To Jesus on His Birthday

  • For this your mother sweated in the cold,
  • For this you bled upon the bitter tree:
  • A yard of tinsel ribbon bought and sold;
  • A paper wreath; a day at home for me.
  • The merry bells ring out, the people kneel;
  • Up goes the man of God before the crowd;
  • With voice of honey and with eyes of steel
  • He drones your humble gospel to the proud.
  • Nobody listens. Less than the wind that blows
  • Are all your words to us you died to save.
  • O Prince of Peace! O Sharon’s dewy Rose!
  • How mute you lie within your vaulted grave.
  • The stone the angel rolled away with tears
  • Is back upon your mouth these thousand years.

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892–1950) was born in Rockland, Maine, attended Vassar College, and upon graduation moved to Greenwich Village. Millay later characterized her life in New York as “very, very poor and very, very merry.” A playwright as well as a poet, she worked with the Provincetown Players on MacDougal Street in the Village and in 1924 was one of the founders of the important Cherry Lane Theater. In 1917, she published her first collection, Renascence and Other Poems, and in 1923, when Millay was just 31 years old, she published The Harp Weaver and Other Poems, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Millay published this bitter sonnet in her 1928 collection The Buck in the Snow. A master of rhymed, metrical forms and a superb sonneteer, Millay wrote a poetry that was at once witty, perceptive, passionate, provocatively unconventional in sentiment, and more often than not exquisitely wrought. Her brilliant achievements in strict form place her in the first ranks of 20th-century American poets and today Millay’s poetry remains widely read and admired. After posting this poem online, someone recently commented: “I recalled this poem — the most bitter I’ve ever read — upon hearing the account of a four-year-old Iraqi child who lost her entire family to our bombs.”

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Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.

Merry Christmas to all.

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