’s now memorialized with a plaque. When she was awarded 4th place for her poem in The Lyric of the Year, many, including other winners, thought she deserved first prize. The second prize-winner even offered her his prize money.
Summary of Renascence
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker expresses horror at the boundaries of her world. It is mundane, without interest, and confining. She can even reach out and touch the sky with ease. Suddenly, the weight of infinity presses down on her, and she’s forced to feel other people’s suffering. She knows the sorrow, pain, and death of everyone who ever lived or will live. The speaker feels their greed, envy, lust, anger, and more. The sin of the entire world resides briefly in her mind before it is lifted. But, not before she’s sunk into her own grave six feet underground.
With the weight of the world gone, she’s able to hear and appreciate the sound of the rain. It’s a companion in her silent new home. But, this feeling of peace doesn’t last for long. Suddenly she remembers that she’s never going to see the blue sky again or feel the warmth of the sun. This inspires her to beg God to be returned to earth. To her surprise, her wish is granted, and she is reborn. It is this rebirth that the title of the poem refers to. Now, she declares, she’s never going to forget God or stop from one moment seeing him in everything around her.
Themes in Renascence
In ‘Renascence,’ Millay explores themes of death, faith, and rebirth. The latter is the most important theme at work in the poem, and it is integrally tied to the others through Millay’s narrative. The speaker experiences a wide range of emotions and states of being in this long poem. She’s alive, feeling confined and exhausted, then she suffers the deaths and sorrows of the world, she dies herself, is reborn, and then is filled with joy and faith. Her rebirth comes when she asks God to return to the world of blue skies and warm sun. Her desperation allows a miracle to occur, and she thanks God with her renewed faith. Her transcendence of death taught her about the nature of her world.
Structure and Form Renascence
‘Renascence’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay is a 214 line poem that is divided into twenty stanzas of varying lengths. The majority of these are around twelve lines in length. Millay chose to make use of a simple rhyme scheme of couplets throughout ‘Renascence.’ This means that the poem follows a rhyme scheme of AABBCC, and so on, changing end sounds as the poem progresses. The poem is written in the first person and is a great example of the lyric poetry for which Millay is best-known.
Literary Devices in Renascence
Millay makes use of several literary devices in ‘Renascence.’ These include but are not limited to imagery, enjambment, and caesura. The latter is a formal device that occurs when the poet inserts a pause into a line of text. This might be through manipulation of the meter or through the use of punctuation. For example, line one of stanza four reads: “I screamed, and—lo!—Infinity.” Another good example is the last line of stanza seven. It reads: “Perished with each—then mourned for all!”
Enjambment is another effective formal device. It occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines five and six of the first stanza as well as lines one and two of the sixth stanza. There are numerous examples in each stanza of ‘Renascence.’
Poets use imagery when they create particularly effective descriptions of scenes, emotions, and more. Without skilled imagery, poems fall flat and remain unmemorable. Images are particularly important in Millay’s work, which is quite emotional. Some good examples include these lines from stanza eight, “I saw at sea a great fog bank / Between two ships that struck and sank.”
Analysis of Renascence
Stanzas One and Two
All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked another way,
And saw three islands in a bay.
So with my eyes I traced the line
Of the horizon, thin and fine,
Straight around till I was come
Back to where I’d started from;
And all I saw from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood.
Over these things I could not see;
These were the things that bounded me;
And I could touch them with my hand,
Almost, I thought, from where I stand.
And all at once things seemed so small
My breath came short, and scarce at all.
In the first stanza of ‘Renascence,’ the speaker begins by describing what she can see when she looks around. There are mountains, three long ones, and a wood. On the other side are three islands “in a bay.” She continues to look around her as the stanza progresses, ending where she began, looking at the horizon and seeing the “three long mountains a wood. The mountains were a barrier, keeping her from seeing any farther than what was directly in her line of sight.
