Shakespeare and Things Part II
I just finished my reading assignments for British Literature II. I read selected poems of “Voices from World War I.” Once again, I dug through the layered cobwebs of my mind finding traces of memories there. The poems revealing the hypocrisies of the Church during war and the atrocities of battle made me remember a poem I read when I was nine years old—“Conscientious Objector” by Edna St. Vincent Millay. I remember reading that poem for the first time and thinking it must be the most beautiful poem ever written. I kept a shoebox with tokens from my childhood and cut that poem out of my fourth grade Literature book to place in my precious cache of memories. (No, I did not deface a book belonging to the school. My fourth grade teacher saw something in me that encouraged her to give me her teacher’s edition of the book). I still have that book. I still love that teacher. There was something mysterious attracting me to Millay’s words. I probably never heard of Shakespeare at nine years of age, but Millay was a poetry goddess in my developing mind.
Finding that memory in my mind makes me smile. A little girl who did not yet understand the concept of patriotism or war was fascinated with a poem opposing the idea of killing. I later believed that I should be ashamed for loving that poem. I remember a junior high school teacher telling me that the poem was bad. I remember how crushed I felt. That poem was a catalyst to my love of literature and someone I respected was telling me that I should be ashamed. I questioned my literary taste and my own sense of morals. Every time I was attracted to a poem or prose, I wondered if I was a bad person. I questioned my own instincts.
It took many years for me to bury the emotions I experienced when I believed my love of literature was a mistake. I found those emotions today. There, among rotting paper dolls and dead roses, lay crushed dreams, but they were still alive. I will pull those crushed dreams from that corner of my mind and breathe new life into them. It took a group of dead poets to highlight the expedition in my mind. Our quest was to save dying dreams. Those same dead poets also helped me to find the memory of an excited little cotton-topped girl discovering a love for poetry. If one confusing painful memory preserves a beautiful memory that makes me who I am—then I will strike down the cobwebs with Excalibur and retain both.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death.
I hear him leading his horse out of the stall; I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba, business in the Balkans,
many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle while he clinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself: I will not give him a leg up.
Though he flick my shoulders with his whip, I will not tell him
which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where the black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death; I am not on his pay-roll.
I will not tell him the whereabout of my friends nor of my enemies either.
Though he promise me much, I will not map him the route to any man’s door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living, that I should deliver men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city are safe with me; never through me
Shall you be overcome.
~Edna St. Vincent Millay
Millay’s poem is still beautiful to me. I wonder if Shakespeare cringed when he read Millay’s “Conscientious Objector” or Wilfred Owen’s satirical stance “Dulce Et Decorum Est.” I think not. I think he probably glowed a little because he knew that he had inspired a love for literature in these authors. Well, glow a little more and walk even a little prouder, Mr. Shakespeare, because you have inspired many through the years. Even I am finding all the places you hide within the crevices of my mind. How sweet it is to find you there.