Reflections on the Waterside ...
eventide, looming wisdom ...
 

Photo/image © 2006 Bright iDear


Moonlight cast upon rowboat ~
Mouth of the Merrimack River

 
 

Reflecting on the Full Moon that had cast its light upon a rowboat moored at the Mouth of the Merrimack River in the fall of 2006 would inspire Comity to "dip our oar in" with the following entry to the Newburyport High School's Favorite Poem Contest the following spring. For it happens that each March ~ in anticipation of Poetry Month in April ~ students involved in the NHS "Poetry Soup" and "The Record" literary organizations solicit members of the community for their favorite poems ~ then choose several entries for recitation at an event which concludes the Newburyport Literary Festival.

With submission of the poetry the entrant should answer the good question: Why is this your favorite poem? And so we did.


Sonnet X
from Huntsman, What Quarry?
by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 - 1950)
(published in 1939)

Upon this age, that never speaks its mind,1
This furtive age, this age endowed with power2
To wake the moon with footsteps,3 fit an oar
Into the rowlocks of the wind, and find
What swims before his prow, what swirls behind4 ---
Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,
Falls from the sky a meteoric shower
Of facts ... they live unquestioned, uncombined.

Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
Is daily spun; but there exists no loom
To weave it into fabric
;5 undefiled
Proceeds pure Science, and has her say; but still
Upon this world from the collective womb
Is spewed all day the red triumphant child.6


Corresponding with the students when forwarding the submission "in a Motion of Comity," had explained that this sonnet ~ included on the Comity.org webpage Poetry in Motion ~ is often referenced when promoting the Waterside movement: its words and wisdom remaining a source of inspiration and motivation. While the piece had long been a personal favorite, when it came to light that a young Edna St. Vincent Millay had lived on both sides of the river Merrimack, it took on a special significance in "time and space."7 It was all the more intriguing to imagine a youthful Millay plying the waters of the mouth of the Merrimack River in the early 20th Century. There and then, at eventide in tides gone by, moons ago under the moon's glow, she too might have been inspired by this special place ... where we can reflect on our day's end ... and see our tomorrows emerge with each new dawn.

[When first reading "Sonnet X" ~ which was published with a collection of Edna St. Vincent Millay's poetry entitled "Huntsman, What Quarry?" ~ found the 14-line verse evocative and thought-provoking. Later it proved to be the perfect framework to loom the warp and woof of an unfolding history and "history in the making." And so, in one's personal catalog of favorite poems, the distaff's sonnet was logged and labeled "Looming Wisdom"~ and was always kept close at hand. It was to be a strong ply in the handiwork of seeking ways of better communicating as a community: the thesis at hand being "The Fifth Estate: Community Interactivism" (link within).]

While some may find Millay's piecework too wrought, too enigmatic ~ that is its magic. Let us unravel some of the inference and allusion together. And together we shall loom the meteoric shower of facts into wisdom. And since it is easier to pick up threads of the past than to quickly grasp a string of facts spinning from the wheel ~ this should prove to be good practice in the art of weaving, knitting and looming the narrative of history and history in the making as it unfolds.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~


1 For all the timelessness of this piece, it is the first line ~ (Upon this age, that never speaks its mind) ~ that may seem an anachronism in today's day and age that seemingly ever speaks its mind ~ (with untold ways and means to do so). However, one can make the case that Millay's use of the possessive pronoun "its" refers to "this age" ~ and "mind" infers to a "collective consciousness" described as "a conscious substratum or factor in the universe" (link without).

In the current Information Age, despite all of the available tools and devices ~ looming wisdom from facts and knowledgee often eludes us. Bridging the information divide takes its toll on those seeking "certain (and ascertained) knowledge." More often than not, multifarious and sometimes nefarious speechifying (in every medium) sprays a shower of slanted facts that falls like acid rain ~ only to stunt the growth of any other germinating (and germane) seeds of thought which might be cultivated.

Howbeit, given the timeline ~ taken in its historical context (with the year of publication being 1939) ~ it seems in this line Edna St. Vincent Millay implies her well-known frustration over the reticence of a complacent world ~ and particularly her native country ~ to "speak its mind" about the extremity afoot in Europe. The footnotes that follow retrace the often furtive, often futile steps that led to this fateful chapter in world history.

