Lifesaving Poems: Edna St. Vincent Millay’s ‘Time does not bring relief’

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Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide.
There are a hundred places where I fear
To go,—so with his memory they brim.
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)

 

Sitting in its frame on the office wall of a colleague, the poem caught my eye during a meeting. How many times had I seen it? Five? Twenty? A hundred? How many had I ignored it? ‘You all have lied’ jumped out at me with sudden and contemporary force, ditto ‘I miss him in the weeping of the rain’, the natural object enacting the adequate symbol of its bereavement and taking the meeting I was in to a very remote place, as in certain representations of horror or confusion in films, when the action is slowed down and the sound conjured to a slur, as if to mimic waking from a dream or the slow loss of consciousness.

‘There are a hundred places where I fear/ To go’: isn’t that exactly what it’s like, I found myself thinking. It could have been written yesterday.

It reminded me, too, of recovering from serious illness, that shaky-nervy feeling of encountering everyone all over again, colleagues, friends and family, in the same rooms as before, but in a completely different landscape. I knew them in the world of before, the poem says, now I have to ‘go’ to the world of after. Even not-remembering is a kind of remembering. Usually your body knows it before you do, your eyes starting to leak as you regard the houmous shelves in Sainsbury’s, or catch the snatch of song, or find the room has grown dark, your tea gone cold, suddenly realising you have been sitting there for hours.

The poem’s rhymes impersonate the shifting tides of grief perfectly, sometimes close together (‘pain’/’rain’; ‘place’/’face’), and sometimes far apart, even when (perhaps especially then?) you think you are safe (‘brim’/’him; ‘fear’/here’).

8 comments

  1. ggmissm

    Shakespeare had nothing on Millay when it comes to sonnets of love. I realize that’s near-blasphemy, but Millay’s sonnets move me just as Shakespeare’s do especially when speaking of love lost. This is one of her best and went straight to my heart. (A morning cry never hurt any of us.)…Thank you, Anthony.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sue Hepworth (@suehepworth)

    It is very moving, but Edna St Vincent Millay’s poem Dirge without Music is my very favourite poem about bereavement and grief, the first line of which is “I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.” It speaks the unvarnished ‘truth’ about bereavement and when I was grieving for my father it was the most comforting poem because of this.

    Liked by 2 people

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