Huntsman, What Quarry?
THERE are two things in Miss Millay’s poetry which justify its claim to excellence. The first is a simple epigrammatic neatness and inevitability, and the second is an incantatory control of rhythm, especially in her use of the sonnet. Both are well illustrated in this new volume: a poem such as ‘The True Encounter’ exemplifies the first, and the concluding group of sonnets exemplifies the second. They are musical, they are nicely controlled, they have a turn or twist which often scrapes the edge of universality. Their
chief subject matter is familiar to Miss Millay’s readers — the defiance of death, the acceptance of love — a bravado that is appealing partly because of its romanticism, partly because it is expressed in words that sound so well. Yet Miss Millay’s faults are here, too. A thoroughly so well. Yet Miss Millay’s faults are here, too. A thoroughly successful poem is, we may say, like the human skin: though it is essentially one substance, it may roughly be divided into three layers. There is the sensuous appeal of the sound, there is the emotion, and there is the pattern of thought. If, for purposes of analysis, the three are illegitimately separated, what we find, as far as Miss Millay’s poems are concerned, is that the first two layers are usually firm enough, but that the third is likely to be flimsy. To change the metaphor, few of the poems will stand probing by the mind, as the best poems of Emily Dickinson will stand probing by the mind. The intellectual implications of her emotional attitudes are not fully realized. ‘The Snow Storm’ is an example-the imagery here is not thought through; another example is the sonnet beginning ‘Enormous Moon,’where the images, though good in themselves, are not sufficiently relevant to the central idea. And when we realize this, we begin to wonder about the diction: are not some of the words more forced than strong, and is not the vocabulary frequently insecure?
I do not mean to suggest that Miss Millay is a bad poet. She is not. But her poetry is incomplete. And in spite of much writing that gives real pleasure, it is still incomplete in the present volume.