Millay's poetic justice would be the underpinnings of other works such as "On Thought in Harness" ~ and her later volume of verse concerning World War II, "Make Bright the Arrows" (link without). Throughout her life, Millay would write with a social conscience and consciousness ~ speaking out against social injustice ~ on an individual level such the 1926 execution of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti ~ and on a national and international level such as the wars in Spain and China.
(See link without.)

But what of this particular moment in time when she drafted this resonating sonnet which would be one of twelve to be published in "Huntsman, What Quarry?" Measuring humankind's time and progress as marked, demarked and remarked here in the Waterside (link within) ~ the summer of 1939 would behold with a second full moon in the month of July ~ now commonly termed a (new-style) "blue moon" (link within). Under the light of a Full Harvest Moon that would rise at the Mouth of the Merrimack at eventide ~ across the Atlantic in a less placid waterside setting bordering the Baltic Sea, the Huntsman called Hitler stalked his quarry Poland, which his Nazi henchmen had invaded after taking Czechoslovakia that spring. After a bloody struggle that lasted into October, the quarry would surrender by the New Hunter Moon (link without) ~ soon after divided in a pact between Germany and the then Soviet Union.

Pray, pray for that hunter's next prey. Yet here on this continent, the "sleeping giant" slept on and dreamed of peaceful ends in moons to come. Pray tell and be told, prayers would be answered when Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand responded to Hitler's aggression by declaring war on Germany (link without) in a prelude to a broader engagement between world powers aligned as the Axis and the Allies. The United States joined the Allies after the Japenese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941; Hitler declared war on America four days later (link without). World War II raged on until the year 1945.

The
fellow mind-traveling reader is urged to SMILE through the years and tears of World War II ~ and Seek More Information Logged/linked Electronically with the overview/ review found at this link without and the comprehensive timelines at this link without. But at this link within, let us continue to log the narrative ~ in an attempt to "loom" this "shower of facts ... into wisdom" ...

Before the end came the middle, in the midst of battles where no civilian in the Eastern Hemisphere would be safe. The horrors of the war in Europe escalated with the tyrant's tirades ~ and the next blue moon in April of 1942 shed a harsh light on open persecution of Jews throughout Europe (link without) ultimately with their relocation to so-called work camps where millions of the "undesirables" were incarcerated and incinerated. Many in the midst of that misery would avert their eyes, deny their senses. By the next new-style blue moon in October 1944 ~ when and where the last gassing in Auschwitz took place ~ eight million would be exterminated in the abomination known as the Holocaust. By the old-style blue moon in August 1945 (the third moon in a season of four moons) ~ first Germany then Japan would surrender to the Allies. And by the new-style blue moon in August 1947, a summarized document known as The Marshall Plan would be in hand to restore the devastated European continent after the wake of war (link without).

In the aftermath of the war, the victors configured and reconfigured "solutions" ~ both in ambits and ambitions ~ not only for Europe but Japan and the Middle East ~ with mixed results (link within). Most expert and lay historians would posit that calculations made in 1949 would score positively for Japan's polity and economy within a score years (link without). Despite the relative success of the Marshall Plan, many European countries were caught in the seismic shifts in alliances between factions in the Allied forces (Britain and the United States and their tenuous ally the Soviet Union). Realignments between the European members of the Axis (Germany and Italy) and world ensued throughout the 20th Century (into the New Millennium) during the Cold War. Fractious divisions within the Middle East became increasingly problematic when further compounded by the increase in Jewish immigration during the war. This "move" contrived and condoned by the Allied nations h
ad led to the Arab Revolt in Palestine of 1936 - 1939 (link without) ~ which prompted the First World "dictates" of the "White Paper of 1939" (link without) ~ a wordy doctrine which when enacted led to the hostile actions known as the Palestinian War of 1948-9 the following decade (link without). The complex problems in the Middle East remain unresolved and further complicated during these two generations (of 30 years each) hence ~ with the best way and means to "leech us of our ill" regarding the tensions in the Middle East being the good will of all those who factor into this equation. Where there is a will, there is a way.

