If I should learn, in some quite casual way,
That you were gone, not to return again–
Read from the back-page of a paper, say,
Held by a neighbour in a subway train,
And such a street (so are the papers filled)
A hurrying man–who happened to be you–
At noon to-day had happened to be killed,
I should not cry aloud–I could not cry
Aloud, or wring my hands in such a place–
I should but watch the station lights rush by
With a more careful interest on my face,
Or raise my eyes and read with greater care
Where to store furs and how to treat the hair.
Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 – 1950)
A sonnet with rhyming scheme ‘abab cdcd efef gg’ with a clear volta breaking the text into the notice of a death and the corresponding effect on the person hearing the news.
There is an ‘if’ about this poem – If I should learn. But it strikes me as being close to the experience of many who have suddenly been made aware of an unexpected death. Recently I was informed of the death of a friend who had limited life but it was quite unexpected that death would arrive quickly and I was immediately stunned by the news. It took me quite awhile to refocus and become emotionally stable enough in order to share with others who knew her.
The poem relates to such a notification but in a public place and by the chance reading of the back page of a paper being read by a fellow traveller on the seat opposite. It is up to the reader to infer the extent of personal connection with the death. We do not know whether it is a close family member or a work college not seen for several years. I have that feeling it might have been someone from the past such as a previous lover. I think there was quite a depth in the relationship with the ‘you’ in the text.
But this is irrelevant for the poem describes the catering of the emotional shock by a somewhat artificial concentration on the station lights and other text on the back of the paper. Self-control is evident in not wishing to draw attention from others on the train. But perhaps this represents an immediate internalisation of the death in coming to terms with the sudden shock unexpected news. It does not, of course, preclude a private emotive release a little later and under different circumstances.
Edna St. Vincent Millay was an American poet and playwright. She received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1923, and she was known for her feminist activism. A link to her on Wikipedia.