Conscientious Objector by Edna St. Vincent Millay

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 clinches the girth.
And he may mount by hinmself: I will not give him a leg up.

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 that is all that I shall do for Death; I am not on his pay-roll.

I will not tell him the whereabout 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 the 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.

Summary

The title of the poem gives us a clear indication of the theme. The Conscientious Objector is a person who refuses to be a part of the armed forces for moral and ethical reasons. Thus, by inference war itself is being considered immoral. War is immoral because it militates against life and facilitates death. This poem Conscientious Objector then, is a statement against the immorality of war as well as death which follows in its wake.

The poem begins with the recognition that death is inevitable, life and death being the two sides of the same coin. The affirmative tone of “I shall die” is followed by an equally vehement denial “But that is all I shall do for Death”. Though she knows Death is inevitable, she refuses to aid Death in its designs. The personification of Death in the opening line serves to heighten the sense of struggle. The resistance offered here is not against death as part of the cosmic design, but Death as a consequence of man’s mindless actions in mindless wars.

The poet offers a passive non-cooperation as a method of resisting this pointless death. The following lines (lines 2-5) capture the urgency in the situation beautifully. Death like a hunter is preparing to set about his business in places like Cuba and the Soviet Balkans, which are in the grip of civil war and strife certain of finding many victims. Death is leading his horse out of the barn in a hurry – “I hear the clatter on the barn-floor. He is in haste.” However, the business in Cuba or the Balkans is not the handiwork of Death. The civil war and strife are engineered by man and Death is reaping the benefits of man’s folly. The resultant suffering and death, the poet seems to suggest is avoidable only if man refuses to invite death and chooses life instead. The poet on her part shows the way by refusing to assist Death– “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 up.

In the next line “Though he flick my shoulders with his whip, I will not tell him which way the fox ran”, Death is presented as a hunter who is killing not for prey but for sport. The fox obviously stands for the people who are the innocent victims of war. The image of the hunt, once again reinforces the idea of war as a meaningless cruel game of Death. A subtle irony in these lines alerts us to the fact that war is a sport for people who see death only as a spectacle. Yet, at the same time, the hunt would not be possible without the active participation of the hounds, or in other words the foot soldiers. Hence the foot soldiers are in a significant way responsible for this game of Death.

This theme of Death hunt is carried forward in lines 12-13, as well, but this is another kind of hunt. The poet points out the essential inhumanity of the hunt by referring to the sordid-history of slavery in America. In this Death hunt, black men, women and children were brutally hunted down by the white masters. The brutality is captured in the poignant image of the terrified black boy hiding in the swamps to save his life. The first part of the poem ends once again with the resolve that, although death is inevitable, the poet will not do anything to aid Death. The poet’s passive resistance in the face of imminent physical pain and torture, (flick my shoulders with his whip”, “hoof on my breast”) is a measure of the poet’s pacifist beliefs.

The second part of the poem, from lines 16-24, continues the theme of resistance but this time in the face of inducements. The poet promises to protect not just her friends but her enemies as well against Death – “I will not tell him the whereabouts of my friends nor of my enemies either.” In this part, she presents a world view which is not only pacifist but inclusive as well. She refuses to be “a spy in the land of the living” She refuses to “deliver men to death” The poet in a very quiet way, through consistent denials asserts life. This quiet determination, born out of the poet’s pacifist world-view, is her response to the militarist environment of the first World War. The concluding lines of the poem marks a movement outward. While re-affirming her resolve to resist death, she tries to reach out to others and instill the same resolve in them. These lines take us back in time and remind us of all the betrayals which aided Death in its designs. This reminder is also a warning not to fall into Death’s trap. There is also, in these lines a passionate appeal to all those men who have become the agents of Death to affirm life. The poet assures the people that she would resist Death at all costs. Through her own example, she is perhaps urging the people to become “Conscientious Objectors”.

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