Poems About Life: Main Homepage   Nature Poetry and the Human World, link. Nature scene of rocks, plants and water. Identified as Lake Saimaa in Finland.


by Edna St. Vincent Millay

To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots,
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.


- - - - - -
"Spring" appeared in the book, Second April,
by Edna St. Vincent Millay, in 1921

"Spring" by Edna St. Vincent Millay:
Horror at Existence

"Spring" is typically seen as the time when the world comes back to life. It is when bare branches fill out with lush green leaves and a variety of animals can be seen going about their tasks. But the poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, plays against this perception in her poem, "Spring," which tells us in angry and disturbingly blunt language that the beauty of nature can't compensate for the existence of death.

But her poem also goes further than that, depicting the good qualities of nature we see in the spring as merely a lie that can give us a false sense that death doesn't exist. The poem refuses to participate in the lie and instead depicts death with a graphic and repulsive image.

Toward the end, in a state of existential despair, the speaker of the poem depicts life as absurd: "Life in itself/ Is nothing,/ An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs," she says, in words that echo Shakespeare's famous lines from Macbeth that tell us life is "a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing."

The speaker similarly tells us that it isn't enough that "yearly, down this hill, / April / Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers," which calls up the image of the doomed character Ophelia in Hamlet, who, having gone mad, hands out flowers. 

The poem enhances this sense of horror by describing the new life of spring in a way that calls up ideas of violence and death. Here, she uses the botanical word, spikes, which calls up a second meaning of something threatening and pointed, and she refers to "...the redness/ Of little leaves opening stickily," which evokes an association to wounds and blood. In effect, the poem buries images of death in its description of new life in nature, thereby embodying its own theme, which is that  the terrible truth about mortality is poorly hidden in the appearance of rebirth in the spring.

"Spring" stands in contrast to another poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, "God's World," where different language is used to comment on another aspect of nature, and express a different state of mind. That poem describes autumn, which is the season before the "death" of winter, as a season of great beauty while, ironically, in this poem, spring, the season traditionally seen as a time of rebirth, is instead associated with ideas about death.

It is also interesting to compare this poem to "Design," by Robert Frost. "Spring" is an angry response to suffering and death in nature, while "Design" is a cooler and more ironic response to the same thing. But both are an expression of horror at the inescapable truth about nature. 

-- Ken Sanes

Note: The poem starts off by addressing nature and asking a rhetorical question: "To what purpose, April, do you return again?" The lines that echo Macbeth  then offer an answer: "Life in itself/ Is nothing,/ An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs." In other words, the speaker can't see a purpose, as the poet tries to evoke a state of horror in us over life and nature.

 Also, "the redness/ Of little leaves opening stickily" might refer to the cycle of female fertility.

Here's a pdf file with a student paper about Millay, and a discussion of the poem part of the way down:
A Dirge Without Music: Death in the Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay

Nature Poetry and the Human World
Poems About Life: Main Homepage

You are welcome to send me an email at
letters at kensanes.com
Please see this page for image information.
Copyright 2010-2011 Ken Sanes