2
The age was indeed "endowed with power." In January 1939 German Physicists Lise Meitner and his nephew Otto Frisch sent their results of an experiment in the process of splitting atoms to a London journal, coining the process "nuclear fission" (link without). In the coming months, further experiments were conducted by scientists around the world, and the world had come to terms with the possibility of this phenomenal instrument of destruction. That August, Albert Einstein sent a letter to President Roosevelt about Germany's nuclear research and their potential use of atomic power (uranium) as a military weapon (link without).

3 For all of its potential horror as a weapon of war, this potent energy would make travel to the moon within reach ~ though it would take a full generation of 30 years after Millay's sonnet was published before we were "to wake the moon with footsteps" when Neil Armstrong would take "one small step for a man, one giant step for mankind" (link without).

4 The poet then prescribes the reader to "fit an oar into the rowlocks of the wind, and find what swims before his prow, what swirls behind" ~ then faults humankind for not questioning or challenging facts. The Knowing Ones know to ask good questions and question the answer, to relate and interrelate facts ~ knowing well that there is great divide to span between collecting and retaining facts and gaining wisdom. And to somehow divine the truth, looming wisdom without bias.

5 Interestingly, another landmark in Science would be reached in the year 1939 when the computer company Hewlett-Packard was founded. Initially conducting research and development in a garage in Palo Alto, California, their first product, called the HP 200A Audio Oscillator, became popular test equipment for engineers and technicians in many disciplines (link without).

For World War II would accelerate the application of "pure Science" to produce a "programmable electronic computer." In two years from its inception in 1939, the Colossus would be developed in England, during a top secret code-breaking engineering project to decipher the Lorenz codes that German high command was transmitting (link without). With the Colossus up and running by 1941, Sir Tommy Flowers and his team would be responsible for the earliest version of a mechanical computer ~ with a later hybrid cultivated as the first electronic digital computer (or what most people would consider a "computer" in today's day and age). Of course, there would be so many seeds of thought broadcast during "this gifted age" ~ many germinating into the instruments of Information Technology which we take for granted today. But it is interesting to collect and card the weft of history and "(dis)card" the facts from the falsehoods (link without).

Note that until recently, ENIAC ~ which was developed at the University of Pennsylvania and first operational in the period of June 1944 through October 1945 (a "once in a blue moon opportunity") ~ was considered the first computer (link without). A patent case litigated a generation later (link without) would determine that ENIAC was actually the fruits of the labor of one John Vincent Atanasoff ~ whose 1937 conceptual design for the "Berry Computer" would ripen into its production phase in August 1940 (link without). The litigation proved that the genesis of the first computer had many "gospel truths" to be adjudicated by many Jurists. Do suppose in the end this all has more to do with the varying definitions of the word "computer" than dispositions (or depositions) about its beginnings.

While ENIAC still tends to win first place in the race to be called "the first computer" in the modern sense of the word (link without) ~ it seems that technically speaking ~ "across the pond" ~ the Colossus was operational moons before ENIAC. A blue moon before, to be exact. But Heaven only knows the undefiled truth of the matter.

In any event, this pure Science would be the frame of reference for Millay as she penned the sonnet's lines in 1939. And as a grandfather would prophesize to his young granddaughter a generation later ~ as he recalled the operation of a computer that filled a room at the Naval Shipyard: her generation's world would be forever changed by this remarkable instrument of technology. With its primitive binary switches to calculate facts and figures, it would take more complex calculations in human relations to bring about another device that might loom the facts into wisdom ... and entice its world wide use for the commonweal another generation after that.

6 Which brings us to the End of the Millennium ~ two generations (of thirty years each) after Millay's opus was first published. History records that when the Waterside Plan in Motion was launched anew in 1999 ~ this favorite sonnet would be woven into a proem entitled Poetry in Motion ~ promoting and emoting that today's generations of the Waterside people seek ways of better communicating as a community ~ looming "certain knowledge" as wisdom.

Interestingly, later that year MIT President Charles Vest would include the sonnet in his commencement speech at MIT's 1999 graduation exercises (link without). Vest also mentioned Jack Gibbon's book, "This Gifted Age" (link without) the title of which is inspired by a line from the sonnet, which made this mind-traveling reader consider an earlier interview of Gibbons while he served
in the Clinton-Gore Administration as Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and director of the White House Office and Technology Policy from 1993-1998 (link without).

