Public Domain Day advent calendar #15: Keen by Edna St. Vincent Millay

“Weep him dead and mourn as you may,
Me, I sing as I must:
Blessed be Death, that cuts in marble
What would have sunk to dust! ”

The poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay made frequent appearances in print in the early 20th century.  She first caught the public’s attention in 1912 with her poem “Renascence”, written while she was still a teenager.  In 1923 she won the Pulitzer Prize for various works of poetry that she had published the previous year.  The works specifically recognized were The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver, A Few Figs from Thistles, and a group of sonnets that appeared in American Poetry: A Miscellany. All were published in 1922 and are in the public domain now.

Her published output didn’t slow down in 1923.  In the 1950 Catalog of Copyright Entries I find renewals for several of her poems published in well-known magazines during 1923, all of which will be joining the public domain 17 days from now.  One 1923 poem that particularly sticks with me is “Keen”, which was published in the July 1923 issue of the Century magazine.  The first stanza, quoted at the top of this post, sets the mood of the poem, which takes cold comfort in the sudden death of a loved one lost at sea.  At least, the narrator muses, I’ll remember the happiness of the relationship we had, which never had time to deteriorate.

Millay herself died suddenly in 1950 at the age of 58, and was discovered at the bottom of a staircase in her home.  A number of friends and relatives of mine have also lost loved ones around this time of year.  If those close to Millay were like them, I think that given the choice, they’d want to stay with her longer, even if joys like the poem’s “summer month” did not last.   And I think the narrator of the poem, who sings “as I must”, might ultimately agree.  But without the power to make that choice, the narrator continues to hold this small bit of consolation “to my heart”.

In 17 days, we’ll have this poem and several others by Millay joining the public domain in the US.  I hope we all will be around to enjoy them then.  And I hope that even before then, we can all spend some meaningful time with those around us who we love.

2019 update: Link to full text of “Keen” as published in the July 1923 issue of The Century Magazine now in the US public domain, courtesy of HathiTrust.

About John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library strategist at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.
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