Before a reader can consider what this might mean, the speaker adds these things “bounded” her. They contained and surrounded her life. They felt very close, something which made the speaker fearful as the small boundaries of her life became clear. She lives in this space, and from her vantage point, what’s between her and the mountains is all she has.
But, sure, the sky is big, I said;
Miles and miles above my head;
So here upon my back I’ll lie
And look my fill into the sky.
And so I looked, and, after all,
The sky was not so very tall.
The sky, I said, must somewhere stop,
And—sure enough!—I see the top!
The sky, I thought, is not so grand;
I ‘most could touch it with my hand!
And reaching up my hand to try,
I screamed to feel it touch the sky.
As if trying to make herself feel better about her situation, the speaker considers the sky and its breadth. She decides to focus on it, but as soon as she does so, she starts to realize that it’s not “so very tall.” It has to stop at some point, creating another boundary in her life. By pointing out these natural features which contain her, the speaker is alluding to society’s containment of her own life. She’s restricted, as a young woman, and more broadly as a human being in her modern world, from unlimited freedom.
In a memorable metaphorical moment, the speaker describes reaching up and successfully touching the sky. The image of touching the sky is usually depicted as a great accomplishment, something to be celebrated. But, in this case, it terrifies her. She screams to feel her hand touch it, knowing then that it was yet another boundary in her world.
I screamed, and—lo!—Infinity
Came down and settled over me;
Forced back my scream into my chest,
Bent back my arm upon my breast,
And, pressing of the Undefined
The definition on my mind,
Held up before my eyes a glass
Through which my shrinking sight did pass
Until it seemed I must behold
Immensity made manifold;
Whispered to me a word whose sound
Deafened the air for worlds around,
And brought unmuffled to my ears
The gossiping of friendly spheres,
The creaking of the tented sky,
The ticking of Eternity.
In contrast to what she experienced in the previous lines, in the fourth stanza, the speaker encounters infinity. It settles down over her and forced her to scream back inside. She is starting to come to a new understanding of life, with access to “Immensity made manifold.” She got access to the “gossiping of friendly spheres,” suggesting that she is seeing into other parts of the world or even into the afterlife.
Stanzas Five and Six
I saw and heard, and knew at last
The How and Why of all things, past,
And present, and forevermore.
The Universe, cleft to the core,
Lay open to my probing sense
That, sick’ning, I would fain pluck thence
But could not,—nay! But needs must suck
At the great wound, and could not pluck
My lips away till I had drawn
All venom out.—Ah, fearful pawn!
For my omniscience paid I toll
In infinite remorse of soul.
All sin was of my sinning, all
Atoning mine, and mine the gall
Of all regret. Mine was the weight
Of every brooded wrong, the hate
That stood behind each envious thrust,
Mine every greed, mine every lust.
This experience brought her knowledge, that which all men and women have sought throughout time. She knew “How and Why of all things,” no matter if they were in the past, present, or “forevermore.” But, this experience wasn’t free to her. Seeing the truth of life does not come easy. She “paid… / In infinite remorse of soul.” Meaning, the weight of infinity, knowledge, the past, present, and future, are not easy burdens to bear. She has access to new sorrows she didn’t before. This includes the sins of others throughout time. She felt hate, envy, and every other terrible emotion.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
And all the while for every grief,
Each suffering, I craved relief
With individual desire,—
Craved all in vain! And felt fierce fire
About a thousand people crawl;
Perished with each,—then mourned for all!
A man was starving in Capri;
He moved his eyes and looked at me;
I felt his gaze, I heard his moan,
And knew his hunger as my own.
I saw at sea a great fog bank
Between two ships that struck and sank;
A thousand screams the heavens smote;
And every scream tore through my throat.
In the following stanzas, the speaker continues in the same way, depicting the suffering and grief of others. She sought relief from them all but only continued to feel the deaths of everyone throughout time. The eighth stanza includes a direct example of this, depicting a man in Capri whose hunger was the speaker’s own. This is repeated with the description of sinking ships and crew members screaming. Their sorrow tore at her throat as if it were her own.
