The Summery Night Before the Frost
On the evening of November 2, 1928, a handsome young poet and recent graduate from the University of Chicago strode onto the stage of that school’s Mandel Hall auditorium and before a crowd of 1,100 people introduced one of the country’s most famous poets. Then 36, Edna St. Vincent Millay was on a reading tour promoting her new volume The Buck in the Snow. Standing before a crimson curtain wearing a flowing robe of aquamarine velvet, Millay’s voluptuous voice flooded the room and intoxicated the crowd. But no one more so than the man who introduced her: 22 year old George Dillon.
After the performance, Dillon attended a small reception in Millay’s honor at the home of one of her friends. The poet Gladys Campbell, who had accompanied Dillon that night, prompted him to recite some of his verse from his new volume, Boy in the Wind. To his surprise Millay invited him to lunch the next day. It was the start of a relationship that would alter his personal and professional destiny, and prompt each of them to immortalize the other in poetry.
Along with Millay, Harriet Monroe, founder and editor of Poetry magazine, became one of Dillon’s earliest advocates, and made him an associate editor. His second volume, The Flowering Stone (1932), published when he was 25, “place[d] him definitely in the first rank of America’s lyric poets” according to Eda Lou Walton of the New York Times and made him one of the youngest poets ever to have won the Pulitzer Prize. Yet after this he floundered, turned to translating the work of other poets and was eventually tapped to take Monroe’s place at the helm of Poetry after her sudden death in 1936.
After this promising burst onto the poetry scene as a poet, Dillon’s stream of original verse inexplicably dried up. Why did his bold, unique lyric voice fall silent? Did his tumultuous relationship with Millay have something to do with the abrupt abandonment of his creative impulse or was the choice deliberate? At the age of 25, had he simply said all he had to say? The answers to these questions are to be found in his confessional, passionate verse and in the philosophy at its core. His poetic legacy is worthy of remembrance.
The poetry of Dillon before he met Millay presents recurrent themes of death and life cycles. Death is both character and milestone, and is properly named as the ideal and preferred state of the religious and devout, as shown in Compliment to Mariners:
Man’s earthliness which saints deplore
Suggests that his most potent worth
Is surely to refresh the store
Of diligent dead, compact with earth.
It is his true mistress or lover in En Route. Within steady tetrameter, Dillon speaks of life as a solitary march toward death and the desire for love as a human weakness, an understandable impulse in reaction to loneliness. The form is admirable, the theme contains a glimmer of enlightenment but the voice registers slightly sullen and naive.
Companioned by long loneliness
I go to meet my true mistress.
With loneliness too large to suffer
You go to meet your true lover.
Mistress or lover, Death must be
Vouchsafed our certain constancy.
Yet since we go one journey and
Go toward a terribly dark land
Let us therefore go hand in hand.
If out of loneliness we kiss
Our honour is not hurt by this.
Death is a mystical law of the earth, affecting all life equally. In the somber No Question we catch a glimpse of the vivid natural imagery and mastery of form Dillon would become capable of. With unexpected turns of line, revealing nature’s unpredictability, Dillon explores his favorite theme in sonnet form.
Seeing at last how each thing here beneath
The glimmering stars is lawful: having found
By a wide watch how scrupulously Death
To keep his tacit promises is bound,
How from their vagrance the disbanded dusts
Resume integrity in blood or bloom,
How punctually the sun-struck red rose thrusts
Its rigid flame into the golden gloom;
Knowing that ultimate prospect where appears
The accurate ebb and flood of furious water,
The undirected wind’s clean course, the sphere’s
Deliberate strong spinning, I would utter
No question now, nor prosecute in words
Why birds must fly, seeing the flight of birds.
There is a tone of acceptance here, a cease of the struggle to understand these mysteries reinforced by the words “I would utter/No question now, nor prosecute in words/Why birds must fly, seeing the flight of birds.” There is power in this admission, as well as hope, symbolized by the birds’ flight in this final couplet. Despite the repetitive enjambment, lines often end with heavy mutes: found, bound, bloom, gloom, a reflection of the inevitability of death. Meanwhile the “red rose thrusts”, the furious water accurately “ebbs and floods”, the “undirected wind’s clean course” blows, the Earth’s “deliberate strong spinning” never ceases. Dillon records it all in wonder, and finally acquiescence, a ‘boy in the wind’.
Poems concerning human emotions feature images of nature’s power. In Love Like Fear he asks, “Who dreamed that love would come like fear?/ This is that quiet, sick and clear,/Before a thunderstorm. I hear/”. In To Losers he compares the loss of love to losses sustained by nature due to the wind.
Let loneliness be mute. Accuse
Only the wind for what you lose.