A reporter had asked Dr. Gibbons about his interpretation of the last two lines of Millay's sonnet, a question which Gibbons dismissed out of hand as irrelevant. He explained that he had never pondered the closing lines, having been solely intrigued with the last three lines of the first stanza (which begins with the phrase which inspired the title of his book) and the first three lines of the second stanza which supported his contemporary thesis on technology.

While of course, this verse traversing the two stanzas makes a most salient point on the subject --- Gibbons missed a golden opportunity when he chose not to mine the rich deposits (and posits) in each line to ultimately forge his "thesis." His selective processing of "facts" (to wit, the sonnet's figurative facets) would be his own antithesis. But then, perhaps appreciation of poetry is more art than science --- (although full appreciation requires an appreciable application of both heart and mind). Yet, the true scientist, in a quest to become one of the Knowing Ones, must be sentient and perceptive enough to "loom wisdom" ~ or will be doomed to compute (and commute) mere facts. And must ask good questions and question the answer ~ for we will never know all of the answers until we know all of the questions, will we?

Thus and so, in response to that reporter's question ~ as one of the (aspiring) Knowing Ones ~ one would venture that Millay concluded her sonnet with a sagacious passage ~ adding an element of hope to this, her omen in an ominous time. She offers a lifeline to the nous ~ a metaphorical, lyrical prescience of the relationship between pure Science (the state of knowing, before science is applied to specific human needs) and humanity.

For "spewed all day" ~ in successive new dawns (link within) ~ the red sun crests upon the horizon. And day after day, humanity's deliverance is found in the premise and promise of each new birth of our collective progeny ~ which in turn regenerates each generation. (Life goes on, as the saying goes.) This fertility in a futile world is humankind's promise, despite our collective antipathy or apathy. This is our lot in Life to cultivate ~ until the animus of some awesome "power" brings our system to an untimely end ~ or until our continued indifference to uphold our compact with Mother Nature to serve as Earth's stewards causes her to sever her part of the convenant.

Of course, interpretation of any poem is highly personal ~ influenced by one's own perception and perspective. So as one of the Knowing Ones who asks good questions and questions the answer, one is wont to ask the fellow mind-traveling reader, What do you think?

Make a virtual "Comity connection" via electronic communication (e-mail exchange) or confirm the calendar for planned physical encounters on terra firma (link within).

7 At the turn of the 20th Century, Edna St. Vincent Millay's mother Cora (nee Buzzell) Millay sought to remove herself and her three daughters from a troubled marriage. While seeking a divorce from Henry Tolman Millay, Cora accepted a position as a visiting nurse and moved from the northern region of Maine back to her hometown of Newburyport. In those early years of the 20th Century, Cora and her three young daughters ~ the eldest Edna (called Vincent), Norma and the youngest Kathleen ~ lived a life of penury, without financial assistance from the estranged father. Although Cora was stridently independent, family members took them in and attempted to help with their subsistance; Cora and her daughters did not have a staid life and stable homestead from 2001 - 2004.

During the winter of 1901, the four lived on Ring's Island with Cora's brother Charles and his wife Jenny. As soon as Cora could afford it, the four settled into an old dwellinghouse across the river in the south end of Newburyport. Those times were desperate: the winters of 1901 through 1904 being some of the coldest on record, with a coal shortage compounding problems in the winter of 1904. That year, Cora contracted influenza and while gravely ill, Vincent took over much of the household responsibility. Soon after, a high fever suffered by Kathleen progressed as a protracted illness with symptoms that confirmed she was stricken with infantile paralysis (polio).

That March was a new style blue moon. And with the summer came the opportunity for Cora to move herself and her daughters from Newburyport to Camden, Maine ~ where they stayed with family members for the summer months. Cora was to return to Newburyport alone later in November, where and when she would write to her daughters about "new beginnings" while she packed up the last of their meager belongings and closed up the house at 78 Lime Street. (An excerpt from one source of this biographical information can be found archived at the Google books link without ~ with additional published articles about the poet and her life archived at this link without.)

 
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