Invocation to the Muses
Edna St Vincent Millay (22nd February, 1892 – 19th October, 1950)
Great Muse, that from this hall absent for long
Hast never been,
Great Muse of Song,
Colossal Muse of mighty Melody,
With thine august and contrapuntal brow
And thy vast throat builded for Harmony,
For the strict monumental pure design,
And the melodic line:
Be thou tonight with all beneath these rafters—be with me.
If I address thee in archaic style—
Words obsolete, words obsolescent,
It is that for a little while
The heart must, oh indeed must from this angry and out–rageous present
Into some past in which most crooked Evil,
Although quite certainly conceived and born, was not as yet the Law.
Archaic, or obsolescent at the least,
Be thy grave speaking and the careful words of thy clear song,
For the time wrongs us, and the words most common to our speech today
Salute and welcome to the feast
Conspicuous Evil— or against him all day long
Cry out, telling of ugly deeds and most uncommon wrong.
Be thou tonight with all beneath these rafters—be with me
But oh, be more with those who are not free.
Who, herded into prison camps all shame must suffer and all outrage see.
Where music is not played nor sung,
Though the great voice be there, no sound from the dry throat across the thickened tongue
Comes forth; nor has he heart for it.
Beauty in all things—no, we cannot hope for that; but some place set apart for it.
Here it may dwell;
And with your aid, Melpomene
And all thy sister–muses (for ye are, I think, daughters of Memory)
Within the tortured mind as well.
Reaped are those fields with dragon’s–teeth so lately sown;
Many the heaped men dying there – so close, hip touches thigh; yet each man dies alone.
Music, what overtone
For the soft ultimate sigh or the unheeded groan
Hast thou—to make death decent, where men slip
Down blood to death, no service of grieved heart or ritual lip
Transferring what was recently a man and still is warm—
Transferring his obedient limbs into the shallow grave where not again a friend shall greet him,
Nor hatred do him harm …
Nor true love run to meet him?
In the last hours of him who lies untended
On a cold field at night, and sees the hard bright stars
Above his upturned face, and says aloud “How strange … my life is ended.”—
If in the past he loved great music much, and knew it well,
Let not his lapsing mind be teased by well–beloved but ill– remembered bars —
Let the full symphony across the blood–soaked field
By him be heard, most pure in every part,
The lonely horror of whose painful death is thus repealed,
Who dies with quiet tears upon his upturned face, making to glow with softness the hard stars.
And bring to those who knew great poetry well
Page after page that they have loved but have not learned by heart!
We who in comfort to well–lighted shelves
Can turn for all the poets ever wrote,
Beseech you: Bear to those
Who love high art no less than we ourselves,
Those who lie wounded, those who in prison cast
Strive to recall, to ease them, some great ode, and every stanza save the last.
Recall—oh, in the dark, restore them
The unremembered lines; make bright the page before them!
Page after page present to these,
In prison concentrated, watched by barbs of bayonet and wire,
Give ye to them their hearts’ intense desire—
The words of Shelley, Virgil, Sophocles.
And thou, O lovely and not sad,
Euterpe, be thou in this hall tonight!
Bid us remember all we ever had
Of sweet and gay delight—
We who are free,
But cannot quite be glad,
Thinking of huge, abrupt disaster brought
Upon so many of our kind
Who treasure as do we the vivid look on the unfrightened face,
The careless happy stride from place to place,
And the unbounded regions of untrammelled thought
Open as interstellar space
To the exploring and excited mind.
O Muses, O immortal Nine!—
Or do ye languish? Can ye die?
Must all go under?—
How shall we heal without your help a world
By these wild horses torn asunder?
How shall we build anew? — How start again?
How cure, how even moderate this pain
Without you, and you strong?
And if ye sleep, then waken!
And if ye sicken and do plan to die,
Do not that now!
Hear us, in what sharp need we cry!
For we have help nowhere
If not in you!
Pity can much, and so a mighty mind, but cannot all things do!—
By you forsaken,
We shall be scattered, we shall be overtaken!
Oh, come! Renew in us the ancient wonder,
The grace of life, its courage, and its joy!
Weave us those garlands nothing can destroy!
Come! with your radiant eyes! — with your throats of thunder!
* Deliverd at The Public Ceremonial of The Naional Institute of Arts and Letters at Carnegie Hall, New York, 18th January, 1941 by poet herself.
The Flute Concert of Sanssouci by Adolph Menzel (1852) – Frederick the Great playing flute and Bach assisting him on the harpsichord.