Stanzas Nine and Ten
No hurt I did not feel, no death
That was not mine; mine each last breath
That, crying, met an answering cry
From the compassion that was I.
All suffering mine, and mine its rod;
Mine, pity like the pity of God.
Ah, awful weight! Infinity
Pressed down upon the finite Me!
My anguished spirit, like a bird,
Beating against my lips I heard;
Yet lay the weight so close about
There was no room for it without.
And so beneath the weight lay I
And suffered death, but could not die.
Although the speaker felt the deaths and sorrow of all of humanity, past, present, and future, she still could not die herself. She suffered death but did not experience it. The poet’s speaker reiterates that the weight of eternity and infinity is pushing down on her “finite” body. There was nothing she could do to eliminate that pain.
Long had I lain thus, craving death,
When quietly the earth beneath
Gave way, and inch by inch, so great
At last had grown the crushing weight,
Into the earth I sank till I
Full six feet under ground did lie,
And sank no more,—there is no weight
Can follow here, however great.
From off my breast I felt it roll,
And as it went my tortured soul
Burst forth and fled in such a gust
That all about me swirled the dust.
The eleventh stanza is slightly longer than those which proceeded it. Here, the speaker describes the weight of infinity growing heavier and her body sinking into the earth, “Full six feet underground. Once there, in a place of death, there was no more weight. Nothing, she adds, could follow her there. This is an allusion to the nature of death and the escape it provides. Her tortured soul flees her body and swirls around, leaving dust behind.
Deep in the earth I rested now;
Cool is its hand upon the brow
And soft its breast beneath the head
Of one who is so gladly dead.
And all at once, and over all
The pitying rain began to fall;
I lay and heard each pattering hoof
Upon my lowly, thatched roof,
And seemed to love the sound far more
Than ever I had done before.
For rain it hath a friendly sound
To one who’s six feet underground;
And scarce the friendly voice or face:
A grave is such a quiet place.
Now, unlike in the previous stanzas, the speaker is experiencing something of death for herself. She’s still alive, capable of describing what’s happening to her, but her soul has departed. There are examples of calming imagery in these lines, juxtaposed with those in the previous stanzas that were painful and severe. She heard the rain on the grave, peaceful in her death. The sound of the rain was better and more beautiful than all the times she’d heard it in the past. It had a “friendly sound,” one of companionship, for her as she rested six feet underground.
The rain, I said, is kind to come
And speak to me in my new home.
I would I were alive again
To kiss the fingers of the rain,
To drink into my eyes the shine
Of every slanting silver line,
To catch the freshened, fragrant breeze
From drenched and dripping apple-trees.
For soon the shower will be done,
And then the broad face of the sun
Will laugh above the rain-soaked earth
Until the world with answering mirth
Shakes joyously, and each round drop
Rolls, twinkling, from its grass-blade top.
These lines are leading up to the speaker’s rebirth, the “renascence” that the title alludes to. She personifies the rain first, though, depicting it as kind to visit her in her new home. She’d kiss the fingers of the rain if she could, but since she’s dead, that’s not possible. There are several good examples of alliteration in these lines. For example, “slanting silver” and “freshened, fragrant.”
She adds in the following lines that she knows she’s not going to be able to experience the sun again, not like she used to. The sun is going to come out and warm the world, and she won’t be a part of it.
How can I bear it; buried here,
While overhead the sky grows clear
And blue again after the storm?
O, multi-colored, multiform,
Beloved beauty over me,
That I shall never, never see
Again! Spring-silver, autumn-gold,
That I shall never more behold!
Sleeping your myriad magics through,
Close-sepulchred away from you!
O God, I cried, give me new birth,
And put me back upon the earth!
Upset each cloud’s gigantic gourd
And let the heavy rain, down-poured
In one big torrent, set me free,
Washing my grave away from me!
