Why We Need Dismal Poems About Death and Maggots
All the beauty in the world is no compensation for the ending of love, Edna St. Vincent Millay argues in her brief and bitter poem, "Spring," Yes, there are flowers and they are nice. Yes, there is the natural world in its cycles of rejuvenation and sprouting. But all of that, she says, is entirely worthless and even insulting when you are standing by the grave of the friend who is not there or anywhere, who is never to be found again. When you watch the first shovel of earth drop onto the casket, your heart within you will be filled with terror. You will turn instinctively to tell it to your dearest friend, to explain your disorientation and your loneliness. But they will not be there. And for this shudder of panicked isolation, there is no compensation. Millay is angry that anyone might think that anything could make this sorrow the least bit better. It is not enough, she says.
And I think God is not quarreling with Millay or angered by her hopeless poem. When I hear God responding to Millay, I hear him saying, “No, it’s not. It’s not enough. It’s an outrage.”
It’s not enough that here in the chaos and the misery of lives punctuated by deaths, little good things happen. Little flowers sometimes open. Little kind words are sometimes said. God knows that. After all, if there is a God, isn’t he a God of truth and of the real? Nothing that is real should be too much for the world’s maker to handle with complete understanding and goodness. So I think that every honest and skillful representation of the human experience should be of value to Christian people because it can tell us something about what is real. What is real in this poem is its unflinching stare at the dark bottom of the human experience of death. The poem tells us that humans are horrified and unmade by the thievery of death. This is a real thing to which God has a real response. And that response is, “I won’t stand for it.”
[Read the full piece in the Spring 2019 issue of the Cultivating Project.]