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Epitaph for the Race of Man: X -- Edna St Vincent Millay

(Poem #1589) Epitaph for the Race of Man: X
 The broken dike, the levee washed away,
 The good fields flooded and the cattle drowned,
 Estranged and treacherous all the faithful ground,
 And nothing left but floating disarray
 Of tree and home uprooted, -- was this the day
 Man dropped upon his shadow without a sound
 And died, having laboured well and having found
 His burden heavier than a quilt of clay?
 No, no. I saw him when the sun had set
 In water, leaning on his single oar
 Above his garden faintly glimmering yet...
 There bulked the plough, here washed the updrifted weeds...
 And scull across his roof and make for shore,
 With twisted face and pocket full of seeds.
-- Edna St Vincent Millay
 Part X of the sonnet sequence "Epitaph for the Race of Man".
 Published in the collection "Wine From These Grapes" (1934).
 Form: Petrarchan sonnet.
 Rhyme scheme: abba abba cdcede.


 Poetry can offer consolation in the darkest of times. War, famine and
pestilence; flood, fire and drought -- poets have responded to terrible
events with works of power and passion, and readers have found in these
works new reserves of strength and determination.

 Different poets, of course, have different approaches. For example, Dylan
Thomas' magnificent defiance in the face of death [1] contrasts dramatically
with the quiet acceptance of his namesake R. S. Thomas [2], and they each
have little in common with the heartfelt sorrow of W. H. Auden [3]. Yet each
of their poems speaks powerfully to something basic in human nature; our
experience is the richer for having them put our feelings into words.

 Today's poem offers yet another response to tragedy: that even in the
depths of despair, life (symbolized by the "pocket full of seeds") goes on.
Flooded fields can be drained; trees replanted; homes rebuilt. It's true
that we cannot bring back the lives that have been lost, but what we can do,
we will. It is this that makes us human; it is this that makes us great.
This is Millay's theme, and it is both heartbreakingly sad and profoundly


[1] Poem #38, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night -- Dylan Thomas
[2] Poem #392, Good -- R. S. Thomas
[3] Poem #256, Funeral Blues -- W. H. Auden

 [And finally]

 Poetry can console, but for those most affected by the terrible events of
last week, mere words may not be enough. We urge readers of the Minstrels to
contribute generously to various tsunami relief efforts; the following
website has a comprehensive set of donation links:

 Incidentally, Martin, Sitaram and myself all come from south India, and we
each have family and friends there; fortunately, none of our near and dear
were hurt in the cataclysm. We thank all those who wrote in to express their

39 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Anupama said...

Thank you for the poem . will send it to friends neck deep in relief
work...maybe it will bring them hope and lift their spirits and who knows
- they might then pass that torch on to the ones they meet.

Thank you also for the note at the bottom which said your families are


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