Conflicting Themes in “A Prayer in Spring” by Robert Frost and “Spring” by Edna St. Vincent Millay In “A Prayer in Spring” by Robert Frost and “Spring” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, both poets take the season spring as inspiration for their poems.
Each poet is inspired by the signs of rebirth in nature that are typical of spring, yet they respond to and interpret spring’s arrival in strikingly different ways.Edna St. Vincent’s “Spring” expresses the poet’s contempt and even anger at spring’s arrival, and she expresses her argument through personification, the images she uses, as well as in the language she chooses.”Spring” starts out with the speaker of the poem basically demanding an explanation, “To what purpose, April, do you return again?” (1).
April is personified and treated like an unwelcome visitor or even an ex-lover instead of a season as the speaker speaks directly to “April” for the first five lines of the poem. The speaker tells April, “Beauty is not enough” (2), and signs of rebirth will no longer “quiet” her. The speaker tells April, it fails to elicit the emotional reactions it seems to think it should, or perhaps did in the past. Like someone whose eyes have been opened about the truth of another, the speaker says, “I know what I know” (5).
In the end, “April / Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers” (17 – 18).By choosing to personify “April,” the poet emphasizes how personal and how strong the speaker’s reaction to the season is. It’s easier for readers to relate to emotional reactions to another person than it is to a season or nature, especially since nature is often thought of as impersonal and completely objective. Since the speaker in “Spring” takes the opposite view of April than most people would, it’s important that the poet make the argument convincing.
Personification helps her do so. It’s easier to empathize with the speaker’s negative, bitter reactions to April and her false charms when the season seems like a person.The images in “Spring” appeal to several of the senses, and they help make the speaker’s case against April more convincing for readers. Readers can see as well as almost feel the, “…redness / Of little leaves opening stickily” (3-4).
It’s not a pretty image, but an almost grotesque one. Likewise, readers can feel the hot sun on the speaker’s neck as she observes, “The spikes of the crocus” (6-7). For most people, crocuses are a favorite first sign of spring and the warming sun a welcome symbol of rebirth, but for the speaker, crocuses are like pointy spears or stakes, and the “hot” sun is uncomfortable.Although the speaker notes that, “The smell of the earth is good” (8) and there’s no sign of death, like April’s beauty, this is a sort of masquerade.
The speaker counters the almost positive image of the “good” smell of the earth with an image of, “the brains of men / Eaten by maggots” – and not just under ground (11-12). This isn’t an image readers would usually associate with Spring, and its shocking, grotesque nature makes it very powerful.Edna St. Vincent Millay uses consonance and assonance and controls meter in the image of the maggot-eaten brains to emphasize the poem’s theme.
The line, “Not only under ground are the brains of men / Eaten by maggots” (11-12) includes a purposeful arrangement of language that strengthens the image, and hence the theme of the poem. Consonance and assonance in “…brains of men / Eaten…” (11-12) and sharp alteration in meter help drive the image deeply into readers’ minds in language you can’t help but hear and feel as you read. Line 11 contains a fairly regular pattern of unstressed followed by stressed syllables, while line 12’s “Eaten by maggots” starts with a stressed syllable that is followed by two unstressed syllables, and then ends with an iamb. This emphasizes “eaten” and “maggots” and makes the image stand out even more vividly, especially compared to the nearly perfect iambic pattern of the line before.
It’s impossible to ignore the message, death and decay are everywhere and imminent despite the appearance of spring.After conjuring up that image, the speaker can go on to tell us what she really “knows” from line 5, that, “Life in itself / Is nothing, / An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs” (13-15). The cup isn’t just half empty, it’s totally empty, and uncarpeted stairs conjure up images of hardness and a steep, uncomfortable climb. The images in the poem make it possible for readers to understand if not totally agree with the speaker’s argument that spring is not enough to fool her into falling for the beauty of nature and the illusory promise of renewal and rebirth.
Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem focuses on the failure of spring to transcend death, and it rejects any notion of rebirth or resurrection as a sign of hope or renewal. Robert Frost’s “A Prayer in Spring” takes an almost completely opposite approach to the arrival of the spring season.Robert Frost considers spring an occasion for a “prayer” as the title suggests, and the poem takes the form of a typical prayer in terms of form, rhyme scheme and structure.
The prayer asks that we recognize and take pleasure in the simple elements of spring sanctified by God. While for Edna St. Vincent Millay, spring is a sort of sham that can no longer mask the truth about the emptiness of life, Robert Frost’s poem emphasizes how spring can inspire pleasure, happiness and love.The speaker in “A Prayer in Spring” invokes the hope that the flowers of spring can, “keep us here / All simply in the springing of the year” (3-4).
Spring is something to be savored and its flowers have the power to remove us from worries about the future, such as “the uncertain harvest” (3). Edna St. Vincent presents the complex question of what spring’s apparent lack of death signifies, while Frost tells us spring’s “simplicity” can alleviate doubts, fears and worries about future struggles or potential hardships.While “Spring” contains grotesque, almost violent and nearly entirely negative images, “A Prayer in Spring” is full of positive images that reflect the surprise and joy associated with rebirth and the perfection of nature in spring.
