Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Edna St. Vincent Millay: Oh, sleep forever in the Latmian cave

Oh, sleep forever in the Latmian cave, 
Mortal Endymion, darling of the Moon! 
Her silver garments by the senseless wave 
Shouldered and dropped and on the shingle strewn, 
Her fluttering hand against her forehead pressed, 
Her scattered looks that trouble all the sky, 
Her rapid footsteps running down the west— 
Of all her altered state, oblivious lie! 
Whom earthen you, by deathless lips adored, 
Wild-eyed and stammering to the grasses thrust, 
And deep into her crystal body poured 
The hot and sorrowful sweetness of the dust: 
Whereof she wanders mad, being all unfit 
For mortal love, that might not die of it.


Public domain

A note about Endymion

The ancient Greek poets sang of Selene, the Titan goddess of the moon, who loved the mortal Endymion. She believed him to be so beautiful that she asked Endymion’s father, Zeus, to grant him eternal youth so that he would never leave her. Alternatively, Selene so loved how Endymion looked when he was asleep in the cave on Mount Latmus, near Miletus in Caria, that she entreated Zeus that he might remain that way. In some versions, Zeus wanted to punish Endymion for daring to show romantic interest in Hera (much like Ixion). Whatever the case, Zeus granted Selene’s wish and put Endymion into an eternal sleep. Every night, Selene visited him where he slept, and by him had fifty daughters who are equated by some scholars with the fifty months of the Olympiad.

John Keats, the English Romantic poet, expanded on the myth in his long poem Endymion published in 1818. Here is the first stanza:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways 
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
Against the hot season; the mid forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
All lovely tales that we have heard or read:
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.

The Sleep of Endymion by Anne-Louis Girodet (1791), Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Compilation copyright 2020 Michael Simms. Edna St. Vincent’s poem, the passage from John Keats, the prose adapted from Wikimedia and the image from the Louvre are in the public domain.

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