Millay's "Epitaph for the Race of Man"

Human Wrongs Watch

By John Scales Avery*

The beautiful red-haired American poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), is known for her lyric poetry, but she also wrote some of the finest sonnets in the English language, combining classic form with modern imagery.

**Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) | Author; Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964) Link back to Creator infobox template wikidata:Q312851 | Public Domain | Wikimedia Commons

**Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) | Author; Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964) Link back to Creator infobox template wikidata:Q312851 | Public Domain | Wikimedia Commons

Many of these sonnets are based on the emotions that she experienced in her love affairs with both men and women.

However, my own favorite is a serious sequence of eighteen sonnets, “Epitaph for the Race of Man”, published in 1934, just as the catastrophe of World War II was about to engulf our planet.

The basic premise of Millay’s “Epitaph” is that we know from the evolutionary history of life on earth, that no species survives forever.

She speculates on what will be the final cause of the extinction of the human race, and concludes that Man will die by his own hand, since none the innumerable disasters that nature has thrown at us over the millennia has persuaded humankind “to lay aside the lever and the spade, and be as dust among the dusts that blow”.

Here are a few of the sonnets from the sequence:

“Oh Earth, unhappy planet, born to die,

Might I your scribe and your confessor be,

What wonders must you not relate to me

Of Man, who, when his destiny was high

Strode like the sun into the middle sky

And shone an hour, and who so bright as he,

And like the sun went down into the sea,

Leaving no spark to be remembered by.

But no; you have not learned in all these years

To tell the leopard and the newt apart;

Man, with his singular laughter, his droll tears,

His engines and his conscience and his art,

Made but a simple sound upon your ears:

The patient beating of an animal heart.”

“Alas for Man, so stealthily betrayed,

Bearing the bad cell in him from the start,

Pumping and feeding on his healthy heart

That wild disorder never to be stayed

When once established, destined to invade

With angry hordes the true and proper part,

‘Til Reason joggles in the headsman’s cart.

And Mania spits from every balustrade.

Would he had searched his closet for his bane,

Where lurked the trusted ancient of his soul,

Obsequious Greed, and seen that visage plain;

Would he had whittled treason from his side

In his stout youth and bled his body whole,

Then had he died a king, or never died.”

“Here lies, and none to mourn him but the sea,

That falls incessant on the empty shore,

Most various Man, cut down to spring no more;

Before his prime, even in his infancy

Cut down, and all the clamour that was he,

Silenced; and all the riveted pride he wore,

A rusted iron column whose tall core

The rains have tunneled like an aspen tree.

Man, doughty Man, what power has brought you low,

That heaven itself in arms could not persuade

To lay aside the lever and the spade

And be as dust among the dusts that blow?

Whence, whence the broadside? Whose the heavy blade?…

Strive not to speak, poor scattered mouth; I know.”

It seems to me that although Millay’s words were extremely appropriate as a warning to humankind in 1934, they are even more heavy with meaning today.

Please read the whole sonnet sequence yourself. You can do so by clicking on the link below. Millay speaks eloquently to us over the years:

john_avery*John Scales Avery, Ph.D., who was part of a group that shared the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in organizing the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

He is chairman of both the Danish National Pugwash Group and the Danish Peace Academy and received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent book is Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century

**Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) | Author; Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964) Link back to Creator infobox template wikidata:Q312851 | Public Domain | Wikimedia Commons

2015 Human Wrongs Watch

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