We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Women's War Poetry: "I shall die, but that is all I shall do for Death" · 16 June 05

Dear Fanny,

I’ve not put any poetry on this blog for a while. Yesterday someone sent me a news story about the mother of a young man killed in Iraq (a US soldier); this woman now goes around to rallies heckling, ridiculing & trying, trying to shame the shameless Bush and Cheney.

I wish she knew of this poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay:

"Conscientious Objector"

I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death.

I hear him leading his horse out of the stall; I hear the
clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba, business in the
Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle while he cinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself: I will not give him a leg

Though he flick my shoulders with his whip, I will
not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where the
black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but this is all that I shall do for Death; I am
not on his pay-roll.

I will not tell him the whereabouts of my friends nor of
my enemies either.
Though he promise me much, I will not map him the
route to any man’s door.

Am I a spy in the land of living, that I should deliver
men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city are safe
with me; never through me
Shall you be overcome.


The poem is reprinted in the second edition of Jon Silkin’s very great The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry. It first appeared in Millay’s Collected Poems, 1934.

There Bush and Cheney are, masters of Death, doing all they can for him to make themselves and their friends (in the 18th century as well as modern sense) filthy rich and exulting in power. Cheney goes about dripping with piety; by contrast at the slightest provocation, Bush imitates the sneering skunk type in Ox-Bow Incident, Monty Smith who eggs others on, unnerving them lest they be thought "unmanly" (or yet worse, "woman-like", the utimate put-down) and silencing them.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. I like this poem, and I’m very glad you sent it to me. It’s been a long time since I last read it. But I like it as poetry, not politics. There are terrible people I would gladly see done away with. There are wars I think worth fighting and worth supporting.
    Bob    Jun 16, 8:22pm    #
  2. Dear Bob,

    I know that you may be practically right. It took a horrendous war to end slavery in the US.

    Nonetheless, I’ll do nothing for death myself. I just finished a piece which will be published where I thought a lot about violence and unaccountable cruelty, revelling in power.

    Chava    Jun 17, 12:45am    #

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