Friday, February 23, 2018

The Living Dead

~ Honouring our poetic ancestors ~

Conscientious Objector

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 cinches 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 whereabouts 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 (1892-1950)

In times of war, governments are inclined to introduce conscription, the compulsory drafting of young men into the military. That makes refusing the draft a criminal offence, for which conscientious objectors can be imprisoned. In both the United States and Australia this happened during the Vietnam War. Many conscientious objectors went into hiding; many others were arrested and imprisoned.

Even when the draft was not compulsory, refusing it could be seen as an act of cowardice or a lack of patriotism, as in Britain during the First World War.

This poem suggests that the Conscientious Objector of the title not only does not wish to die too early himself but also doesn't wish to kill others – which of course has always been the main reason for such a stance. Many such men (we are talking of times when combatants were always male) chose to serve as stretcher-bearers at the front, rather than fighters. (My late husband Andrew's father was one. He survived the war.)

I like the speaker's defiant refusal to countenance Death – at the same time as making a few small jokes about him.

Most if not all of us dislike the idea of war; however a case can be made for the necessity of defending one's country or even coming to the aid of others. (I was glad when Australia and other nations intervened to stop Indonesian aggression in East Timor.) Nevertheless I can sympathise with the speaker in this poem – and with the way the poet slyly likens military service to both fox-hunting and the worst evils of slavery. A manipulative argument, perhaps, but valid enough sentiments to put in the mouth of one who is so anti-death.

It is the anti-death (rather than anti-war) message that speaks to me at present, in the wake of yet another school shooting in the US. No matter how one thinks this matter should be addressed, I'm sure we are all agreed that there has been far too much death!

A brilliant and popular poet (and a favourite of mine) Millay has appeared previously at Poets United – quoted frequently in "Midweek Motif" and featured 
by me in "I Wish I'd Written This", by Kim Nelson in "Classic Poetry" and by Robert Lloyd in "Poet History". Both Kim's and Robert's articles detail her life story, if you'd like to know more about her.

Her books are still extensively advertised on Amazon, where several biographies also appear.

Material shared in 'The Living Dead' is presented for study and review. Poems, photos and other writings and images remain the property of the copyright owners, where applicable (older poems may be out of copyright).


  1. This poem certainly resonates with me, Rosemary. Yes, there has been too much death, and when it hits the young it is hard to bear. Some of my friends here in Tofino moved here to avoid the draft in the Viet Nam years. Great choice of poem and poetthis week!

  2. Perfect reading for today, perfect, perfect! Thank you for the love and the tears. I am aghast at the idea that were I still a teacher, I might have colleagues with concealed weapons--an affirmation of a death culture! Sharing.

  3. I'm glad you all appreciate the poem. And my apologies – I see that in some browsers the formatting looks weird, but I can't fix it at present as my computer is acting up. It may be the heavy rain we';re having here just now. I'll try to fix it later.

    1. OK, computer has settled down (rain has stopped) and I think I've got the look of the post right now.

  4. Edna St. Vincent Millay has long been one of my favorite poets, as well - not only for the wonderful places she takes us with her words, but also, for her thoughtful themes.

    I enjoyed your commentary, here, Rosemary. Thank you for another fascinating and edifying post!

  5. Wow, Rosemary - what an appropriate and powerful share for this week. I am totally moved by this poem. These lines especially struck me:

    "I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death;
    I am not on his pay-roll."

    They seem so relevant. Too many people are on death's payroll nowadays - and in so many ways. Even beyond the obvious. This poem is a keeper. I will seek out of of Edna St. Vincent Millay.

  6. To refuse can be so brave in some cases... when you are drafted you just follow the stream, to object requires strength

  7. Wonderful how you found a poem so perfect for today. I so much enjoyed the poem and your commentary. I read a little of this poet's work when in school. But now I am motivated to read more of her work, her life and to really appreciate it. Thanks you Rosemary.


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