Sunday, November 7, 2010

Edna St. Vincent Millay and "God's World"


For the beauty of the earth,
For the glory of the skies,
For the love which from our birth
Over and around us lies,
Lord of all, to thee we raise
This our grateful hymn of praise.

For the beauty of each hour
Of the day and of the night,
Hill and vale, and tree and flower,
Sun and moon and stars of light,
Lord of all, to thee we raise
This our grateful hymn of praise.

The magnificent photographs in the narthex, which you had to have noticed on your way into the sanctuary this morning are nature scenes as captured on film by Bill Westerhoff. I love Bill’s work and appreciate so deeply the photographs he and Margaret Walker provide so that our website can be so colorful, so personable, and so thought-provoking.

Today we celebrate the beauty of nature. The beauty of our world is one reason we must care for this world entrusted to us, and we will emphasize environmentalism frequently at Silverside; but that is not our emphasis today. Today, we have a simple, singular goal--to celebrate the beauty of our world.

Some of us/many of us believe that God is behind the creation of life and habitat for all life forms. We do not read the opening chapters of the book of Genesis literally, and we do not scoff at the obvious truth of the principles of evolution for understanding how creation, over thousands of years, became the form in which we enjoy it today. One candidate running for office in the recent election, and whose name slips my mind completely, says that evolution is a myth and that if evolution were real one proof would be that monkeys would still be evolving into humans. I can’t remember if this candidate was one of the winners or losers in the election or what state this candidate is associated with, but I do know with that kind of thinking this candidate is assured of getting lucrative book-writing offers and a commentator’s seat on some show grappling with the complicated questions of life.

It seems to me that arguing about how we got here and how we landed this gorgeous habitat, no pun intended, is pointless. Evolutionary processes are irrefutable, and God’s role in making it happen will always be disputed based on one’s theological orientation. Trying to have an explanation of creation written into law in any kind of way and at any level is ridiculous.

We come today to celebrate the beauty of our world.

Fair are the meadows, fairer still the woodlands,

robed in the blooming garb of spring....

Fair is the sunshine, fairer still the moonlight,

and all the twinkling starry host....

The most famous lover of nature in Christian tradition has been St. Francis of Assisi. Here are the stirring words attributed to him:

All glory, honor, praise, and blessing be.

Thou only art deserving of the same;

No man is worthy to pronounce thy name.

Praised be my God for creatures, every one;

And praised be thou, my Lord, for Brother Sun,

Thy gift to us that he our day may light.

Most beautiful is he, and passing bright;

Radiant in splendor – for in him we see

Displayed to us a glorious type of thee.

Praise to my Lord for Sister Moon be given,

For all the clear and lovely stars of heaven.

Praised be my Lord for Brother Wind and Air;

For clouds, and weather – be it dark or fair;

For by their ministry thou e’er dost give

The sustenance whereby all creatures live.

Praise to my Lord for Sister Water be;

Most useful, humble, precious, chaste is she.

Praised be my Lord for Brother Fire, so bright,

By whom thou dost illuminate the night;

For he is lively, and most beautiful,

And most robust withal, and powerful.

Praised be my Lord and God for Mother Earth,

Who governs and sustains us; who gives birth

To all the many fruits and herbs that be,

And colored flowers in rich variety.

Not all of us can put into words, especially words such as these, our appreciation for all aspects of the amazing created order, but few of us fail to notice and to feel the remarkable beauty that surrounds us.

The words of Joyce Kilmer:

I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest

Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,

And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;

Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.

The wordsmiths among us aren’t the only ones who have paid tribute to the beauty of nature; musicians have been busy with it too--often relying on instrumental music alone to try to express the inspiration to be found in the beauty of nature. Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” are the first works that come to my mind when I think of music in this genre; these are violin concertos, and as we listen to them we hear the composer with his music mirroring the intricacies of each of the seasons.

I found it interesting to learn that Vivaldi based each of the four parts comprising the whole of “The Four Seasons” on sonnets. Some musicologists speculate that Vivaldi also wrote the sonnets inspiring the music, but that, as far as I know, has not been proven. Here’s an example.

Among the four seasons, naturally, autumn eventually comes along. Vivaldi’s “Autumn” has three movements; there are three distinct realities that would have reminded his hearers of the fall of the year.

“Autumn” is in F Major and begins with an allegro movement, meaning upbeat and brisk. The words to the sonnet for this part of the piece say:

The peasant celebrates with song and dance the harvest safely gathered in.
The cup of Bacchus flows freely, and many find their relief in deep slumber.

This leads into the second movement, and the tempo directive for this movement is adagio molto. The composer wanted the musicians to play this part of the piece in a way that was very slow, yet very stately. The sonnet that guided Vivaldi’s composition of this part of the piece is:

The singing and the dancing die away
as cooling breezes fan the pleasant air,
inviting all to sleep without a care.

Now, back to the briskness with which the movement began. And here is the sonnet that inspired this part of Vivaldi’s “Autumn” composition.

The hunters emerge at dawn,
ready for the chase,
with horns and dogs and cries.
Their quarry flees while they give chase.
Terrified and wounded, the prey struggles on,
but, harried, dies.