The speaker sees the “happy bees / The swarm dilating round the perfect trees” (7-8) as a potential source of happiness. As another source of potential happiness, Frost creates a metaphor for a hummingbird that conjures up images of celestial objects orbiting in the heavens: “The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill, / And off a blossom in mid-air stands still” (11-12).In the final stanza of “A Prayer in Spring,” Robert Frost refers to experiencing and enjoying the simple elements of spring as “love.” Spring embodies the same sort of love as any other love sanctified by God and left for us to fulfill our lives with.
He sees spring as a reason for joyful prayer and occasion for indulgence in the simple beauty of nature as well as a reflection on God’s love expressed in nature. Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem by contrast indicates nothing about religious belief and rejects the idea that life even has a meaning if we look at nature. Spring inspires Frost to think of “love,” while April prompts Edna St.
Vincent Millay to focus on death and the falsehood of rebirth or regeneration.Robert Frost’s “A Prayer in Spring” and “Spring” by Edna St. Vincent Millay are thematically almost in complete opposition to each other, yet reading the two poems together enhances understanding and appreciation of both poems, and poetry in general. Both poets use language and the elements of poetry such as imagery, metaphor and simile to express their experiences of spring powerfully and convincingly.
For Edna St. Vincent Millay, April is “a babbling idiot,” while for Frost, spring is a simile for “love.” Edna St. Vincent Millay focuses on the “redness” of opening leaves, while Frost comments on the “orchard white.
” The simple choice of color they use in their imagery allows both poets to elicit almost opposite reactions from readers, even though their subject matter (plants renewing in spring) is basically the same. It’s interesting to imagine the effect an image with the color red would have on Frost’s poem, while at the same time considering how the color white would impact “Spring.” Clearly, each poet carefully chose the details of their observations to support their poems’ themes.As readers, we might prefer Robert Frost’s image of “the darting bird / That suddenly above the bees is heard” (9-10) over the “…brains of men / Eaten by maggots” in “Spring” (11-12), but neither image is more powerful or more convincing than the other.
The poets both build up the themes of their poems by carefully choosing images as well as the language they use to present them to their readers.Although the themes of these two poems are almost completely opposite, near the end of each poem both poets suggest it is up to individuals to make what they will of what spring has to offer. It is “not enough” for the idiot April to arrive each year in “Spring” – something more is required. The image of the “empty cup” and “uncarpeted stairs” imply that perhaps we can bring meaning to life on our own through actions.
“Life in itself is nothing” (12-13) and neither is spring, but if we fill the cup or carpet the stairs, perhaps that brings authentic beauty and meaning to life.Likewise, Robert Frost’s “A Prayer in Spring” is a prayer that invokes happiness and outlines opportunities where it can be sought in the spring season. Yet despite the love God has sanctified in the natural wonders of spring, it is necessary for us to “fulfill” the potential for love and happiness laid before us (12). As in Edna St.
Millay’s poem, personal responsibility and action matter. It is interesting that each poem presents the situation of spring and interprets its meaning differently, but both remind readers they have an independent role to play in creating their own response to nature and the symbolism of spring.Studying the opposing themes in Robert Frost’s “A Prayer in Spring” and Edna St. Millay’s “Spring” highlights the flexibility of poetry as an art form.
Poets can use language and the elements of poetry to convincingly express almost completely different reactions to a similar event or occasion (in this case a season). Poetry enables skilled writers to reinterpret the same themes and subject matters again and again in fresh, personalized ways. Even if these two poems both took a positive stance towards spring and the promise of renewal, the writers’ individual poems would be very different. They could both use imagery, consonance and metaphor, but they’re choices in language, form, meter and other elements of poetry would likely make their works very different.
Poetry is flexible enough to accommodate many ideas and express an endless variety of themes even though poets may be inspired by the same subject matter.An examination of the conflicting themes of these two poems revelas another aspect of poetry that makes it so powerful: Poetry stimulates creativity in the minds of both poets and readers. Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay were inspired by the spring season, but the act of writing poetry is what stimulated their creative arrangements of ideas into words and images in the form of poems.
Without poetry, it’s likely their ideas could have gone unexpressed or undeveloped creatively to their full potential.A close reading of these two poems also stimulates the creative thinking of a reader. As the opposing themes in “A Prayer in Spring” and “Spring” demonstrate, one’s own view on an event or subject can be limited. Reading poetry that addresses a similar theme is a way to discover new ideas and even consider challenging opinions or thoughts in a different light.
Reading poetry with contrasting themes demands readers think creatively and maintain an openness to not only one’s first reactions, but to opposing interpretations, as well. While both Frost’s and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poems are complete, independent works of art, studying them together offers a potentially richer, more challenging and more fulfilling experience than reading either poem on its own. Works CitedFrost, Robert.
“A Prayer in Spring.” The Poetry of Robert Frost. Ed. Edward C.
Lathem. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969. 12.Millay, Edna St.
Vincent. “Spring.” The Norton Anthology of Poetry. 3d Edition.
Ed. Alexander W. Allison, Herbert Barrows, Caesar R. Blake, Arthur J.
Carr, Arthur M. Eastmen, and Hubert M. English, Jr. New York: W.
W. Norton and Company, 1983. 1033.
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