Elegy Before Death by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Elegy Before Death is a five stanza poem made out of sets of four lines. Each of these lines is of a similar length and the poem consistently carries the rhyme scheme of ABCB DEFE… throughout.  This poem was originally published in Second April in 1921. 

 

Summary of Elegy Before Death

“Elegy Before Death” is about the physical and spiritual impact of a loss. This poem is told from the perspective of a second person narrator directing their statements at an undefined “you.” The poem begins by describing how the world will be the same after this person has passed on. There will still be “rose and rhododendron” (1) and the “sunny sound” (4) of bees will still “be heard from white syringas” (3). Additional creatures and plants will go on as they always have, as will the seasons. Time will not stop for the world. The only physical things that will be disturbed are the simple weeds on the grave site and the land that this person’s spirit will walk after death. 

The poem concludes by calling this passing a “great” one (21) and making clear that while the world is not physically changed, it will be essentially changed for the speaker. The spark of beauty and magic in “common water” (23) and “simple stone” (24) will leave along with “you”.

 

Analysis of Elegy Before Death

First Stanza

There will be rose and rhododendron

When you are dead and under ground;

Still will be heard from white syringas

Heavy with bees, a sunny sound;

 In the first stanza of “Elegy Before Death the second person speaker addresses the death of someone close to her, an undefined “you” that is not elucidated by the end of the poem. One must interpret the relationship between the speaker and subject, it could be a romantic one, one of close friendship, or a family member that has passed away. 

Millay’s speaker begins the piece by describing what will still be in existence after this person is “dead and under ground.” She speaks on how, 

There will be rose and rhododendron 

growing throughout the world. Here, in the first line of the poem, Millay makes use of an alliteration that sets the tone for the rest of the piece. The poem has a simple rhyme scheme, but is filled with half rhymes and alliterative sentence structures that give it a full and complete tone. 

In addition to the flowers, the “sunny sound” of bees will be heard from “white syringas” (3). 

It is clear from these first few lines that the speaker is laying out things that bring her joy and peace and that she knows she will still be able to find after this person is dead. 

 

Second Stanza

Still will the tamaracks be raining

After the rain has ceased, and still

Will there be robins in the stubble

Brown sheep upon the warm green hill.

The second stanza continues in the same vein. Millay’s speaker describes how the tamarack trees will still be laden with water, 

After the rain has ceased, and still 

Will there be robin in the stubble, (6-7)

Tamarack trees, notorious for their water consumption, but lovely to look at, will still play host to robins after the “you” in this poem has passed on. The world and all it’s functions will continue thriving, even without this person to live amongst them. 

 

Third Stanza

Spring will not ail nor autumn falter;

Nothing will know that you are gone,

Saving alone some sullen plough-land

None but yourself sets foot upon;

In the third stanza the speaker turns to describe the seasons. She says that, 

Spring will not ail nor autumn falter; 

due to the fact that this loved one has passed on (9). Millay is uses the largest forces she can summon to make her point. When a loved one passes it is often said that “time stops” or that one cannot go on. This is not the case for the speaker, she knows exactly what it going to happen, and realizes clearly, that nothing in the larger world will change.  There is nothing that “will know that you are gone” (10). The basic elements, and the grander elements, of life will continue as they always have. 

The speaker takes a step in the opposite direction in the eleventh line of the piece in which she states that there is one place that will know a change— the land on which “you” are buried. She refers to this plot of land as, “some sullen plough-land.” The land is simple, the burial site is not grand or in a place of great importance, but it will know the change of “your” presence. 

Additionally, “you” will be the only one who sets foot upon this land. Although the land is not important, it is still hallowed, just as it goes against decorum to set foot on a grave, so too will this land be treated. 

 

Related poetry:   Love is Not All by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Fourth Stanza

Saving the may-weed and the pig-weed

Nothing will know that you are dead,—

These, and perhaps a useless wagon

Standing beside some tumbled shed.

The speaker adds a couple of other elements in this stanza that will notice a change after “your” death. 

…the may-weed and the pig-weed

will be amongst the only plants to notice “your” new presence in the ground (13). One may assume that these simple, very common weeds grow near the grave site, or perhaps grew on it and were upset by the burial. 

Once more the speaker adds to the short list of items that will notice this person has passed. She speaks of, “a useless wagon” (15) that is now standing “beside some tumbled shed” (16). 

While it is not made definitively clear, the reader can infer that this wagon is now useless because this person has passed on. He or she must have made use of it in the past, but it now stands idle. 

The speaker chooses to place the wagon next to a “tumbled shed” to once more emphasize that this death is not the end of all things, no reverence is taken over the items left behind, or time dedicated to caring for the past. The speaker moves forward along with the world. 

 

Fifth Stanza

Oh, there will pass with your great passing

Little of beauty not your own,—

Only the light from common water,

Only the grace from simple stone!

The last stanza of this piece concludes the theme of the piece. The speaker makes clear that there  is nothing, aside from the state of “your” own body that will change due to your passing when she says, 

Oh, there will pass with your great passing 

Little of beauty not your own,— (21-22)

It is at this point in the poem that the reader begins to question the emotions that the speaker is feeling. So far, it has been stated that this death will have little physical impact on the world, but will still be meaningful but just how meaningful is revealed in the next lines. 

The “passing” is referred to as “great” in line 21 and then in the final lines, 23-24, just what will really be impacted is made clear. 

The speaker will experience the loss of “light from…water” (23) and the “grace from simple stone” (24). The spark of magic that makes the world seem more beautiful to Millay’s speaker will exit this world along with the mysterious “you.” While nothing physical has changed, (made very clear by the rest of the poem), something spiritual has. The world is the same for everyone else, but not for her. 

 

About Edna St. Vincent Millay 

Edna St. Vincent Millay was born in Rockland, Maine in 1892. She was raised, along with her two sisters, by a single mother, from whom she learned self sufficiency and gained an appreciation for art. She became involved in writing poetry at a young age and was awarded a scholarship to Vassar College where she became involved in theatre. While there she continued to write and had a number of relationships with women. She published her first book in the year of her graduation, Renascence and Other Poems. In 1923, Millay married Eugen Boissevain who gave up his own career to manage Millay’s literary one. 

She would become one of the most respected poets in the United States and would win the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for her collection of poems, The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver. Her popularity stemmed from both her remarkably crafted sonnets and her bohemian lifestyle, including her political stances, and open relationships. Millay died in 1950 at the age of 58.  

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