Well, dying prey isn’t exactly the most beautiful part of the fall, but the season’s beauty evokes varying responses from people. Down where I’m from in the hills of Tennessee, the colorful leaves dominate my celebration of fall, but there are plenty of residents there who think the beauty of fall is in the timing to go kill something.


Edna St. Vincent Millay, called “Vincent” by friends and family members, was born in Maine in 1892. Most of her growing up years, she lived in an all-female household--her mother and her two sisters being the other members of the family. I suppose some Millay enthusiasts know why, I don’t, Edna’s mother told her husband, the father of her children, to hit the road when Edna was about seven years old. Her mother, Cora, was strikingly independent, and she raised her daughters on her own, encouraging them to be not only independent but also seriously ambitious. She was able to do this even though the family constantly had to move to find meagre work opportunities for Cora as a practical nurse and for the daughters as they became old enough to work. Essentially, the family lived in poverty during most of Edna’s growing up years.

There was a family-wide appreciation for music and literature. Edna (I did not know her well enough to call her Vincent) must have had a leaning toward poetry because in 1912, with plenty of maternal pushing, she entered one of her poems in a contest. Her poem was titled “Renascence”; the poem won fourth place in the contest and was published in a journal, The Lyric Year. It’s quite a long poem, and I can’t read it all here, but I would like read the last stanza to you:

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.

The poetry world loved Millay’s work, but the poem was so highly regarded that not only did it earn her an immediate spot on the “Poets to Notice” list, but also it led to a scholarship to Vassar--not a bad pay off for one’s first published poem.

At Vassar, Edna continued to write poetry while pursuing her studies. She found herself also drawn to the theatre. Millay’s biographers note that at this time in her life she began to have intimate relationships with women, and she considered herself “bisexual” officially.

She graduated from Vassar in 1917 and, in that same year, saw her first book published, Renascence and Other Poems. Also in that pivotal year, the Drama Department essentially commissioned her to write a play in verse. She did it. The subject she chose, a scandal everywhere except in the Ivy League and in the nation’s bohemias, was love between women. The play in verse was completed in 1920 and published in 1921. Also in 1920, Millay published another volume of poetry, A Few Figs from Thistles, which drew much attention, positive and negative, because of its focus on feminism as well as female sexuality.

Back to her play in verse published in 1921. It carried the title, The Lamp and the Bell. Here’s the brief prologue, a conversation between Anselmo and Luigi:

ANSELMO. What think you,--lies there any truth in the tale
The King will wed again?

LUIGI. Why not, Anselmo?
A king is no less lonely than a collier
When his wife dies, And his young daughter there,
For all her being a princess, is no less
A motherless child, and cries herself to sleep
Night after night, as noisily as any,
You may be sure.

ANSELMO. A motherless child loves not,
They say, the second mother. Though the King
May find him comfort in another face,--
As it is well he should--the child, I fancy,
Is not so lonely as she is distraught
With grief for the dead Queen, and will not lightly
Be parted from her tears.

LUIGI. If tales be true,
The woman hath a daughter, near the age
Of his, will be a playmate for the Princess.

Edna decided that a bohemian lifestyle would suit her just fine so she moved to Greenwich Village, where, one of her biographers reports, “...she led a notoriously bohemian life.” I guess you can let your imagination go to work there. That’s what we’re supposed to do when we hear Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, which should really be called the Lost Son OR the Loving Father. In the story, Jesus said that the younger son asked for his part of his inheritance from his father while the father was still alive and kicking and then took all that money his father had worked so hard to earn and to save and spent it in “riotous living,” as King James’s translators put it. Jesus said nothing more about exactly what the son did, but the hearers, with strong imaginations, had some pretty good ideas of what Jesus had in mind. OK, so Edna St. Vincent Millay led a notoriously bohemian lifestyle in Greenwich Village.

She was poor, but she’d had plenty of experience negotiating poverty. She lived in someone’s cramped attic, and, despite her wide acclaim and publishing prestige, she had a hard time finding work given her skill set. Artists of all stripes have to keep producing in order to earn a living. In the public’s eye they are only as good as their most recent work that wows.

Edna worked hard as a writing generalist and accepted any writing assignment any editor would offer her. She lived among other writers with a similar approach to life, and they were all as she stated on one occasion “very, very poor and very, very merry.” The Harp Weaver was published in 1923. This was her fourth poetry volume, and for this one she won the Pulitzer Prize. She was only 31 years old.

In a surprising turn of events, at least to outsiders like us looking back on biographical details, Edna married a man the same year The Harp Weaver was published. Eugen Boissevain, her husband’s name, gave up his own professional responsibilities and commitments to manage Millay’s burgeoning literary career. He was responsible for setting up her poetry readings and other personal appearances, which were very popular and which made her even more famous. For nosy, National Inquirer kind of people, she said they lived as two bachelors rooming together. They remained “sexually open,” something else for your imagination to run with, the whole twenty-six years they were married.

Eugen died in 1949. Edna died the next year.

She loved nature and was captivated by its beauty. An apt poem of hers for the lovely season we are now enjoying she called “Autumn Chant.”

