By: Julia Somerset
Edna St. Vincent Millay is one of my favorite poets. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923, and she wrote beautifully about the significantly disruptive changes that took place in the first half of the 20th century.
This is a stanza from a sonnet included in her volume, Huntsman, What Quarry? It speaks to me about the chaos that we all feel as technology advances faster and faster, and we strive to use the endless information available to us.
Upon this age, that never speaks its mind,
This furtive age, this age endowed with power
To wake the moon with footsteps, fit an oar
Into the oarlocks of the wind, and find
What swims before his prow, what swirls behind –
Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,
Falls from the sky a meteoric shower
Of facts…they lie unquestioned, uncombined.
The advances that have occurred in our recent history are staggering. We literally have “power to wake the moon with footsteps,” and we did just that in 1969. We can anticipate the things ahead of us—before the prow—and to analyze the past, what swirls behind. In this time, we are gifted with more than we have ever had before as a society. We can save lives, beat diseases, explore the unreachable, and give an increasing voice to the marginalized.
And yet there is sometimes a darkness that accompanies rapid change. Millay writes that “facts” fall upon us like a meteor shower. It’s beautiful and majestic, and yet it’s also terrifying in its brightness, newness, and rapidity. These facts are “unquestioned” and “uncombined.” How do we use them? How to we interrogate them? How do new discoveries and ideas fit into our traditions and ideals? It is troubling and overwhelming, and that can make us feel dark.
I like this poem because I think we are all tempted to think our age is different or worse than any other before us. But, as the Bible tells us in Ecclesiastes 9-10:
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
‘See, this is new’?
It has already been,
in the ages before us.
All of the problems that plague the modern soul have been seen before by God, and they have been felt before by our predecessors. We are all confounded by the changes and chances of our age, and we all struggle to make sense of it all. I am comforted to know that humanity has faced these struggles before. I am also comforted that the Bible includes this significant section to put us at peace. Seeking wisdom in a chaotic age—as all ages are—always carries some pain and struggle with it, but we are closely bonded to seekers who have come before us. There is nothing new about this furtive age.