Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.
Let all who prate of Beauty hold their peace,
And lay them prone upon the earth, and cease
To ponder on themselves, the while they stare
At nothing, intricately drawn nowhere
In shapes of shifting lineage; let geese
Gabble and hiss, but heroes seek release
From dusty bondage into luminous air.
O, blinding hour, o holy, terrible day
When first the shaft into his vision shone
Of light anatomized! Euclid alone
Has looked on Beauty bare. Fortunate they
Who, though once only and then but far away
Have heard her massive sandal set on stone.
It is National Poetry Month, and I shall indulge myself in some overanalysis, the unoveranalyzed life, after all, not being worth living.
I first read this sonnet complacently, as being in praise of mathematicians, who indeed (I think) are occasionally privileged to
behold a sort of beauty hidden from others. It was refreshing to see that someone from the Other Culture actually seemed to understand that mathematics has its ennobling moments of creative ecstasy, and is not just the kind of cold numerical drudgery most artists seem to think it.
But after I read the poem the second or third time I realized that Millay's mission is not an apologia for geometers, but an excoriation of art critics (`all who prate of Beauty'); perhaps this sonnet is a response to criticism of the poet's own work.
This view clarifies much of the octet for me: while they 'prate of Beauty', the critics are not really examining Art, but rather they 'ponder on themselves'. As they do so, they refer to the current trendy esthetic theories, 'nothing, intricately drawn nowhere', and these theories change with fashion, constantly reconstructing the history of art into ghostly 'shapes of shifting lineage'.
The poet dismisses the critics: 'Let geese / gabble and hiss', and reminds herself of the virtuous path of redemption through Art: 'but heroes seek release / from dusty bondage into luminous air.' As if consciously following her own advice, in the sestet Millay stops reading the reviews and reminds herself of artistic ideals, although in case the critics are still listening they are reminded that the approach to Beauty is a road travelled only by a fortunate few.
This analysis makes too much sense, damn it. I find myself disappointed that the poem does not turn out to be the paean to abstract thought that I first took it for. When I read it that way, I had to ignore all the stuff about "shapes of shifting lineage"; those passages didn't fit my perception of the poem at the time. Instead I thought to myself, "Someone gets it! Someone understands what it feels like to do abstract mathematics!"
And now I wonder. Did Millay get it? She was intimidatingly smart; she got a lot of things. I don't know how much math she knew. At least she knew who to praise: the first great exponent of the conjecture-and-proof method, on whose reasoning style mathematicians have modeled themselves ever since. But the reading as a slap at self-centered critics is much more encompassing, explains much more of the actual text, and I have to believe that this reading was her intended one. On the other hand, there's that one line, right at the crucial joint at the beginning of the sestet:
O blinding hour, o holy, terrible day!
That makes me think that she did understand.