Brain Pickings

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Poems for Young People

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Warm hearts, brown thoughts, and the magic of city trees.

Among creative culture’s most delightful fringes are the generally lesser-known children’s books by famous “adult” authors — Advice to Little Girls by Mark Twain (illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky), Life Doesn’t Frighten Me by Maya Angelou (illustrated by Basquiat), The Cats of Copenhagen by James Joyce, The Bed Book by Sylvia Plath (illustrated by Quentin Blake), The Wishing Tree by William Faulkner, To Do by Gertrude Stein, Eggs of Things by Anne Sexton, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot (illustrated by Edward Gorey), and other gems by Aldous Huxley, James Thurber, Carl Sandburg, Salman Rushdie, Ian Fleming, and Langston Hughes.

Though Edna St. Vincent Millay — beloved poet, eloquent lover of music, delinquent schoolgirl, writer of passionate love letters and playfully lewd self-portraits — never explicitly wrote for children, the verses in the wonderful 1951 collection Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Poems Selected for Young People (public library) make a fine addition to this treasure chest of literary gems for budding readers.

Featuring tender and enchanted drawings by J. Paget-Fredericks, who illustrated a great deal of Millay’s work over the course of more than twenty years, the poems embrace the Sendakian view that children should be filled with whimsy, but shouldn’t be shielded from the dark. With Millay’s signature blend of sensitivity, irreverence, and poignant exuberance, they open to young readers the full psychoemotional spectrum of the world and, as Rilke memorably put it, let everything happen … beauty and terror.”

GROWN-UP

Was it for this I uttered prayers,
And sobbed and cursed and kicked the stairs,
That now, domestic as a plate,
I should retire at half-past eight?

THE UNEXPLORER

There was a road ran past house
Too lovely to explore.
I asked my mother once — she said
That if you followed where it led
It brought you to the milk-man’s door
(That’s why I have not traveled more.)

TRAVEL

The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day
But I hear its whistle shrieking.

All night there isn’t a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming,
But I see its cinders red on the sky,
And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.

SORROW

Sorrow like a ceaseless rain
Beats upon my heart.
People twist and scream in pain, –
Dawn will find them still again;
This has neither wax nor wane,
Neither stop nor start.

People dress and go to town;
I sit in my chair.
All my thoughts are slow and brown:
Standing up or sitting down
Little matters, or what gown
Or what shoes I wear.

SOUVENIR

Just a rainy day or two
In a windy tower,
That was all I had of you—
Saving half an hour.

Marred by greeting passing groups
In a cinder walk,
Near some naked blackberry hoops
Dim with purple chalk.
I remember three or four
Things you said in spite,
And an ugly coat you wore,
Plaided black and white.

Just a rainy day or two
And a bitter word.
Why do I remember you
As a singing bird?

EPITAPH

Heap not on this mound
Roses that she loved so well;
Why bewilder her with roses,
That she cannot see or smell?
She is happy where she lies
With the dust upon her eyes.

CITY TREES

The trees along this city street,
Save for the traffic and the trains,
Would make a sound as thin and sweet
As trees in country lanes.

And people standing in their shade
Out of a shower, undoubtedly
Would hear such music as is made
Upon a country tree.

Oh, little leaves that are so dumb
Against the shrieking city air,
I watch you when the wind has come, —
I know what sound is there.

All sixty poems in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Poems Selected for Young People are an absolute treat. They were taken from Millay’s A Few Figs From Thistles, Second April, Renascence, and The Harp Weaver.

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