Only the wind has ever known
Where anything you lost has gone.
It is the wind whose breath shall come
To quench tall-flaming trees and numb
The narrow bones of birds. It is
The wind whose dissipating kiss
Disbands the soft-assembled rose.
It is the wordless wind that knows
Where every kind of beauty goes.
And if you lose love in the end
Say it was taken by the wind.
Again, man is powerless, this time in the face of fate that is likened to the wind. There is a melancholy beauty in his surrender, the flow of words and repetition of “Only the wind”, “It is the wind” echo like gusts. The awkward line breaks highlight the unpredictability man faces. Dillon’s voice contains wisdom but it still lacks concrete experience. He was, after all, barely in his twenties when he wrote these words, and had not yet tasted significant disappointment or heartbreak.
This is probably what his first reviewer, Marie Luhrs, writing in a 1927 issue of Poetry meant when she wrote: “…when he gets more mixed up with it [life], his poetry will deepen and broaden.” Luhrs would get her wish. Eight months later Dillon would meet Millay, and they would commence the affair that would inspire her famous sonnet sequence.
As Millay and her husband, Eugen Boissevain, believed in freedom within marriage, she accepted her sudden passion for the young Dillon as an unexpected mid-life gift, one that provided a well-spring of inspiration. But for the younger Dillon, acceptance was not so simple. The intensity of his passion for Millay, who also happened to be famous, demanding, tempestuous, several hundred miles away and quite devoted to her husband, confused and frustrated Dillon. While his earliest letters to Millay were lost many of hers survive, and the poems remain. As she continues to woo Dillon in sonnets that would comprise Fatal Interview, Dillon responds in kind.
His Four Sonnets appeared in the August, 1929 edition of Poetry. Gone are the more passive moods of a man viewing the universe as an outsider. Millay has invaded his mind, heart and body, and in her absence, Dillon’s passion pours fourth in verse. With words born from emotion rather than reason, he finally addresses his own experience.
I think you are closer to me that anything –
Not as a dream alone, but as a part:
I feel your breast beat through me like a wing,
I feel your hands immediate on my heart.
You are the noose of sleep pulled slowly tight;
You are the pulsing nerve in tooth and toe;
You are the sweat upon me in the night;
You are the engine urging me to go.
Here his metrics and images are not borrowed from nature, but human anatomy and experience. The repetitive assertions “I feel…I feel; You are…You are” are new, as is the commanding voice. But referring to Millay as “the engine urging me to go” is telling, as it reminds us that underneath this love-struck man lies that old passivity, and if Millay, his “engine”, ever goes, he would be lost. The second stanza shows Dillon’s awareness of this. The repetition halts like a stunned heartbeat as the grim realization sets in.
Then I recall how you are none of these –
Only a woman, far away and fair,
Looking in mirrors, keeping old promises,
Laughing at stories I shall never share:
Till love seems too much sadness, and I seem
Like one more fagot in the flames of a dream.
The issue goes on to bring us Beauty Intolerable, a direct description of his physical response to Millay’s beauty, showcasing Dillon’s poetic talents in their most erotic, intense, and yet still passive state. The short trimetric lines reflect his agitation as he succumbs to his lover’s charms, but even in the midst of a consuming passion, Dillon remains stubbornly passive and still broaches his inevitable annihilation.
Finding her body woven
As if of flame and snow,
I thought, however often
My pulses cease to go,
Whipped by whatever pain
Age or disease shall appoint,
I shall not be again
So jarred in every joint,
So mute, amazed and taut,
And winded of my breath,
Beauty being at my throat
More savagely than death.
Like the mysterious and powerful forces of nature that always served as his muse, this new love is also a formidable force, one he fears will overtake him. The advent of this relationship, as dangerous and ill-advised as it was, served as a creative awakening for the younger poet. Dillon’s early experiments with the sonnet form were promising starts, but under Millay’s influence, or perhaps in response to the sonnets she was producing profusely at the time (Fatal Interview contains 52 love sonnets) he achieved a swift and uncanny mastery of the form. He returns to the more familiar territory of the natural world for his inspiration.
In the October, 1930 issue of Poetry, Dillon’s Address to the Doomed appeared in its entire 10 sonnet sequence. Tellingly, it is published alongside the first three sonnets of Fatal Interview Millay would make public. The sequence is the final chapter of The Flowering Stone and Dillon’s voice carries a new confidence. With less passive pondering and fewer probing questions to the silent universe, Dillon conveys that as humans with a finite time here we are all, in a sense, doomed. It is an ambitious sequence, with some sonnets emerging as more memorable than others, but they all contain his vivid, unflinching observations of nature and an assertive message that fear of death is senseless, and one should follow the courageous example of the natural world to reach his potential in life. It is heartening to see him end his book on his own terms, not in sonnets solely addressing his ill-fated love affair with Millay, but in his perceptive, powerful commentary on man’s place in the universe. This is Dillon at his best, the one we crave more of. He revisits his familiar themes here but his tongue has loosened, his images are more arresting and dramatic. The new confident voice is reinforced by clean line breaks. He has been, in effect, “slapped to breath.”
