Millay contrasts the lively imagery of Spring with the death and decay that is associated with Winter. Spring comes after Winter, bringing new life to nature as the trees begin sprouting fresh leaves and plants begin to grow back. Like Eliot, Millay presents Spring as something terrible, in the original sense of the word, covering the death that came before it.
Millay starts the poem with a rhetorical question. The reader nor Spring can answer the question, “To what purpose, April, do you return again” (line 1)? The speaker asks April the question, personifying the month most associated with Spring. Giving April the blame as a person provides the inanimate month the responsibility for its uncourteous appearance at the end of the mourning Winter. Could April not read the room? How dare April return to cover up and ignore the past? Millay writes this as a one-sided conversation. Spring does not get the privilege to answer.
The speaker is bitter and wants to cause damage. The personification of Spring allows the speaker to lay all of their grief unto it without fear of retaliation or remorse. Millay writes, “Beauty is not enough” (line 2) to insult the poem's object. Beauty is celebrated in most instances, rarely being associated with negative connotations. Beauty is a shortcoming to Millay, like a present that nobody wanted. The beauty is not enough to cover up the speaker is upset about, as it does not hide the ugly underneath.
Spring is actively trying to conceal the past and is a repeat offender. The speaker says, “You can no longer quiet me with the redness/ Of little leaves opening stickily./ I know what I know” (lines 3-5). They address Spring as a person capable of intelligent thought again. Red is typically used as a color that expresses anger or love. In this case, Spring is lovingly using red, and the speaker perceives this as false with a negative connotation, displaying the speaker’s anger and hatred for Spring. The speaker features an accusatory tone in the fifth line of the poem. They know something that was being hidden or ignored and must make it known that they are aware.
The mention of heat in the following line adds to the sense of anger. “The sun is hot on my neck as I observe/ The spikes of the crocus” (lines 6-7). The heat of spring is a negative for the speaker, causing discomfort in a vulnerable area of the body. Flowers represent new life and beauty in the same way that Spring does. The crocus is a flower, but the spikes are n t the dangerous sort of spikes that can cause harm, like sticks that poke out of the ground around the flower. Without this knowledge, a spike connotates a harmful action or situation.
The following two lines signify the turn in the poem in which the speaker begins to reason why they have a strong distaste for the Spring season. Millay writes, “The smell of the earth is good./ There is no death” (Lines 8-9). The smell of the Earth arguably smells like cow manure. Still, besides that point, Millay probably intends the olfactory imagery to be recognizable as florals and fresh air to match the well-known Spring atmosphere. The death has been hidden. Death is a recoiling smell in most descriptions, contrasting the above description. However, Spring cannot exist with death and decay. Every living thing feasts on something once alive and now dead.
Bodies buried deep within the ground are food for worms. In turn, the worms fertilize plants, carnivores and omnivores eat plants, and so on, in a cycle. Death is natural. For something so natural and frequently-occurring, Death keeps its negative experience and connotations within media and most societal norms. The speaker is wrong to say there is no death because there is no evidence horrifically gory decaying body lying on the forest floor. Death is essential. In response to the supposed lack of death, the speaker asks, “But what does that signify?” (10). The significance is that there is only a lack of immediate death. There is no life without death and no death without life. There is no existence without the other.
The speaker finally describes what is underneath the ground that disturbs them. They take the following eight lines to describe their hatred of Spring and Spring's role in the situation. Millay describes, "Not only under ground are the brains of men/ Eaten by maggots" (Lines 11-12). While yes, under the ground is mostly where bodies end up if we want to disregard burials at sea, Viking funerals, and cremation, "under ground" is suffocating imagery. There is nowhere to escape. The dead body cannot be conscious of its brain being eaten by nagging and cannot choose to leave this natural morbid experience. It is only the living that wishes to dwell on these matters. Being dead is a helpless state of being without being there.
The speaker is spiraling at this next point in the poem, dwelling on the lack of life within those who have departed from the living world yet whose bodies still feed nature. The speaker laments, "Life in itself/ Is nothing"( Lines 12-14), reflecting a nihilistic worldview. The tone of these lines is calm and accepting. The lines are short, neither being complete sentences but a continuing statement with a pause between the lines to give the reader a chance to reflect and gather their thoughts as the speaker must. These two lines contrast the anger and harshness of the poem's first half. In the poem's first half, the lines are long as the speaker must take their time and effort to get their point across. Lines twelve through fourteen are of bitter acceptance. They did not want to believe life was meaningless when there was so much Springtime nature imagery to prove that life is abundant. However, life as an experience rather than a state of being is where the speaker has a gripe.
Millay uses a couple of metaphors to convey her point in case the reader has not been paying attention thus far, comparing life to " An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs" (Line 15). These are not the two worst things in the world. An empty cup just needs a refill, and the carpet on the stairs seems like much work to clean. These are all things that need to bless focused on and mean nothing in the end.
Millay ends her poem by insulting the personification of Spring, addressing the audience, “It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,/ April/ Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers”( Lines 16-18). Millay implies that she has a specific hill or place in mind when she is writing the poem. “April” is by itself in the line emphasizing this month instead of Spring as a whole. Millay calls April an “idiot,” implying that there is no intentional reason that this personification is doing what it does. There is no rhyme or reason why April comes and Spring produces life, but the speaker cannot let go of the past slipping away. Adding on to the insult of an idiot, Millay describes April as “babbling,” rendering April incoherent and without proper speech. This coming of Spring is not intentionally harmful but still pushes away the memories and bodies of the dead, threatening to be forgotten as time passes.
"Spring By Edna St. Vincent Millay | Poetry Foundation". Poetry Foundation, 2022, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44728/spring-56d223f01f86e. Accessed 25 Oct 2022.
About the Creator
Hello! I am one semester away from graduating with my English BA. I work as an informal STEM Educator and Writing Tutor. I like to write and get my thoughts out in my essays and short stories. Stay tuned :)
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