"Spring"

To what purpose, April, do you return again? 
Beauty is not enough. 
You can no longer quiet me with the redness 
Of little leaves opening stickily. 
I know what I know. 
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe 
The spikes of the crocus. 
The smell of the earth is good. 
It is apparent that there is no death. 
But what does that signify? 
Not only under ground are the brains of men 
Eaten by maggots. 
Life in itself 
Is nothing, 
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs. 
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill, 
April 
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers. 

Footnotes

  1. “April” is given its own line for emphasis. The poem has thus far explored the narrator’s dissatisfaction with the symbolism of spring and the overall banality of life. The halting quality of the poem, with its alternating long and short lines, reaches its most urgent, lurching halt here. At only two syllables, “April” is a line devoid of all the typical poetic styles and meters. By stripping away all poetry from the line, Millay drives home the meaninglessness of “April.”

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. Millay passed away in 1950 when she fell down a flight of stairs. It is a striking coincidence that she targeted the image of the stairs in this meditation on death almost 30 years earlier.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. The phrase “uncarpeted stairs” functions much in the way that “empty cup” does. It offers an everyday image to express the inherent meaninglessness of modern life. The images are both drawn from a household setting, contributing an additional tone of banality. It is perhaps in the daily toils that Millay’s statement that “Life in itself/Is nothing” feels most true.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. The word “flight” refers to the stairs but also carries a connotation of escape, a sense of something fleeting. The fleeting object is life itself, which contributes to its “nothing[ness].” Thus the narrator uses the two images in this line to render an account of her existential dilemma: life is both meaningless and evanescent.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. The image of the “empty cup” is an expression of the modern, secular condition. The world itself is “empty,” void of meaning. It is up to each individual to “fill the cup,” so to speak. The act of poetic reflection represents one such method of creating meaning. Even if the poem cannot imbue April with meaning, the recording of one’s frustration or despair is meaningful in itself.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. Millay shortens these lines to create a meager feeling. This feeling matches the lack of meaning the narrator finds in her April surroundings. The shortness of the lines also causes the reader to take frequent pauses and experience the void —the “nothing[ness]”—at the end of each line.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. In these biting, ironic lines, the narrator explores “death” both physically and mentally. The narrator finds death “not only under ground” but also “in the brains of men,” suggesting a metaphorical death of human intellect. This indictment is fitting in a poem that exhibits the use of reason over common modes of thought.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. The word “apparent” is key. The narrator alludes to the common trope that Spring brings renewal, creating a notion that death is far away. The narrator deflates this perception, for it is an appearance and not the truth. Death is always present.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  9. Millay returns to the personification of April in the final lines of this poem. But unlike other poems in which spring is positively personified as bringing abundance and life, Millay personifies it as an “idiot.” “Babbling” suggests a childlike state that lacks intelligent thought or speech, and “strewing” connotes a lack of care. Millay’s April is an indifferent, unintelligent, and oblivious season. In this way Millay challenges the idea that Spring gives life and abundance. In her imagination it is unworthy of the metaphorical meaning ascribed to it.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. In an ironic turn, the narrator twists an often-praised feature of spring—the sunny weather—into an annoyance. The “sun on my neck” reads as discomfort. The specification of “my neck” brings the reader into the narrator’s physical experience. The narrator questions the conventional “beauty” of April by returning to her immediate experience.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  11. Millay creates a comedic tone with these images. Sharp terms like “idiot” and foolish words like “babbling” and “strewing” make April a comic character that the narrator can mock.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. The narrator uses a tone of exasperation in this line. Spring, an entity that seems impervious to death, comes every year and reminds her not of beauty but of mortality. The narrator’s frustration with spring could stem from the ignorance of death and the meaninglessness of life that it causes.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  13. The narrator underscores her idea about the limits of beauty with a poignant stylistic move. By breaking from the classic pentameter of the first line in favor of a jolting line of trimeter—three beats per line, with a fluctuating rhythm between unstressed and stressed syllables— , the narrator steps away from traditionally beautiful poetic forms.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  14. Notice that the narrator stops describing her experience of summer in order to determine what this physical experience means. This demonstrates the narrator’s attempt to intellectualize spring.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  15. While Millay wrote the vast majority of her work in traditional verse forms, “Spring” is an example of “free verse.” The poem follows no strict meters or rhyme schemes. The purpose of this is approach is to subvert classical depictions of springtime, which in traditional poetry is written about in pleasing ballad forms. By removing the poetry from the poem, Millay’s narrator signals her thesis: that April is without meaning.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  16. This line implies a type of desperation for the world to be charged with meaning and significance. It is not enough for the narrator to “smell”” the earth and feel the hot sun, she must determine the underlying meaning of these physical experiences.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  17. A crocus is a plant that flowers in the spring. It is a member of the iris family and generally takes on a yellow, purple, or white hue. The “spikes” she refers to are actually petals. She describes these pointed petals as “spikes” in order to suggest that, like every other beautiful thing that arrives in spring, there is something dangerous or sinister on closer examination.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  18. While the poem opens with a question it will actually go on to explore this statement rather than the posed question. The narrator asserts that “I know what I know” to place the poem firmly in her own perceptions and opinions.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  19. Rather than discussing the beauty of blooming flowers, the narrator characterizes them as “sticky,” a word that has unpleasant connotations. This word adds to Millay’s humorous and contemptuous tone.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  20. The personification and praise of Spring is a poetic trope that goes all the way back to medieval times. In spring poetry, narrators would praise the “darling buds” of blooming flowers and the sweet showers of April. “Red” was a symbolic color that represented rebirth, beauty, and robustness. In this poem, Millay turns these Spring tropes on their head. “Red” becomes something sticky or hot and April loses all of its mythological importance.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff