Last night I was reading an excellent Edna St. Vincent Millay poem, “Not for a Nation,” that I felt I needed to share. It may not be in the public domain, in which case I apologize to the poet and her executors, but it’s something I think has a profoundly prescient attitude towards the current social and political climate and nationalism in general.
Not for a Nation
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Not for a nation:
Not the dividing, the estranging, thing
Nor, in a world so small, the insulation
Of dream from dream—where dreams are links in the chain
Of a common hope; that man may yet regain
His dignity on earth—where before all
Eyes: small eyes of elephant and shark; still
Eyes of lizard grey in the sub-tropic noon,
Blowing his throat out into a scarlet, edged-with-cream incredible balloon
Suddenly, and suddenly dancing, hoisting and lowering his body on his short legs on the hot stone window-sill;
And the eyes of the upturned, grooved and dusty, rounded dull cut-worm
Staring upward at the spade,—
These, all these, and more, from the corner of the eye see man, infirm,
Tottering like a tree about to fall,—
Who yet had such high dreams—who not for this was made (or so said he),—nor did design to die at all.
Not for a nation,
Not the dividing, the estranging thing
Nor, on a world so small, the insulation
Of dream from dream,
In what might be today, had we been better welders, a new chain for pulling down old buildings, uprooting the wrong trees; these
Not for my country right or wrong;
Not for the drum or the bugle; not for the song
Which pipes me away from my home against my will along with the other children
To where I would not go
And makes me say what I promised never to say, and do the thing I am through with—
Into the Piper’s Hill;
Not for the flag
Of any land because myself was born there
Will I give up my life.
But I will love that land where man is free,
And that will I defend.
“To the end?” you ask, “To the end?”—Naturally, to the end.
What is it to the world, or to me,
That I beneath an elm, not beneath a tamarisk-tree
First filled my lungs, and clenched my tiny hands already spurred and nailed
Against the world, and wailed
In anger and frustration that all my tricks had failed and I been torn
Out of the cave where I was hiding, to suffer in the world as I have done and I still do—
Never again—oh, no, no more on earth—ever again to find abiding-place.
Whatever the country, whatever the colour and race.
The colour and the traits of each,
The shaping of his speech,—
These can the elm, given a long time, alter; these,
Too, the tamarisk.
But if he starve, but if he freeze—
Early, in his own tongue, he knows;
And though with arms or bows or a dipped thorn
Blown through a tube, he fights—the brisk
Rattle of shot he is not slow to tell
From the sound of ripe seed bursting from a poddy shell;
And he whom, all his life, life has abused
Yet knows if he be justly or unjustly used.
I know these elms, this beautiful doorway: here
I am at home, if anywhere.
A natural fondness, an affection which need never be said,
Rises from the wooden sidewalks warm as the smell of new-baked bread
From a neighbour’s kitchen. It is dusk. The sun goes down.
Sparsely strung along the street the thrifty lights appear.
It is pleasant. It is good.
I am very well-known here; here I am understood.
I can walk along the street, or turn into a path unlighted, without fear
Of poisonous snakes, or of any face in town.
Tall elms, my roots go down
As deep as yours into this soil, yes, quite as deep.
And I hear the rocking of my cradle. And I must not sleep.
Not for a nation; not for a little town,
Where, when the sun goes down, you may sit without fear
On the front porch, just out of reach of the arc-light, rocking,
With supper ready, wearing a pale new dress, and your baby near
In its crib, and your husband due to be home by the next trolley that you hear bumping into Elm Street—no:
But for a dream that was dreamt an elm-tree’s life ago—
And longer, yes, much longer, and what I mean you know.
For the dream, for the plan, for the freedom of man as it was meant
Not for the structure set up so lustily, by rule of thumb
And over-night, bound to become
Loose, lop-sided, out of plumb,
But for the dream, for the plan, for the freedom of man as it was meant
By men with more vision, more wisdom, more purpose, more brains
Men with more courage, men more unselfish, more intent
Than we, upon their dreams, upon their dream of Freedom,—Freedom not alone
For oneself, but for all, wherever the word is known,
In whatever tongue, or the longing in whatever spirit—
Men with more honour. (That remains
To be seen! That we shall see!)
And if still these truths be held to be