Miike Snow--"Sans Soleil" (live)
Sunday Night Journal, February 4, 2018

52 Poems, Week 5: Conscientious Objector (Edna St. Vincent Millay)

Edna St. Vincent Millay was one of the poets I was introduced to in high school. I remember my English teacher talking about how her poem “Renassance” won recognition in a literary contest when she was just nineteen, and that many were astounded that a nineteen year old could have actually written such a poem. That was an inspiring story to a teenager, but the poet’s words from another poem would have an even greater impact on me as an adult.

I was a few years out of college when her poem. “Conscientious Objector” caught my attention. I heard it incorporated into a performance at a Peter Paul & Mary concert on television. When I heard the opening lines, I knew that I had to find that poem. I eagerly sought it out – and that was before the days of the internet. I made use of the public library and it was there that I found the print version of the poem.

"Conscientious Objector" was written in 1934 and speaks to some pressing issues of the day, yet it also speaks just as surely to issues of our current day.


I shall die, but
that is all that I shall do for Death.
I hear him leading his horse out of the stall;
I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba,
business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle
while he clinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself:
I will not give him a leg up.

Though he flick my shoulders with his whip,
I will not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where
the black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death;
I am not on his pay-roll.

I will not tell him the whereabout of my friends
nor of my enemies either.
Though he promise me much,
I will not map him the route to any man's door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living,
that I should deliver men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city
are safe with me; never through me Shall you be overcome.

--Charles Kinnaird is a lover of poetry, and a grateful English major, who earns his keep as a registered nurse. A husband, father, companion to dogs, feeder of birds, lover of nature, and guitar strummer, his blog, Not Dark Yet, can be found at https://notdarkyet-commentary.blogspot.com.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

That is a stunning piece of work. I only heard of Edna St. Vincent Millay four or five years ago, through a "let's post poetry" thing on Facebook. She really was a remarkable writer.

Yes, it is.

It's funny, I am going to mention another one of her poems in my post, but it's not the poem I'm writing about.


A blog procedure-style sort of thing: last week it was William Carlos Williams, and in the title I just used his last name. I had debated about that and finally decided he was well-known enough to use only that. Also, I couldn't think of another famous poet named Williams. So today I had the same little debate with myself and decided on the whole name, not for any clear reason. I guess "Millay" would have been enough, and I don't know of another poet with that name. Anyway, Paul's comment makes me think perhaps she's not as well-known as I thought. Maybe not outside the USA?

Maybe it was because "Edna St. Vincent Millay" just sounds good.

Wish I'd never read her biography. She ended up a terrible drug addict.

Was she? I guess it's not too surprising, as she was very much a bohemian, or at least that's my impression. In general I think it's wise not to read biographies of artists. :-/

Yes, her life was miserable, in predictable bohemian ways. But I'd never heard of her before an American mentioned her, so I'm guessing she's not so well known in Europe, or at least in England.

I also read her first in high school, probably the poem that starts "We were very tired, we were very merry, we had gone back and forth all night on the ferry". What I remember most, though, is the photo of her that must have been in the anthology we used; I thought she looked so terribly sad. I think it may have been this one.

I've seen that picture or a similar one before. It didn't strike me as sad. More sort of...defiant I guess. But looking at it more now I see what you mean.

That sounds like the beginning of a funny poem. I haven't really read much of her work. The only thing I remember distinctly is the candle-burning-at-both-ends one. Pretty sure we had Renascence (sp?) in high school but it didn't make a big impression on me.

A poignant poem for me, in a week when our government, backed up by a court ruling, has said that doctors (like my wife) will be compelled to "map him the route".

I'll pass this poem along to my wife.

Horrible. And there's a strong push for the same sort of thing in this country, with the same sort of rationale for compulsion: you can't deny or obstruct "health care" for anyone who needs it. I've seen/heard liberal friends rage on that point as if it were the most obvious and obviously correct way of looking at it, and obscene to allow "religion" to get in the way. It relies on a pretty perverse definition of "health care."

That is dismal. And the notion that doctors can choose to work in fields of medicine that don't pose such questions, so should leave their consciences at the door when they choose to work in fields where the issues do arise, strikes me as very poor faith or very poor judgement on the judges' part.

That's probably just a sort of opening gambit, with the goal being to make it impossible for dissenters to practice medicine at all.

Yes, we already have evidence that some medical schools in Canada are starting to screen applicants based on their attitudes toward euthanasia.

That seems almost inevitable, even in the absence of ideological malice. Accommodating dissenters would be a hassle so there would be a natural tendency to want to avoid dealing with them.

The comments to this entry are closed.