“Euclid Alone” and “Assault” by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Selected for Immortal Muse by Zireaux (read Zireaux’s comments on this poem)

Euclid Alone

Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.
Let all who prate of Beauty hold their peace,
And lay them prone upon the earth and cease
To ponder on themselves, the while they stare
At nothing, intricately drawn nowhere
In shapes of shifting lineage; let geese
Gabble and hiss, but heroes seek release
From dusty bondage into luminous air.
O blinding hour, O holy, terrible day,
When first the shaft into his vision shone
Of light anatomized! Euclid alone
Has looked on Beauty bare. Fortunate they
Who, though once only and then but far away,
Have heard her massive sandal set on stone.


I had forgotten how the frogs must sound
After a year of silence, else I think
I should not so have ventured forth alone
At dusk upon this unfrequented road.

I am waylaid by Beauty. Who will walk
Between me and the crying of the frogs?
Oh, savage Beauty, suffer me to pass,
That am a timid woman, on her way
From one house to another!

Zireaux’s comments on these poems:
“The imperfect is hot in us,” sings Wallace Stevens (see last Tuesday’s poem). So what about the perfect? How does it feel? Hot? Cold? Edna St Vincent Millay tells us only this: It’s bright. And it’s audible. Light anatomized. The sound of a massive sandal set on stone. Here you can see a Greek sculpture (c. 100 B.C.) of Aphrodite wearing sandals — or jandals as we call them in Kiwiland — despite her divine nudity (she’s removed one, threatening to strike Pan, who seems, of course, to desire that slap). Aphrodite and Pan, National Museum, Athens, Greece, 100 B.C. And here again, another foot-shod Beauty bare, in the famous Hans Memling’s painting, Triptych of Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation (c. 1485). Hans Memling's Triptych of Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation It makes sense to wear sandals amidst Memling’s prickly turf — but set on stone? Mortals remove their shoes when entering the stone-floored temple; and hence the goddess must slip them on during her earthly incarnations.

Millay’s geese are brilliant. However long the soaring gaggle of poets flock across the heavens, their shifting angles will never form anything of geometric precision. Never? Never. Millay is precise with her Pertrarchan sonnet: a theme of unattainable beauty, a traditional rhyme scheme, but she adds an extra syllable each — 11 instead of 10 — in lines eight (the end of the octave) and nine (the beginning of the sestet). Why did I combine Millay’s “Euclid Alone” with her “Assault”? I wanted you to see the “dusk of the unfrequented road,” hear those frogs, her noisy lost and savage beauty. In another poem (“Sonnet XLIII”) it’s “crying lads” who haunt the poet. “Who will walk / between me and the crying of the frogs?” Euclid.

Of course there’s an inflated seriousness to Millay’s heavy language and male-ending rhymes that poets like myself are tempted to prick. Replace “O terrible day” with “O frabjous day,” “luminous” with “frumious,” her crying frogs with “slithy toves,” and one wonders about the timidity and terror of a mature and brilliant poet like Millay when that great mathematician, Lewis Carrol, with a vorpol sword, or verbal blade of linguistic gobbledygook, just struts right in and slays the damn thing.

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