The work of the American poet Edna St Vincent Millay (1892-1950) is on the whole a bit too unabashedly romantic for my taste, but I do much admire this sonnet, which combines her usual sensuousness with a solidity not always present in her work. I would like to know more about the context of the poem – it’s clear that she is pretty cross with someone but whom, when and why I have never been able to establish – anyone know? Not that the whom, when and why really matter.
Hearing your Words
Hearing your words and not a word among them
Tuned to my liking, on a salty day
When inland woods were pushed by winds that flung them
Hissing to leeward like a ton of spray,
I thought how off Matinicus the tide
Came pounding in, came running through the Gut,
While from the Rock the warning whistle cried,
And children whimpered, and the doors blew shut;
There in the autumn when the men go forth,
With slapping skirts the island women stand
In gardens stripped and scattered, peering north,
With dahlia tubers dripping from the hand:
The wind of their endurance, driving south,
Flattened your words against your speaking mouth.
Edna St Vincent Millay
I read this poem several times and was struck by the combination of images that so accurately conveyed the breath being forced back into one’s mouth by the wind. It occurs to me that the speaker in the poem is a man who dislikes what he is hearing from his girlfriend. They seem to me to be in the middle of an argument, and he is comparing himself to sailors or fishermen whose wives and families fear for their absence and wait loyally for them through storms. His girlfriend, in this instance, does not convey the sense of longing or loyalty that he expects or desires. Their attitude towards their lovers or husbands is what pushes her words “untuned” against her mouth.
Thanks for the suggestion, but I must say I have always assumed that it is the other way round i.e. a woman speaking and not liking what she is hearing from a man, and that seems more to fit the closing lines in which, as I take it, she is invoking a female solidarity in rebuttal of what he is saying: it is the elemental power of ‘their endurance’ i.e. the island women’s, that she calls on to silence him. And given what we know of Edna St Vincent Millay, as an early feminist activist, it seems much more likely that she is speaking as or for a woman. What does anyone else think?