Poem of the week: The Concert by Edna St Vincent Millay

·4 min read

The Concert

No, I will go alone.
I will come back when it’s over.
Yes, of course I love you.
No, it will not be long.
Why may you not come with me? —
You are too much my lover.
You would put yourself
Between me and song.

If I go alone,
Quiet and suavely clothed,
My body will die in its chair,
And over my head a flame,
A mind that is twice my own,
Will mark with icy mirth
The wise advance and retreat
Of armies without a country
Storming a nameless gate,
Hurling terrible javelins down
From the walls of a singing town

Where no women wait!
Armies clean of love and hate,
Marching lines of pitiless sound
Climbing hills to the sun and hurling
Golden spears to the ground!
Up the lines a silver runner
Bearing a banner whereon is scored
The milk and steel of a bloodless wound
Healed at length by the sword!

You and I have nothing to do with music.
We may not make of music a filigree frame,
Within which you and I,
Tenderly glad we came,
Sit smiling, hand in hand.

Come now, be content.
I will come back to you, I swear I will;
And you will know me still.
I shall be only a little taller
Than when I went.

The American poet and playwright Edna St Vincent Millay (1892-1950) excelled as a formal poet, producing a number of magnificent sonnets. During the course of her career she also developed a fine ear for the cadence of free verse. This week’s poem is an interestingly transitional piece of writing, with an elastic line, an intermittently conversational tone, and some unobtrusive but satisfying use of rhyme. First published in The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems (1923), it appears in Poems and Satires, a new selection edited for Carcanet by Tristram Fane Saunders.

At first, the reader of The Concert seems to be invited to eavesdrop on half a private telephone conversation. Although we hear only the poet’s side of it, the lover’s efforts at persuasion are clear. He (presumably “he”) wants to accompany the presumed “her” to the concert and is wounded by her insistence on attending it by herself. This small half-drama is elegantly handled, with a good rhyme to press home the temporary cessation of the argument – “wrong” and “song”.

It would be helpful to know if an actual concert had been the impulse for the poem, and, if so, what the programme contained. Who might have written the rousing composition Millay imagines in her second stanza? Beethoven, perhaps? Some challenging “new” composer? Or did Millay “compose” an imaginary symphony or opera of her own?

The musical encounter she foresees is represented physically: “My body will die in its chair, / And over my head a flame, / A mind that is twice my own, / Will mark with icy mirth / The wise advance and retreat / Of armies without a country …” The torrent of heroic imagery unleashed (notwithstanding the “icy mirth”) might suggest the argument of woman and lover continued on a monumental scale. Javelins are hurled, but the armies transcend love and hate and climb to the sun. A mysterious truce marks the end of the section, “The milk and steel of a bloodless wound / Healed at length by the sword!” Despite the obscurities, there’s something compelling about Millay’s synaesthetic conception of music as war and peace. The drama is symphonic and cinema-sized. While in some printings this big stanza is divided into shorter sections, the rhymes and the flowing overall movement are better conveyed by the unbroken arrangement used in Poems and Satires.

After this heady diversion, Millay returns to the earlier conversation with a sharpened sense of imperative. If the lovers superimpose their self-consciousness on the experience, there will be no experience, or none for the poet. Her promise that she’ll “come back” to her lover is drily offset by the description of the change that will have occurred in her: “I shall be only a little taller / Than when I went.” The metaphor of gained intellectual stature seems to have been undercut, and the lover promised a woman who has changed physically as well as mentally. Can she still be the same woman? There’s a sting to the uncertainty.

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