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Discussing sexuality with young people

To help young people explore how they want to handle their sexuality, using two sonnets from Edna St. Vincent Millay as a starting point. The material here might also be used in giving a talk to a youth group, class, or club.

OVERVIEW

In 1923 Millay was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems. It has been said that Miss Millay achieved in the field of the sonnet, "an almost complete mastery...Her sonnets speak with a human voice, and yet often rise to great rhetoric..." And critic Edmund Wilson added, "...in giving supreme expression to profoundly felt personal experience, she was able to identify herself with more general experience and stand forth as a spokesman for the human spirit..."

Born in Rockland, Maine on Washington’s birthday, 1892, Edna Millay’s family soon moved to Union, Maine where her father became superintendent of schools. The happy family (two young sisters) was soon split by a divorce. Cora Millay took her girls to Newburyport, Massachusetts where the red-haired Edna learned piano and began writing poems. Mother Cora took her three girls back to lovely Camden, Maine for Edna’s high school years. As a high school student she wrote some of her own plays and for the school magazine. Without money for college, she remained home but became nationally known through her 1912 poem, "Renascence" and was offered a way to Vassar in New York. After graduation Edna lived in Greenwich Village continuing her writing and play acting. Then, she spent time in Europe and married a Dutch importer, Eugene Boissevain (in 1924). Amidst the pain of an accident and some illness, she wrote and read her poetry. More world travels followed until the couple settled down between their house in the Berkshires (Steepletop) and their summer home in Casco Bay, Maine. Eugene died in 1949 and Edna in 1950 while hard at work on a book.

GROUP BUILDING

  • You might play a short trivia game on the love lives, on and off screen, of famous personalities.
  • Each person might fill out a questionnaire of what they most want in a lover and/or for what they would give all their love.

GROUP DISCUSSION

Students often are asked in school to discover the meaning of poems and other works of literature. But the classroom has limits as to how personal and theological the class can get in these discussions. In a youth group setting, students can talk intimately and religiously about two sonnets of a famous woman, Edna St. Vincent Millay. The poems may be found in a 1959 Washington Square paperback (W-551), or in the original Harper and Brothers’, The Harp Weaver:

 

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,

I have forgotten, and what arms have lain

Under my head till morning; but the rain

Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh

Upon the glass and listen for reply.

And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain

For unremembered lads that not again

Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.

Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,

Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,

Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:

I cannot say what loves have come and gone,

I only know that summer sang in me

A little while, that in me sings no more.

 

GROUP DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

    • Do you sense the poet to be totally honest in her reflections?
    • Is there anything in this sonnet you don’t understand, or are the author’s analogy of her life to the tree and insights about her feelings very clear to you?
    • How would you explain the following excerpt: "...the rain is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh upon the glass and listen for reply..."
    • In line six, describe all the pains she may be feeling about her past.
    • Edna was about thirty when she wrote this and the next sonnet. What, in your opinion, do you think she has to say of worth to teenagers? In other words, what is the meaning of this to your generation?

 

The sonnet above might make us a bit curious to know where the poet, as a person, was coming from. How did she see herself and her sexual activities? A second poem might shed some light on these questions:

 

I, being a woman and distressed

By all the needs and notions of my kind,

Am urged by your propinquity to find

Your person fair, and feel a certain zest

To bear your body’s weight upon my breast:

So subtly is the fume of life designed,

To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,

And leave me once again undone, possessed.

Think not for this, however, the poor treason

Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,

I shall remember you with love, or season

My scorn with pity,—let me make it plain:

I find this frenzy insufficient reason

 

 

For conversation when we meet again.

 

GROUP DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

    • To what feminine needs and notions is the poet referring in the first two lines?
    • In the seventh and tenth lines, the poet refers to a certain tension or struggle between her passion and her mind. At about what age, and in what situations, does a teenager really begin to feel this struggle? How has the poet dealt with that tension and struggle? Do your friends have a different way for dealing with that tension?
    • What is the poet saying in the last two lines of this sonnet? How is she putting her sex life and her relationships together? Could you be satisfied with such a resolution?

 

WRAP-UP

 

The leader or panel of adults should note the following points:

    • Focus on the choice each of us has between responsible and irresponsible behavior. One of the characteristics of irresponsible behavior is that it usually hurts someone else or ourselves in the long run.
    • Imagine how Jesus would have related to this poet—with love, responsible standards, and the possibility of forgiveness.
    • Discuss the value of having such discussions when people are open and vulnerable.
    • Note how this program might lead to further discussions about responsibility in relationships and our sexuality.

 

IMPLICATIONS

    • This discussion ought to take place with leaders and with young people. Consider how to approach it differently for each group.
    • The importance of this discussion is based on the sexual bombardments and encouragements to permissive and spontaneous sexual activity—compounded with the natural power of sexual attraction in the adolescent years—that challenge young people each day.
    • These poems would usually be discussed in a high school English class totally apart from any morality of sexual behavior. Is there a need for discussing moral content as applicable to students’ own lives?
    • This session attempts to allow young people, and especially young women, to enter into a significant personal discussion from wherever they choose.

Dean Borgman cCYS