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On "I Forgot for a Moment"


Heather Zadra

One of the striking features of Millay's "I Forgot For a Moment" is its seemingly uncompromised willingness to idealize, perhaps even gloss over, the reality of the highly charged situation at hand: the defeat of France by and retreat of Britain from German forces in June 1940, Mussolini's declaration of war on both nations, also in June, and Britain's refusal to accept or negotiate Hitler's demands, resulting in the initiation of full-scale naval warfare between England and Germany (Overy). Millay's poem seems ready to forget the political volatility of the time in favor of a fantasy of peace and harmony, of "striped fields of tulips" and "straight roads / Lined with slender poplars," even as that fantasy is so utterly unrealizable as to seem only "as if I slept and dreamt." Compared to her antiromantic sonnets, this piece appears to do just the opposite of the former's intention: rather than debunk an idealized myth of love or war, "I Forgot For a Moment" allows the speaker to indulge in a pretty dream-world in which political action can be surrendered in favor of watching the nice peasants plow the verdant land.

Of course, I'm setting this analysis up to refute my own intentionally overstated claims thus far, for I think that the poem, while genuinely striking *for* its vision of a world devoid of corruption, also performs a very specific political task in the images that underlie the words themselves. These representations are significant not for their articulation but for their very absence in the piece. In Gale's depiction of Millay's life, he describes her as a "once-pacifist" poet who became enamoured with the cause of the Allies and began "to call for preparedness and then...dash off pro-British and pro-French propaganda verse." Though Gale somewhat trivializes Millay's investment in her "war work," he does point to the specifically political nature of these poems, and certainly we can see the strength of this commitment in Millay's justifiably accusatory "Say that We Saw Spain Die" of 1938.

From a purely aesthetic perspective, "I Forgot For a Moment" is quite lovely to read; we can almost see the images rise before us, Millay's emphasis on color and order, "straight[ness]" and "bright[ness]," having the effect of a precisely planned, carefully constructed painting. The verses are sing-songey, even nursery rhyme-like, and give the poem a sense of innocence appropriate to the speaker's reaction to her surroundings, and to "a world...inept / At twisted words and crooked deeds." The speaker's emphasis on the blending of human creations and natural elements further lends to the sense of balance evident throughout the poem. "The peasants on the skyline ploughing," like the "straight canals" that provide water for the "fields of tulips," demonstrate the symbiotic relationship between nature and those who care for it.  And yet, in looking closer, in searching beyond the artistic, even quality of the poem, we can see shadows of a more serious call to action, hints of the bloodshed that will not *allow* Millay's readers to "forg[e]t" the countries that so desperately need American popular and military support in this historical moment. The terms that the speaker uses to describe her slip into reverie, for instance, never enable her to submit to complete oblivion; even as she may have "forgot[ten]" France and England's present states of horror, it is only "for a moment," a brief instant in time. After this she, like the readers to whom she speaks in the poem, must rise and awake, work toward some version of the dream in the context of a relatively bleak reality. Similarly, the very invocation of words such as "tank"--even as the word is negated in the phrase "not a tank"--forces readers out of the dream-moment and into the realization that, somewhere, right now, tanks *are* "crushing the tulips" so carefully planted in a village, a plot, somebody's garden. 

Millay uses other, less specific terms to suggest the atrocities of war, even as she places them in the context of untainted beauty and peace. The speaker's concern to discern individual shades of red in the tulips (previously she describes only "yellow" and "white"), "Scarlet strip[s] and mauve strip[s]," invokes shades of blood, soaking through, perhaps, onto "strips" of gauze, and the "level lowlands" that bloom for "Mile after mile" simultaneously suggest the aforementioned tank's "levelling" of acres upon acres of land. The image of "Broad ships" allows us only to see the sails, for the hulls--the places where the weaponry and machinery of war are kept--are "by tulip-beds concealed." The poem's pointed covering-up of the articles of war necessarily reveals them to readers, makes them more significant than the images that actually concretely appear. Millay's intention becomes clear in her use of such a linguistic approach; absences become conspicuous and noticable, and emerge as reasons for the impossibility of forgetting--much less ignoring--which is the right side to take in the war. Millay crafted a speaker who mimics and then undercuts the widespread isolationism of American readers.

The most explicit indicator of the speaker's position, of course, is in her description of the "wrong side's" false oaths as it breaks into the dream-world and is silenced: 

...the harsh foreign voice
hysterically vowing,
Once more, to keep its word, at length was disbelieved, and hushed.

In this closing image, the imagined world allows concrete reality to enter its space more tangibly than the poem has done thus far. The power of the poem lies in its ability to not only suggest the grief and horror enacted in the days preceding July 1940, but also to provide a more substantial vision of the desired end to the conflict. In other words, even as the speaker envisions the defeat of fascism and Nazism in her mind, she burdens her readers with their own "heavy care," their responsibility to make such an articulation a reality.

copyright 2001 by Heather Zadra


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