Now the autumn shudders

In the rose’s root.

Far and wide the ladders

Lean among the fruit.

Now the autumn clambers

Up the trellised frame,

And the rose remembers

The dust from which it came.

Brighter than the blossom

On the rose’s bough

Sits the wizened, orange,

Bitter berry now;

Beauty never slumbers;

All is in her name;

But the rose remembers

The dust from which it came.


Edna St. Vincent Millay. Again, her poem, “God’s World.”

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!

Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!

Thy mists, that roll and rise!

Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag

And all but cry with color! That gaunt crag

To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!

World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!

Long have I known a glory in it all,

But never knew I this;

Here such a passion is

As stretcheth me apart,—Lord, I do fear

Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year;

My soul is all but out of me,—let fall

No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.

Has the world ever looked so beautiful to you that you wanted to embrace it or breathe in its beauty? Millary had those feelings, and I love the opening line: “O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!” Notice, though, that what she finds beautiful is the whole, including some of the parts most of us would not think to call “beautiful.”

The winds are lovely when they create a gentle summer evening’s breeze after a sizzler of a long day, but the winds can be deadly when the gusts accelerate. The first item on Millay’s list of components of God’s beautiful world are the winds. I wish I knew why.

Next she mentions the skies. When we think of beautiful skies shown so dramatically in a couple of Bill’s photographs, we tend to think of blue skies. If you’ve ever noticed, that is how Pam Cummings closes her emails: “Blue Skies, Pam.” Millay, though, specifies the beauty of gray skies. The contrast between gray skies over against blue skies is interesting, and sometimes the gray skies signal a much needed rain on its way; but I’ve never thought of gray skies as beautiful. I’ve never been hanging out with a friend who was looking up and suddenly blurted out, “Look at those gorgeous gray skies.” Nor have I longed to embrace them or breathe them in. Millay loved them, if the poem is any indication of what in nature caught her eye. She couldn’t get close enough to them to suit her.

She called her poem, “God’s World,” but the words in the poem are not directed to God; they are directed to the world itself. The world is a living entity with these diverse and beautiful parts.

The mists roll, but they also rise. That’s a good thing; otherwise, we’d never be able to see anything clearly. The mists mute shapes and hues until they rise and reveal, just after they’ve arisen, God’s beautiful world through a a lens of absolute clarity.

Edna is writing her poem, or least part of the poem was written, on a fall day, and, on that day, the woods she saw sagging and aching and nearly crying with color. Again, I don’t see the beauty in something that is sagging or in pain. The most beautiful dimension of autumn woods for me would, without a doubt, be the color--the varied, vibrant colors. Her colors are nearly crying in the aching and sagging forest. I’m guessing she must mean “cry out” with color that would, perhaps, balance the aching and sagging going on in the woods.

What is beautiful about a gaunt (skinny and haggard looking) crag, which is a lone vertical rock or a cliff that can or will crush something? I have no idea why a part of the world poised to crush whatever is under it catches her eye as beautiful. Maybe it’s the intricacy of it. She longs too to lift the leaning black bluff, that steep, steep hill. Could it be more lovely if it weren’t leaning?

Millay mentions colors in a generic way, but the only colors she names are gray and black--gray skies and a black bluff.

There, perhaps, is a twist of a lesson here for us. Millay says that she had long known a glory in it all, and by this point in the poem I think she’s referring to whole world, even the parts that aren’t immediately taken to be contributing to the overall beauty by many of us. She finds every aspect of the world beautiful, however. It’s the world taken as a whole that makes it as beautiful as it is. If it’s God’s world what part is ugly? Did you sing this little chorus in Sunday School?

God’s beautiful world.

God’s beautiful world.

I love God’s beautiful world.

God made it for you.

God made it for me.

I love God’s beautiful world.

It’s a simple song, but it’s theology is good, I think, since I’m one who believes that God is the life force and of necessity involved in the creative process--in an ongoing way too. What isn’t beautiful in the world?

My college roommate loved rain storms, and the more thunder and lightening the better! I was glad rain came to water the plants, but I didn’t think of it as beautiful. It made driving unsafe and getting around sloppy. That didn’t matter a stitch to Bluford. He would leave his studies just to sit and watch, and so I wonder if his take on the world is more in line with Edna St. Vincent Millay’s.

In the poem she is so filled with a sense of beauty that it is about to tear her apart; she hopes for no changes--nothing more than what she sees as she pens the poem. Anything more, and she will be ripped apart she feels. “Lord, I do fear Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year.” Too beautiful. I get that. More beauty than I can take in. More parts of the world are beautiful than I realized. Every part of the world is necessary in order for the world to function as it does, as it must. “Everything is beautiful in its own way,” Ray Stevens used to sing.

On Christmas Eve 2004, the space shuttle Discovery returned to Earth. One of the crew members aboard was Sweden’s first astronaut, Christer Fuglesang. Fuglesang took three spacewalks on that mission, and he told the press that he was overwhelmed by the Earth’s beauty.

O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens....When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?

“World, world, I cannot get thee close enough.”

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