The companion sonnets IV and V are standouts. “Fear not to die, though you must feel the cold” and “Fear not to live, for life is proud and long” echo one another. Here he speaks of our animal companions on earth, comparing them to humans who bear the burdensome knowledge that keeps us imprisoned in fear and thus unable to live to our full potential.
Fear not to die, though you must feel the cold
Shadow of all things that the sun has shown:
The body with its bright excess of gold
Blowing silver ere the sun goes down;
The earth and the wild issue of her womb –
The ape that drags its knuckles from afar,
The pulsing fish, the bird on rigid plume.
You bear their blindness, being what you are.
Being the weariest creature and the last,
The sigh of God upon the seventh day,
You keep the bestial chrysalis uncast
And the wing folded that would fly away.
What do you fear of dying? That will be
To drop the world like fetters and go free.
Again, we sense a burdensome sorrow in this young man, but his voice is clear and commanding with an edge of defiance. His lyrics resonate with acceptance rather than fear. The images of shedding the chrysalis and unfolding the wing are appropriate for the assertive voice and mastery of form awakening here.
Dillon then returns to the theme of his emotional state that he compares to the natural world. The results reveal a man weathering a powerful personal storm, struggling for survival. The June, 1931 issue of Poetry includes six confessional poems, all of which are included in The Flowering Stone. “What Artifice” concerns the theme of time and what transcends its unstoppable effects. It is poetry, he tells us, inspired by love. “You waders through the weeds and flowers, /Come rest within my house of words –“ he says. But he senses his creation may be forsaken by the one who inspired it, his married lover then traveling Europe with her husband and only existing to Dillon as pretty words on a page.
“Likely as not when he has done
And pulled away the props and ropes,
His dear will wed another one.
He knows. But while he builds he hopes.”
But if his structure “should tumble, let it go.” he says. And when children ask about the ruins left behind,
“Tell them no matter: something made
In haste and ignorance –as it were
A house where Beauty never stayed.
But tell them it was made for her.”
In this harsh ending Dillon chooses the word “ignorance” to describe his love for Millay. And the capitalization of the word “Beauty” is interesting, as it highlights the superficiality of a label. She is superficial and he is ignorant. This verse comes to us as a punch in the gut. He senses, as do we, that this love will cost him.
In This Dream is Strange Dillon compares his emotional state to the seasons. Here the ever-changing seasons are stalled in his dream in a state of barren winter compared to his broken, grieving heart. He opens admitting the dream is “strange” and ends with an echo “This love is strange that does not die.” His inability to move on from his relationship with Millay or expel her from his life, or even the natural evolvement of the relationship to something less intense, is unnatural. He knows it.
These themes continue in The Summery Night Before The Frost as he
speaks of trying to sleep away the memory of his love by the time autumn
has come to claim the leaves. But there is even more at stake in this poem with its relentless tetrameter, carrying him towards oblivion. The frost is coming for his heart, threatening his desire to sing.
The summery night before the frost
My heart divined the frost was toward.
I saw the lake’s wide iris lost
And the red flag of sunset lowered.
I thought: Farewell, remembered things!
These are the nights for nerveless sleeping.
Not music with her bells and strings
Could stir me into passion and weeping.
Such quiet ruin is in my breast,
Such peace upon my body has stolen,
I shall have drowned in dreamless rest
Love’s memory ere the leaves are fallen.
He enters the woods and among the “mindlessness” of the dead leaves, attempts to fight the memory of this love with a dreamless sleep, hoping it will bring relief from his suffering, but he fails. “I wakened in the autumn wind/Hot with the dream that has not ended.” Again, the seasons are rendered powerless in the face of this overwhelming passion, and even the winds of autumn cannot cool his enflamed heart, trapped in a dream yet covered in frost.
He also addresses the more hopeful, tender aspects of this love throughout his volume, such as here in Anatomy of Death VI, part of an ambitious poetic sequence addressing his views on death, including what might transcend it. First, the importance he attaches to the experience:
Indeed, when it is done, incredible youth told over,
The times sweet and shameful, the issues shocking and
And his life lying calm like a litter of leaves at his feet,
A man would be nothing but that he has been a lover.
He is glad for that. As for the rest, it is dead.