She asks herself how she’s ever going to withstand remaining buried in the ground when she knows that the sky is “blue again after the storm.” This rhetorical question is meant to suggest that the speaker is going to experience more suffering know about the beauty and warmth occurring just out of reach.
She asks God to give her “new birth” and to put her back on the ground where she once lived. This plea is a desperate one. It includes the request that her grave is washed away “In one big torrent,” and her body “set…free.”
Stanzas Fifteen and Sixteen
I ceased; and through the breathless hush
That answered me, the far-off rush
Of herald wings came whispering
Like music down the vibrant string
Of my ascending prayer, and—crash!
Before the wild wind’s whistling lash
The startled storm-clouds reared on high
And plunged in terror down the sky,
And the big rain in one black wave
Fell from the sky and struck my grave.
I know not how such things can be;
I only know there came to me
A fragrance such as never clings
To aught save happy living things;
A sound as of some joyous elf
Singing sweet songs to please himself,
And, through and over everything,
A sense of glad awakening.
The grass, a-tiptoe at my ear,
Whispering to me I could hear;
I felt the rain’s cool finger-tips
Brushed tenderly across my lips,
Laid gently on my sealed sight,
And all at once the heavy night
Fell from my eyes and I could see,—
A drenched and dripping apple-tree,
A last long line of silver rain,
A sky grown clear and blue again.
And as I looked a quickening gust
Of wind blew up to me and thrust
Into my face a miracle
Of orchard-breath, and with the smell,—
I know not how such things can be!—
I breathed my soul back into me.
Her prayer is answered in the following lines. She storm came just as she requested, like music. The water fell, striking her grave and destroying it. Now, her rebirth is in motion. Joy and music came to her, whispering to her and bringing her back to the sensations she missed. She could see the apple tree, the sky grew clear, and feel the wind on her face. All of this felt to her like a miracle. She expresses her amazement that such a thing could happen. Despite her not know how or why she was returned to the earth, she knows her soul was breathed back into her.
Stanzas Seventeen and Eighteen
Ah! Up then from the ground sprang I
And hailed the earth with such a cry
As is not heard save from a man
Who has been dead, and lives again.
About the trees my arms I wound;
Like one gone mad I hugged the ground;
I raised my quivering arms on high;
I laughed and laughed into the sky,
Till at my throat a strangling sob
Caught fiercely, and a great heart-throb
Sent instant tears into my eyes;
O God, I cried, no dark disguise
Can e’er hereafter hide from me
Thy radiant identity!
The seventeenth stanza is only five lines long. In it, the speaker depicts rising from her grave and hailing the earth only as people saved from death can. She embraced the natural world, laughed into the sky, and then break into tears. It’s at this point that she accepts God, declaring that there is nothing that could hide his “radiant identity” from her from now on.
Stanzas Nineteen and Twenty
Thou canst not move across the grass
But my quick eyes will see Thee pass,
Nor speak, however silently,
But my hushed voice will answer Thee.
I know the path that tells Thy way
Through the cool eve of every day;
God, I can push the grass apart
And lay my finger on Thy heart!
The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky,—
No higher than the soul is high.
The heart can push the sea and land
Farther away on either hand;
The soul can split the sky in two,
And let the face of God shine through.
But East and West will pinch the heart
That can not keep them pushed apart;
And he whose soul is flat—the sky
Will cave in on him by and by.
In the second to last stanza of ‘Renascence,’ the speaker describes how she’s always going to see God and his works no matter where they are or what form they take. She won’t lose faith ever again. It’s in nature, specifically, that she’s going to see him.
The final stanza describes her new understanding of the possibilities of the heart it’s “width.” It is depicted in the world around her, through the land and height of the sky. But, the heart and soul also have control over the world. They have the ability to push “the sea and land” and “split the sky in two.” It’s through this new faith and belief that the speaker is able to see God and let him “shine through” when the physical world suggests otherwise.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Renascence’ should also consider reading some of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s other best-known poems. For example: