Friday, June 17, 2011

Life Enough

The Spinner's Song
by Kathleen Millay


No time, no time, to sing my songs,
But time to spin my spinning!
No way, no way, to right the wrongs,
But ways enough for sinning.

No laugh to take, no laugh to give,
But tears and tears for crying;
No living worth the death to live,
But life enough for dying.

There's an old saying that has always stuck in my mind: "It takes more grace than pen can tell / To play the second fiddle well."* It's a saying very appropriate to Kathleen Millay, who had the extraordinary misfortune to be a competent poet in the shadow of a brilliant poet, a decent poet forever trailing after a celebrity poet. She was the younger sister of Edna St. Vincent Millay; she spent all her life being compared (never quite favorably) with her sister, never being able to do anything without being compared (again, never quite favorably) with her sister, and thus, despite being in many ways better than many better-known poets, getting nowhere. It was a life of being consigned, largely by force of birth, to second fiddle, and she did not weather it well in her lifetime, nor did her reputation much outlast her death. But someday, perhaps, there will be a revival of interest in her.

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* The basic idea of the saying goes back at least to the nineteenth century, with jokes and proverbs and anecdotes about second fiddle or second violin being the hardest instrument in the orchestra to play. This particular version, a favorite in Baptist sermons, seems to come from a poem of (as far as I can tell) completely unknown provenance and authorship. You can read a version of the anonymous poem here.

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