Then, he writes of love’s potential to transcend those very forces Dillon had always deemed sovereign.
Here, for a moment, a man got free from fear
And struggled against doom in the flesh and bone;
Another moment, and he might have got
Free from the fatal mechanism of his thought:
He continues, telling us how close love’s euphoria brought him to an understanding, finally, of the mysteries of the universe.
The body hoped, and heard the spirit’s call,
And would have followed – would have ventured forth
From time’s vile ruins beyond the temporal
And known the unknowable loveliness naked and near;
Would have surprised the seasons of the year
And slaked itself upon the turning earth,
Would have possessed the sun, the stars, the moon –
But fell asleep too soon.
In 1932, The Flowering Stone was published to excellent reviews and earned Dillon the Pulitzer Prize. Millay’s influence on the selection process of the Guggenheim Fellowship resulted in his being chosen twice for the award, providing the necessary funds to travel to Paris, where he and Millay, with the cooperation of her husband, commenced a trial marital separation to live together and pursue their relationship exclusively. But their union quickly turned tumultuous, their early exhilaration at pulling off such a feat soon gave way to arguments as the reality of Millay’s difficult personality, endless emotional and physical needs, and the difference in their levels of fame and artistic achievement drove wedge after wedge between the lovers. Millay would return to her home and husband in upstate New York while Dillon remained abroad to make the most of his fellowship.
We would hear no more original poetry from George Dillon. He would engage in translating from the French until he took the helm at Poetry in 1936. He and Millay remained friends and colleagues, collaborating on a translation of Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil, published in 1936. There would be attempts to resurrect their passion over the years, but Millay would not leave her beloved Eugen. She recognized the damage she was causing to Dillon.
Though Time refeather the wing,
Ankle slip the ring,
The once-confined thing
Is never again free.
Not So Far as the Forest V, Edna St. Vincent Millay
Another love eluded Dillon, who remained a bachelor until his death.
Even in his earliest poems, George Dillon idealized the strength and mystery of the natural world and wrote of his longing to comprehend and become a part of it, but the voice of this Jazz Age Romantic lacked the depth of true experience. As humans, oneness with nature occurs most completely though death, and in its place Dillon seemed to adopt an emotional passivity that trivialized frivolous human concerns and sought to emulate the quietly beautiful surrender he saw in the universe. Like the mystical laws that govern that universe, Dillon could not control the tempests that at any moment might invade his solitude, as Millay did that November night in 1928. The aptly titled The Flowering Stone chronicles that emotional upheaval, which prompted him to find inspiration in his experience as well as the universe and attempt greater mastery of the sonnet form. This period in his life also saw him further shape his philosophy on death and the human condition from one of fear to one of acceptance. Philosophy and form came together impressively with an insightful new voice in his 10 sonnet sequence, Address to the Doomed, the last chapter of The Flowering Stone.
After this period of immense productivity and accomplishment, his poetic voice fell silent. He retired from Poetry at the age of 43 and moved in with his parents, to live a life of solitude and translation work. He embodied his philosophy of acceptance and surrender to the whim of the elements until his death in 1968.
But the words he left behind in his youth echo with the experience, wisdom and courage of a man who cast his fate to the wind and bravely let it carry him to a place of magic and mystery. From his innocent, inquisitive quest for universal understanding, to the emotional awakening born of his love and loss of Millay, and finally, to his acceptance of our human condition in all its doomed glory, the ‘boy in the wind’ recorded his brief and beautiful journey. It is a wide eyed, open hearted appraisal of the majestic beauty and chaos surrounding us, and the transcendent power of love and poetry to momentarily overcome the frailty of our human condition until the peace and freedom of our ultimate surrender in death.
Remember it before it the winds of time take it away again.
One Beauty, still is faultless, not
Deflowered in the bed of thought:
It is a sound of sunken seas.
It is an avid wish for ease.
It is the earth, it is the sky
When passion is a lute put by
And life a dancer out of breath.
It is the lovely face of death,
Adored and guessed at – never once
Beheld in chrysoprase or bronze;
Not in the temple or the grove,
Not in a hundred nights of love.
This was the morning sun, the wild
Daybreak anguish in the child.
This is the sun at noon no less,
Deep in the dome of nothingness.
Wherefore, impoverished heart, be proud
To wear the purple of the shroud.
If you are friendless, take for friend
The noble wave, the affluent wind.
If you are homeless, do not care:
Inhabit the bright house of air.
If you are worn with wayfaring,
Lie down within the arms of spring.
Shannon McCloskey Allain has spent most of her professional career fundraising for non-profits. She is a member of Sharpening the Quill, a writers workshop based in Princeton, NJ and is working on her first novel.